Have at You!

The Pythons' classic Holy Grail returns, all tarted up and ready for action.

After the next apocalypse, hundreds of thousands of years from the moment we clever humans smugly call "now," the great philosopher-scientists will gather to assemble the remaining traces of our present time and species. In particular, these evolved beings will find fascination in the structure of our crania, which will appear as flimsy vestigial nubs compared to their enormous, armored noggins. These telepathic giants will nonetheless struggle a bit to determine the function of the two pretty little orbs in the front, especially in relation to the puzzling religious artifacts known as "movies." Then, in the nick of time, just before the universe blows up, they'll discover Monty Python and the Holy Grail, thereby answering all spiritual riddles (of the patriarchal ilk), revealing the secrets of humanity (the arrogant West's, anyway) and thwarting the annihilation of All That Is -- well, at least until the next bureaucratic cock-up.

Comedy. Adventure. Musical. Epic. Shrubbery advertisement. The biggest challenge when writing about this classic motion picture -- a mere quarter-century and change after its miraculous inception -- is choosing a tone. Should a critic rave -- in the manner of a ruthlessly self-indulgent columnist -- about how he and his dear friend Christopher first viewed the film as teenagers, gnawing deliriously upon industrial-grade snacking materials, convulsing, with tears and gratitude sparkling in their eyes? Or is it perhaps more fitting to strike up a literary approach, comparing and contrasting Holy Grail to the Arthurian knockoffs of Malory, Tennyson, Steinbeck, White, Zimmer Bradley and Sir Mix-A-Lot? Nay, though these routes be noble, the one true path to enlightened assessment is, of course, that of the pompous ass.

So hearken, please, and try to follow. What we have here is a historical document of inestimable value, describing in no uncertain terms the terrible and beautiful times before AIDS, before Ronald met Margaret, before Western culture was devastated by a plague of so-called comedies so heinous that their titles cannot be mentioned here. Produced in 1975 and bookended by some typically brilliant films of that decade (such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation in 1974 and Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976), Monty Python and the Holy Grail represents a chapter of cinematic history in which movies weren't produced primarily as a means of separating the exhausted masses from their meager wages. Bravo, that.

Knight time: The Python crew finds the Middle Ages fair to middling in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Knight time: The Python crew finds the Middle Ages fair to middling in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Verily, the appreciation of high absurdity -- much like high art -- requires a modicum of intelligence, and in this capacity the Pythons have proven themselves sublime. They are as prepared to quote (badly) from Robert de Borron's Grail romance Joseph d'Arimathie as they are to fling Gallic livestock hither and thither from towering castle walls. They're willing to taint their own opening titles with a strange sort of Swedish folktale ("A møøse ønce bit my sister...") and then wrap up their movie with a seemingly crude ending pretty much universally dismissed as "bad," but which actually ties the ideological struggles of the middle ages to the social unrest of the (then) present time. Got brilliance?

Those who have enjoyed dalliances with twelfth-century scribe Chrétien de Troyes or his countless honorable pilferers (including, in our own century, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Lowe and John Boorman) will require no introduction to this particular epoch. For the rest of you scalawags, however, here's a quick illumination: The year is 932 A.D., the place is England, and the smell is generally unpleasant. Madness and mayhem are the order of the day, with malicious marauders terrorizing the confused population pretty much as they do nowadays in places like Silver Lake and North Hollywood. Only one man -- an alcoholic homosexual physician and comedian named Graham Chapman -- can bring unity to this realm of chaos. Posing rather convincingly as Arthur, King of the Britons, he pretends to ride an invisible horse across the length and breadth of the land, with his humble servant, Patsy (Terry Gilliam), clopping together two empty coconut halves to simulate the sound of equine hooves.

Right here, in the opening moments, the great separation of this divisive film is made manifest, as the faithful remain and the pooh-poohers shove off. "That's, like, real, like, dumb," the latter may be heard to mutter. "Let's see if we can still get into that Freddie Prinze Jr. movie." And off they'll scamper, never knowing what they're about to miss. Pity them, the silly sods.

Once the disdainful chaff wander away from the appreciative wheat, it's easier to enjoy the Pythons at work. Soon enough, in a book of tales narrated by Michael Palin, we encounter Arthur's knights: Sir Robin (Eric Idle), Sir Launcelot (John Cleese), Sir Galahad (Palin) and Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), among a few expendable others. As in their television series, Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974), and their later, equally brilliant films Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1982), the fellows each play manifold roles, including the knights' assorted trusty pages (Archibald, Concorde, Gimpy, Humphrey, Ian and William). They also turn up in assorted guises as the King of Swamp Castle, Tim the Enchanter, Roger the Shrubber (a shrubber) and -- in the case of co-director Gilliam -- the Animator.

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