Should I Watch..? 'Monty Python And The Holy Grail'
What's the big deal?
Monty Python And The Holy Grail is a surrealist comedy film released in 1975 and is the second big-screen outing for the Monty Python team following And Now For Something Completely Different. Loosely based around the legends of King Arthur, the film follows the team as they retell the tale of Arthur's quest to seek the Holy Grail and overcoming the unusual obstacles along the way. The film stars Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam in almost every role and was directed by both Jones and Gilliam. The film also features animation provided by Gilliam and would go on to inspire Idle to create and produce the theatrical musical Spamalot. The film's obvious low budget, the inexperienced directing duo of the two Terrys and mixed reviews at the time proved no barrier to the film becoming something of a cult hit. With global takings just over $5 million, the film has since come to be regarded as one of the funniest films ever made alongside another Python movie, Life Of Brian.
What's it about?
England in the Dark Ages of 932 AD and King Arthur, accompanied by his squire and manservant Patsy, are roaming the land looking for worthy individuals to join his at the Round Table in Camelot. After recruiting the likes of Sir Lancelot The Brave, Sir Bedevere The Wise, Sir Robin The Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot, Sir Galahad The Pure and Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, Arthur returns to Camelot but decides against it after an appearance by God himself. God charges Arthur with recovering the Holy Grail and together with his men and Sir Robin's musical entourage, they set off on their adventure.
However, it soon appears that finding the Grail might be tougher than they first thought. After being ruthlessly mocked by a castle apparently occupied by the French, they are forced to split up in order to search for clues. Sir Galahad gets distracted by buxom wenches at Castle Anthrax, Sir Robin is set upon by an argumentative three-headed giant while Arthur himself comes face-to-face with the dreaded Knights Who Say "Ni!". Will they ever find the legendary Grail or will they fall foul to some other random chaos?
Arthur, King Of The Britons
Sir Lancelot The Brave
Patsy, Arthur's Servant
Sir Robin The Not-Quite-As-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot
Sir Bedevere The Wise
Sir Galahad The Pure
Miss Islington, the witch
Leader of Sir Robin's minstrels
Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin
Release Date (UK)
25th May, 1975
Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
What's to like?
I was born in 1980, some years after Python had disappeared from TV altogether so it wasn't until many years later that I first saw the film. And I instantly loved it - it's unique blend of comedy, madness and childish imagination won me over and frankly, it hasn't gotten old yet. It's difficult to talk about a film with so many unforgettable moments without ruining it but the thing I liked best of all was instead of trying to disguise the lack of budget, the team play upon it. That's why knights are rarely seen on actual horses and instead pretend to be riding a horse accompanied by their steward clacking two halves of a coconut together. Genius.
The sense of comradery between the whole cast is palpable and among the six members of Python particularly. The film's roaming narrative feels less like a cohesive story and more like a serious of interconnected sketches held together in a fairly loose fashion. Part of this is reminiscent of the show but it also feels the result of the directing inexperience of the two Terrys, both of whom declared that they were learning the process as they went along. Thankfully, the bonds between each of the Python boys allows plenty of scope for improvisation which helps keep proceeding running in its own unusual fashion. I can think of few films that don't just overcome the odds but seemingly thrive on them.
- The film's initial budget was just £200'000, raised by ten investors each asked to provide £20'000. Among the investors were rock bands Genesis, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin - Gilliam believed that they saw the investment as a tax write-off due to high levels of income tax at the time.
- During the witch trial, three members of the cast are trying very hard to disguise the fact that they are corpsing - breaking character and laughing. Idle bites onto his scythe, Cleese quickly turns away from the camera while Palin is also trying his best to stay in character.
- Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film is actually played by Palin's infant son, William.
- The film has several instances of unmitigated cat abuse including one being stepped during the Camelot sequence and another being swung against a post in the background of the Dead Collector scene. No-one is entirely sure why.
What's not to like?
Having had more exposure to the Monty Python brand than I had when I first watched this movie in the early Nineties, I was never much of a fan of Gilliam's animation which I felt pushed the absurd into the insane. The film does contain a number of animated sequences - most noticeably during the cave monster scene which also features Gilliam in person - but these feel the most outdated and simply don't do it for me. Modern viewers will be fascinated to see where Matt Stone and Trey Parker got their ideas for South Park from but personally, I could have done without them.
The other thing that might ruin your enjoyment of the film is partly due to the film's cult success in the years since. With so much of the film passing into popular culture and evolving into memes, you might get the sense that you have already seen parts of the film before. But there is still plenty to enjoy beyond such familiarity and the film is a relentless pursuit of surrealist humour that is rarely seen on screen these days. The fact such craziness is portrayed on screen as well as it has been is staggering, a testament to the creativeness of the Monty Python team and a pureness of vision. For all its childish silliness and amateurish production, this is simply a timeless comedy that never fails to amuse and entertain.
Should I watch it?
Monty Python And The Holy Grail is a truly divine comedy, created by a comic group at the peak of their creativeness and easily overcoming its low budget and production limitations. While most people and the Pythons themselves prefer Life Of Brian, this is the film that made me laugh more and will always remain my favourite Python film. Witty, inventive and extremely silly, comedies like this don't come around too often and that makes this all the more special. History has never seen a re-enactment quite like this...
Great For: fans of surrealist humour or Monty Python, medievalists, coconut-laden swallows, the stoned
Not So Great For: squares, your parents, people called Tim
What else should I watch?
Life Of Brian is the film most people think of when it comes to Monty Python's cinematic outings but for reasons I can't quite explain, I have never found it as funny as this film. Watching the film, it's hard to separate the story of Christ with Brian's misadventures and I'm not religious in any way. It just made me feel sad whereas The Holy Grail put an enormous grin on my face. Python's third original film The Meaning Of Life is an all-encompassing musical covering birth to death and everything in between. While not as well received as their earlier films, it still remains a cult hit as well as the disgustingly grotesque character Mr Creosote - apparently, the only character whose appearance on screen disturbed Quentin Tarantino.
Frankly, it's difficult to think of a better film that concerns itself with Arthurian legend although there are some that are more focused on the legend. 1953 saw the first serious look of the legend with Knights Of The Round Table but it wouldn't be until Excalibur in 1981 that critics became impressed with the film's take on the legend featuring the likes of Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Nigel Terry. With more recent examples like King Arthur and King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword failing to find much of an audience, perhaps you'd prefer to re-examine Disney's animated take from 1963 The Sword In The Stone. The film's animation isn't the best quality but the film has a good pace and a more family friendly approach to the familiar tale.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox