Editor’s Note: Monty Python and the Holy Grail is celebrating its “48 ½” anniversary. The film will be back on the big screen in 500 movie houses on December 3 and December 6. Check local listings, grab your coconuts, and go!
A 90-minute comedy flimsily stitched together from disparate sketches. A male lead who had difficulty memorizing lines due to his battle with alcoholism. And then there was the small matter that neither of the two directors (both called Terry) had ever directed before. Monty Python and the Holy Grail seemed to be doomed from the start.
Filmed on location in Scotland, the six performers grew wary of what they’d taken on as soon as they started dragging their chainmail (Terry Jones insisted that they stay faithful to the Middle Ages theme) through mounds of soggy grass. It didn’t help that Graham Chapman (King Arthur) suffered from a fear of heights, which halted some of the more technical shots. Terry Gilliam was finding John Cleese’s attitude more troublesome, leading to arguments on set. (This might partly explain why Cleese declined involvement in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was completed after the Grail).
But what they ended up with was something unique, winning over an American audience who were only beginning to understand the group’s whimsical English style of humor. Better still, the film showed that Chapman was a good choice as the lead, which likely explains why he was later cast as the eponymous hero in Life of Brian.
Not only that, it set up a template for future alternative comedy experts; Saturday Night Live mainstay Dan Akroyd took notes from the production. The film gave the six members of Monty Python confidence as they embarked on their solo careers. Eric Idle worked with Neil Innes for one pivotal musical number in the Grail; the duo would later collaborate on The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash in 1978.
The film is a series of individual moments that lead to an explosive whole, although some were dismayed by the final frames in which a policeman interrupts a giant battle. Indeed, the film’s biggest failing is the ending, but for the most part, Monty Python and the Holy Grail follows a steady line, from braggadocio-driven knights to killer rabbits. Connie Booth makes an irreverent appearance as a woman accused of being a witch (she does, it seems, weigh the same as a duck), but the focus is placed on the five Brits and one American who made up Python.
The original idea was for the knights to spot the Grail in London’s Harrods department store, but once it was decided to stick to the Middle Ages, the Pythons elected to end the film in a fortress guarded by farting Frenchmen.
Watching it now, it’s easy to see who was responsible for what moments: the commentary on feudalism vs capitalism has Cleese written all over it, just as the “Knights Who Say ‘Ni'” stemmed from Michael Palin’s experiences as a boy at Shrewsbury School. Gilliam was growing more confident as a visualist (the ship that brings King Arthur and Sir Bedevere to Castle Aarrgh is beautifully shot). Jones was discovering his narrative voice; by the 1980s, he was working with everyone from Jim Henson to Joe Dante as a scriptwriter.
And yet tensions mounted behind the scenes, leading to creative disputes from almost every corner. By the time the Pythons assembled to write Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, Gilliam had vacated the chair, leaving Jones to direct them alone.
The script is peppered with sight gags, the most obvious being the coconuts imitating the sound of hooves. Cleese’s Sir Lancelot likely alluded to the ferocity he showed at script meetings, being the tallest and one of the loudest men in the troupe. Even though much of the humor stemmed from historical and religious texts, the feature has an anarchic, almost rock-like energy, no doubt partly inspired by the checks Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd wrote to help fund it (the two groups used it for tax purposes).
The film was shot quickly – in five weeks. The group’s economic production, with everyone playing a variety of roles, meant that not a single moment was wasted, even while battling epic Scottish downpours. This gives a sense of urgency, as the jokes roll along at a brisk pace. Best of all, the film exhibited the group’s strengths, from Cleese’s physicality to Idle’s predilection for a good ol’ sing-song (in 2005, Idle adapted the film as a Broadway musical: Spamalot.)
Chapman, who died in 1989, rarely did better than as King Arthur. Considered by many, including writing partner Cleese, to be the most accomplished actor of the six, Chapman did not enjoy the same level of solo success as some of his colleagues did. In many ways, he didn’t need to. It’s just about possible to imagine Monty Python and The Holy Grail without Palin, Idle, or even Cleese. But a Holy Grail without Chapman? It would be like The Beatles without John Lennon.
Fair use image of Monty Python and the Holy Grail