Life of Brian (1979) Lookback/Review

Happy Easter and Passover from Monty Python's Flying Circus and George Harrison

Easter wasn’t always Easter. It used to be a pagan holiday celebrating the Anglo Saxon goddess, Eostre,  and it was a Roman holiday honoring the sun. Jesus wasn’t always Jesus. The same stories of a virgin birth, execution and resurrection were told by several different traditions with different names. Osiris, Zoroaster, Brian. They just didn’t have as effective a public relations team to keep the name going through the ages. Until a wandering troupe of comedians unearthed incontrovertible evidence that Brian’s was the funnier story. They went for funding to a most learned and spiritual musician, who was at one time in a group that called themselves bigger than Jesus. Or at least taller than him. This began Handmade Films and produced the historical comedy, The Life of Brian, a movie that made Ben-Hur look like an epic.

It began on a Saturday afternoon, about tea-time in AD 33. Brian Cohen, who’d been mistaken for Jesus by some pretty smart guys, catches the matinee of the rabbi’s Sermon on the Mount routine. Jesus is a bloody do-gooder, healing the sick whether they ask for it or not. Jesus fails to appreciate that it’s the meek who are the problem. Brian hates the oppressive Romans and joins the People’s Front of Judea, in spite of his own Roman nose. After all, besides the “the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” He paints inflammatory, anti-imperial graffiti, is caught by soldiers who correct his grammar and force him to paint it properly 100 times under threat of deballment. Brian is the last man standing after a crosshatched plan with a rival terrorist group, the Campaign for a Free Galilee. Soldiers take him to Pilate in hopes someone might nail some sense into him. Say what you want about crucifixion, but at least it gets you out in the open air. In escaping capture Brian is mistaken for one of many local prophets and gains a following. The rest is on the screen.

 

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian has been blasted as controversial, sacrilegious and blasphemous, and that was only what they said about it themselves. The studios were afraid the film would offend two thirds of the civilized world and severely annoy the other third, or their ad copywriters. There is really nothing offensive about it. It never attacks Jesus or faith. Jesus wasn’t very funny, so Monty Python leaves the message alone and goes after the messengers. The people in the packed desert ghetto looking for entertainment, a gourd maybe. It’s about miscommunication and really, it’s just having a go at the whole thing in good fun. There’s nothing radical about it. Well, I can see how maybe the UFO sequence might run afoul of theologians, but the rest is up for grabs. I think it could have happened like that. At the time and with their frame of reference, sure, why not? Skit comedy existed before Rome. Life of Brian could have played Greece.

 

Grounding the film from skit comedy’s pull is Graham Chapman. His performance as Brian never once slides into anything remotely resembling routines. He is completely in the moment, acting naturally and discovering his identity as he moves on. He lets it all hang out. Full frontal wasn’t seen much in commercial film at the time. Fittingly, Chapman also played Biggus Dickus and the second wise man, which might also be phallic. Chapman talked John Cleese out of playing the part of Brian, so John Cleese pulled his faces over the rabbi-rousing leader of the Peoples Front of Judea, the High priest, the Centurion of the Yard, Deadly Dirk, Arthur and the first wise man. Terry Gilliam, who is usually hidden behind the lens, is in the crowd during the Sermon on the Mount yelling “Blessed are the Greek.” Gilliam also plays the Blood and Thunder prophet, Geoffrey, Gaoler, and Frank. Eric Idle is Stan, a conspirator in the People’s Front who outs himself as Loretta. Idle does his Python best as Harry the Haggler and Mr. Cheeky, though.  He also plays Culprit woman who casts first stone, Intensely dull youth, Otto, Gaoler’s assistant and Mr. Frisbee III. Terry Jones plays Brian’s mum, Mandy. I love how she only gets a little flattered by the attention her son is getting. The unison thing is a bit old, though. Jones also plays Colin, Simon the Holy Man, and a Saintly passer-by. Michael Palin plays Mr. Big Nose, Francis, Mrs. A, Ex-leper, Ben, Pontius Pilate, Boring Prophet, Eddie, Nisus Wettus, and the third wise man.

 

Outside the troupe, Kenneth Colley plays Jesus Christ, without whom none of this would be brought to us at all. Sue Jones-Davies played Judith Iscariot, which almost becomes a love interest, but of course, that wouldn’t do for the guy born in the stable next to Jesus. Neil Innes is billed as a weedy Samaritan. Gwen Taylor played Mrs. Big Nose, Woman with sick donkey and a young girl. Terence Baylor plays Gregory and Dennis. Carol Cleveland was Mrs. Gregory and Elsie. Charles McKeown is in the crowed at the mount, Stig, Blind Man, False Prophet and one of the Giggling Guards. Chris Langham plays Alfonso and another Giggling Guard. John Young played Matthias. Bernard McKenna was billed as the Stoner’s Helper (which I could use) and Parvus. Spike Milligan plays Spike. Milligan played. And George Harrison does a one-line walk-on as Mr. Papadopoulos. George was no stranger to comic acting, having worked with the great comic director Richard Lester and on TV skit comedy with his own Marx Brothers like ensemble.

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian or as it was originally entitled, Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory, was made for George Harrison. He wanted to see it so he paid for it. Behind his back the Pythons say it was the most expensive movie ticket ever. The Monty Python troupe had made Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the aid of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin in 1975. EMI was supposed to produce the movie, but bowed out because they thought it would be too controversial to make their money back. Terry Jones directed the film with an eye towards performance. Jones was reluctant to make a Biblical farce at first, not because of the sensibilities it would offend, but because he thought the period costumers would be boring. Terry Gilliam put together the set designs and two animated bits. Mr. Star Wars, George Lucas, told Gilliam he was very impressed with the UFO, well IAC, sequence, which Gilliam shot “in camera” using model aircrafts and miniature pyrotechnics. Life of Brian was shot on leftover sets and leftover extras from Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth in Monastir, Tunisia. They also shot in Sousse, Carthage and Matmata, Tunisia.

 

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian spoofs and satirizes more than religion and communication, though. It takes on government waste, the inefficiency of bureaucracy and the casual violence of tyranny (“Crucifixion? Good. Go to your right. Once cross each.”)  The scenes where the heads of the People’s Front of Judea discuss how it’s time to stop discussion and begin to take action, on which they must still have talks, underscore the inefficiency of people who want to sow the seeds of sedition is equal to those they want to overthrow. Because of the fervency of Brian’s followers, sandals are sacred, gourds are godly and vows of silence are meant to be broken. At it’s heart, it’s just good fun and ends on an upbeat note, written by Eric Idle, in the song the crucified sing as they die. “Life’s a piece of shit, When you look at it. Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke. It’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show. Keep ’em laughing as you go. Just remember that the last laugh is on you. And always look on the bright side of life.”

I’d rather find Monty Python’s Life of Brian in my Easter basket than in my Easter bonnet. It’s cheeky. And it’s not hollow like the bunnies I usually get.  So on Easter, we celebrate Brian, who’s death stands “as a landmark in the continuing struggle to liberate the parent land from the hands of the Roman Imperialist aggressors, excluding those concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viniculture, and any other Romans contributing to the welfare of Jews of both sexes and hermaphrodites.” Monty Python’s Life of Brian probably couldn’t be made in today’s climate of extremism and division, but it remains a British film classic and a great way to celebrate Easter or Passover.

 

 

Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars

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Rating:

3.5 out of 5