Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
What’s it about?
In 932 AD Arthur, King of the Britons (played by Graham Chapman) wanders across the land with his squire Patsy (Terry Gilliam) - who makes clip-clopping noises with coconuts as the film’s budget doesn’t stretch to actual horses - in tow. He brings together a group of knights to form the Round Table: Sir Lancelot (John Cleese), Sir Robin (Eric Idle), Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones) and Sir Galahad (Michael Palin), accompanied by their various squires and Sir Robin’s roving troupe of annoying minstrels.
When they are assembled and eventually reach Camelot (cue a riotous musical number) Arthur decides that “it’s a silly place”, and hence they continue their wanderings. When they ask God for guidance he makes an appearance from the clouds to give them a quest: finding the Holy Grail. The knights spend the rest of the film searching Britain for the elusive goblet while encountering all kinds of opposition and mini-adventures involving various bizarre knights, foul beasts, French invaders, a historian, some nymphomaniac nuns and a cute, white bunny rabbit.
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Why is it significant?
The Monty Python collective remains one of the most treasured icons in the legacy of British comedy. Although long disbanded, the odd reunion notwithstanding (the most recent being a show in London in 2014, minus Graham Chapman who sadly passed away in 1989), the popularity of their 1969-1974 TV sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus plus their subsequent big screen ventures has guaranteed them a distinct place in popular culture. People still quote their favourite sketches in pub conversations to this day despite most of them being conceived over 40 years ago (from a time before many fans were even born).
Their first cinema release was And Now For Something Completely Different in 1971, which featured a collection of the best sketches from the TV show reshot on film stock. However Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the first to have used a script specifically conceived for the big screen. The budget was so low (reportedly just £229,575) that the film deliberately pokes fun at it by showing the knights traversing the landscape by pretending to ride invisible horses while their squires clap coconut shells together. Nonetheless the production made the most of its limitations via its extensive use of Scottish scenery, including numerous overcast green landscapes and two of its medieval castles.
Although many consider their next film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) to be their finest big screen venture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is still very well-regarded and has ranked highly in a number of “best comedies of all time” listings. It even spawned a Broadway musical adaptation called Monty Python’s Spamalot which debuted in 2005. While none of the original Python group were in the cast during any of its runs, it won three Tony awards.
How does it hold up?
Absurd antics. Slapstick. Satire. Black humour. Meta humour. Comedic gore. Musical numbers. Outrageous breaks of the fourth wall. Cutout animated interludes. Monty Python takes its patented anarchic formula and applies it to a big screen spoof version of the Arthurian Legend. The TV show was often inspired but wildly inconsistent; while many sketches were genuinely hilarious there were just as many that, quite frankly, were ex-parrots or just plain silly. Ahem. While Monty Python and the Holy Grail is ostensibly a single self-contained story, its comedic approach is functionally a string of sketches featuring the six core Python members taking on a variety of roles throughout, along with ongoing parts as Arthur and his knights. Unlike the original series however the overarching story coupled with the Pythons’ amassed years of experience as a team seems to have helped imbue a sense of consistency to the endless procession of skits.
Things get off to a flying start as the opening credits feature mock Norwegian subtitles that go hilariously awry. From then on are plenty of highlights throughout: Michael Palin playing an anarcho-socialist peasant, a black-clad knight who brushes off the most extreme of injuries, the Camelot musical number, a cutout-animated God jaded with the sycophancy of his followers, The Knights who say “Ni”, the deceptively cute bunny rabbit and the Holy Hand Grenade scene. Not all of the film’s comedic vignettes are this uproariously funny, but at the same time there are remarkably few moments that don’t at least elicit a mild chuckle.
One of the main reasons why it holds up so well is the frequent presence of Graham Chapman, effectively playing the lead role as Arthur. As with the subsequent Life of Brian, this most undervalued member of the Python team has elevated his ostensible “straight man” role to an art form. The whole team has been given a wealth of great material that plays to their strengths, but it’s Chapman who stands out as the frequently-exasperated voice of reason. He provides the perfect counterpoint to the zany antics of the other members and gives the audience an engaging identification figure.
Terry Gilliam’s work is also notable here both as co-director (with Terry Jones) and animator. The mixture of grit and baroque exuberance that characterises his later work can be seen during the live action filming, as the effective use of composition transforms the low-budget Scottish location shoot into an authentically grimy medieval fantasy world. The animated sequences are as surreally inventive as they were in the TV series, and are used both as title cards and as stand-ins for special effects that would have otherwise been too expensive to create (such as a multi-eyed monster near the end). What they lack in budget or sophistication they make up in eccentric charm. That’s exactly what Monty Python is about: it’s so archetypically British in its quaint, homegrown way of making the best of circumstances.
There are also a few jabs here at how the romanticised mythology of the British medieval period via King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is belied by a muddy, blood-splattered reality ruled over by a bloodline that was, in effect, a bunch of deluded and unaccountable despots. The cutting down via sword swipe of a modern-day historian (who improbably seems to have fallen back through time into this brutal world) is very much a metaphor for how much of this savage reality is forgotten in this more comfortable modern age. Nonetheless these themes don’t bear too heavily on a film that’s really just a massive helping of absurdist fun. While I wouldn’t quite rate Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the “Holy Grail” of comedy movies (for my money that would have to be 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap) it does come pretty close.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Script: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland