Have at You!
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 What we have here is a historical document of inestimable value, describing in no uncertain terms the terrible and beautiful times before AIDS, before Ronald met Margaret, before Western culture was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.
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.
The design of Holy Grail has Gilliam's pawprints all over it; his presence was slightly less apparent in the later films helmed solely by co-director Jones. It's all good, but Gilliam's vision -- accented by the production design of Roy Smith and cinematography of yet another Terry (Bedford) -- gives this project a timeless, otherworldly air. Watching it, it's hard to believe that these guys were actually meandering across heaths and trudging across rope bridges, with electricians and caterers not far away. It seems more as if this souvenir of the Absurd Ages has simply existed for a millennium, to be unearthed by hippie archaeologists a score and five years ago.
This re-release arrives courtesy of director Henry Jaglom's distribution company, Rainbow Releasing. Essentially, it's a sharp, 35mm print of a fairly grainy movie. The digital stereo soundtrack accentuates imbalances in the original dialogue mix, but, fortunately, it also amplifies Neil Innes's hilarious songs ("We're opera-mad in Camelot/We sing from the diaphragm a lot!"). As for the "newly restored scene" at Castle Anthrax, it's merely fun fluff for fans; the real pleasure here lies in the movie's visual subtleties, so long confined to video, writ large again.
There really is a lot more to Holy Grail than first meets the eye, which helps to explain why so many insane geeks are still wont to quote from it at every inopportune moment. Consider the movie's unflinching attitude toward mortality, as the fine actor John Young portrays both the Dead Body That Claims It Isn't, as well as the ill-fated Historian Who Isn't A.J.P. Taylor At All. Also note the incredible sensitivity to women's rights and desires, as a woman (comedienne Connie Booth) is unfairly charged with witchcraft, or the twin teenage virgin Dingo (Carol Cleveland) implores Galahad, "Yes, yes, you must give us all a good spanking! And after the spanking, the oral sex!"
Right. Well, having thus far resisted the impulse to riff shamelessly upon the movie's classic dialogue, let us now make perfect pigs of ourselves: "We'd better not risk another frontal assault; that rabbit's dynamite!" (the late, great Graham Chapman, as King Arthur); "You cheesy lot of second-hand electric donkey-bottom biters!" (John Cleese, as a Quite Extraordinarily Rude Frenchman); "It's only a model," (Terry Gilliam, as Patsy, re: Camelot); "He who is valiant and pure may find the Holy Grail in the castle of...auggghhhh..." (Eric Idle, as Brother Maynard); "Um, look, if we built this large, wooden badger..." (Terry Jones, as Sir Bedevere); and, of course, "You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!" (Michael Palin, as Dennis). And so on!
Whew. Well, honestly, the worst thing about Monty Python and the Holy Grail is that, once it's over, we're obliged to return to our standard, irony-free cinematic fare of: 1. Boring people moping about pointlessly whilst weeping in somber settings; and/or 2. Annoying people leaping about maniacally whilst making references to the body's various modes of elimination; and/or 3. Asinine people flailing about sadistically whilst blowing things to smithereens that ought not be blown to smithereens. Boo-hoo! Tee-hee! Yee-haw! Help! Help! I'm being repressed! It's a bit of a shame that more motion pictures -- in all genres -- are not conceived with the assumption that audiences have brains. Indeed, you can't spell "genius" without Ni!
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.