Saturday, March 9, 2013

Stubs - Monty Python and The Holy Grail



Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) Starring: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Screenplay by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Produced by Mark Forstater and Michael White. Run Time: 87 minutes. Color. U.K. Comedy

One of the most intelligent, outrageous and funny television shows to ever come along was Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which debuted on the BBC in 1969 and ran until 1974. Even though John Cleese had left the show in its final season, he was back in the fold when the group made their first post-series movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. While there had already been a Monty Python movie, And Now For Something Completely Different (1971), it was basically a very low budget rehash of sketches from the comedy troupe’s first two seasons (called series in Britain) made for an unsuspecting and unnoticing, judging by box office, U.S. audience.

For this film, the troupe wrote an entirely new story, loosely based on the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table legend. And while nothing in the series would have prepared viewers for this film, it still retains the same sense of humor the troupe showed on TV, starting with the use of the noise of cocoanut shells clacking together instead of real horses.

In typical Python fashion, the film starts out as another film entirely, the very real black and white British comedy Dentist on the Job (1961) before, presumably, the projectionist realizes his mistake. Next the credits carry Swedish subtitles, which are really adverts for Swedish tourism. After the subtitlers are sacked and those that were supposed to sack them sacked, etc., the real film finally gets underway.

Yes, it is a real movie.
King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his squire, Patsy (Terry Gilliam), go around the countryside looking for suitable knights to join Arthur at Camelot.  At the first castle, Arthur is questioned by a soldier (Michael Palin) about how they got the cocoanuts, a tropical fruit, in a temperate climate like Britain and how many migrating Swallows and of what type it would take to carry one.

Boring of the encounter Arthur moves on, only to get into a socio-political discussion with a peasant (Palin) when he asks about the resident of the nearby castle. When Arthur tries to lord over the peasants about being the King of the Britons, they not only don’t know they’re Britons, but they bristle at being his subjects.


"Help, help, I'm being repressed!"
Arthur moves on and encounters the Black Knight (John Cleese) who not only refuses to join with Arthur but also to let him pass. In one of the funnier and bloodier sword fights in movie history, Arthur takes down the knight, one limb at a time. This very funny, very over the top approach will become a hallmark of future Monty Python films.

King Arthur battles the Black Knight. It's only a flesh wound.

Following his literal dismantling of the Black Knight, Arthur enters a village, where a woman (Connie Booth) is accused of being a witch. The villagers take her to Sir Bedevere (Terry Gilliam) to pass final judgment. His scientifically flawed logic leads that if the woman weighs the same as a duck, then she must be a witch and faulty scales leads to her doom. But Arthur is impressed and invites Bedevere to join his quest.


Villagers ponder what else floats besides wood.
We’re not shown how Arthur assembles the rest of his knights, but we learn that brave Sir Launcelot, and yes that’s how it is spelled in the script, (John Cleese), pure Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) and the not so-pure or so-brave Sir Robin (Eric Idle) have joined his ranks. Together they head to Camelot. But while they’re looking at the model, we’re treated to a song and dance about Camelot (perhaps a precursor to Idle’s Spamelot musical), which leads Arthur to decide to skip Camelot altogether. And once they do, God (voiced by Graham Chapman) appears and gives Arthur the quest of finding the Holy Grail as his purpose.

Audience with God.
But the quest gets off to a rocky start, when at the first castle they come to, they are accosted by a French man (Cleese) who insults the knights and rains farm animals down upon them when Arthur attempts to storm the castle. Bedevere comes up with the idea of a Trojan rabbit, but fails to think through that knights have to be inside it when the French take it into their castle. The rabbit is then catapulted down on the knights.
Just then, a modern-day historian appears and speaks to the camera about the Arthurian legend as if for a TV documentary. But then a knight, Launcelot (Cleese), rides through the scene and slays him. This murder sets off a police investigation.

Arthur decides to break up the knights and spread them out on the search for the Grail. The first knight we follow is Sir Robin, who rides with his musicians singing a song about how overly brave he is. The song includes references to body parts and torture, until Robin gets squeamish and asks them to stop. In the woods, they encounter a three-headed knight (Chapman, Jones and Palin) who wants to kill Robin, but who bicker so much between themselves that Robin is able to escape, which becomes fodder for more song.


The dreaded three-headed Knight.
Next, we follow Sir Galahad who finds a castle with a Grail-shaped beacon. Thinking he has found the object of his quest, Galahad enters. Inside he encounters Zoot (Carol Cleveland), the mistress of Castle Anthrax, and later her identical twin sister Dingo (Cleveland), who oversees a castle of women. The Grail sign had been left on by accident and as penance, Galahad is told he’ll have to spank Dingo. The other girls chime up that they’ll have to be spanked too, and then Dingo says will follow the oral sex. Galahad is saved from this fate, when Launcelot bursts in and “rescues” him.


Castle Anthrax's unfortunately Grail-shaped beacon.
Meanwhile, Arthur and Bedevere encounter the feared Knights who say Ni, led by a tall knight (Palin). Hearing the knights’ words causes Arthur to fear for his life. The Knights Who Say Ni demand a sacrifice: a shrubbery or else Arthur will not be allowed to pass alive through their forest.

"We are the Knights Who Say Ni."
Launcelot gets involved with saving what he thinks is a damsel in distress, but is really a sickly Prince (Terry Gilliam) whose father (Michael Palin) is marrying him off to a girl whose father owns large parcels of land. During the rescue, Launcelot kills many of the wedding guests, including the bride of the father. The Prince tries to escape down a rope made of bed sheets, only to have his father cut him loose and let him fall, when he decides Launcelot might make an able substitute.

Arthur and Bedevere end up in a village where they come across Roger the Shrubber who provides them the shrubbery they need for the Knights Who Say Ni. Arthur and Bedevere are joined by Robin and they escape from the Knights Who Say Ni.

The knights venture on to Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese), who points them to the Cave of Caerbannog, where the location of the Grail is written on the wall. At the cave, they face the killer rabbit that lives within. After losing Sir Bors (Terry Gilliam) to the rabbit, they employ the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to defeat it. Upon entering the cave, they are attacked by The Legendary (and animated) Black Beast of Arrrghhh who devours Brother Maynard (Eric Idle), but the rest are saved when the animator (Terry Gilliam) dies from a heart attack.

The Killer Rabbit in Action.
Next, they venture to the Bridge of Death which spans the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Each Knight is forced to answer three questions by the bridge-keeper (Michael Palin) to pass over the bridge or if they fail, thrown into the gorge. After Launcelot passes easily, Galahad and Robin are not so lucky. When its Arthur’s turn, he accidentally tricks the bridge-keeper with a question about swallows into throwing himself into the gorge.

Launcelot, however, gets separated from Arthur and Bedevere and is shown being arrested for the murder of the historian. Meanwhile, Arthur and Bedevere see the castle of their quest and magically a boat arrives to take them over to it. But the French are already there and once again a Frog soldier (John Cleese) berates them. Arthur and Bedevere retreat back across the water and immediately call together their soldiers to attack the castle. But on their approach, the cops stop them and arrest Arthur and Bedevere for their part in the historian’s murder. The film ends when one of the policemen at the end knocks the camera down.

The film's Cop Out ending.
While the group would go on to make three more after this one: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979); Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982) and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), none would be better. This is their best combination of story-telling and humor. Life of Brian would offend many by its thinly veiled Christ bio; Live at the Hollywood Bowl was a greatest hits live performance with some new sketches and The Meaning of Life was more gross than funny.

Cinematic Python has very little to do with TV Series Python. While the two share a similar sense of humor and sometimes very witty dialogue, TV Python is much more about then modern England and its foibles; though it did venture into period settings, it didn’t dwell on them. Cinematic Python on the other hand handles weightier subjects, like the quest for the Holy Grail with grittier depiction. We literally see peasants living in utter squalor while the King “rides” around in pristine white. As one villager remarks, he must be king since he’s the only one without shit on him. There are very few comedies that have scenes about the black death or show a man being cut apart limb by limb, but Jones and Gilliam manage as directors to navigate the precipice of being too over the top and still maintain the funny. Terry Gilliam would go on to a very uneven career as a film director, some would say never finding balance in very much.

I’m not going to attempt to delve into deeper meanings that may or may not be in Holy Grail, such as the separation of classes that existed in Medieval England and some might say still exists today, as the rich get richer, etc. That may very well be there, but I’m not sure if Python was trying to comment on it or not. I’ll leave it for others to do the socio-economic implications.

To date myself, I went to the first screening of Holy Grail in Dallas, Texas. While Dallas at the time might have been considered conservative and bible-thumping, the first television station to show Monty Python was KERA, the local public broadcasting affiliate. My friends at the time were all into watching the show, which had a new show on Sundays and was repeated the following Saturday. By then I’m pretty sure it had ended its run in England. This was, dare I say, before videotape, so we would make audio recordings of the show and play them back. And we were in line to receive our free uncut cocoanut, which at the time I don’t think we knew what significance it had until the movie started.

There are definitely things about this movie that never grow old, such as the substituting cocoanuts for horses and hooves. Overall, there is a timeless quality to the story and the story-telling. Unlike many films, which are obviously modern retellings, where actors are not in proper attire or there are current references in dialogue, Holy Grail seems to have tried to keep the emphasis on telling a comedy set in a particular period. Oh, the humor is more risqué than in King Arthur’s time and I doubt the Roundtable would have featured singing and dancing, but those are Python’s touches and they don’t seem to get dated, even watching this film 38 years later.

As much as I love this film, it is not for everyone. Small children should not be exposed to it without parental guidance. And there is a certain sophistication that the film assumes of its audience. But it is really far from being highbrow. If you have never seen Monty Python at all, I wouldn’t recommend starting with the movies. The TV series is your primer. But if you’ve seen that, but never one of the movies then this would be a great one to start with. Frankly, they are all downhill from here.

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