Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Monty Python, No. 2 - Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

And now for something completely different from And Now For Something Completely Different.

And that thing was an artistic disappointment, anyway, as it offered no original material from Monty Python, the funny, funny comedy troupe. Rather, they simply culled material from the first two series (or seasons) of their “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” BBC programme. This was done in the gap between series two and three.

Then when the gap between “Flying Circus” series three and four came up, the Pythons chose to spend their time masterminding their first original theatrical film, to be called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The challenge was how to apply the Pythonesque approach to a feature film, a format far more devoted to narrative, main characters, normalcy, all things Monty Python was squarely against. The boys still intended to write their movie in semi-independence, as mostly isolated sketches. To this, they hoped to perform a multitude of roles, allowing for a small cast but many characters. Basically, Holy Grail would be as much like the “Flying Circus” as possible, except for when it isn’t.

So Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin set about devising material revolving around Arthurian legend, the great British foundation myth – for a team keen on de-Britishizing the British, there was no better setup. This writing style allows for an extremely tenuous narrative through-line, in King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur and his Knights would be the “main characters” each Python could inhabit, even while the assorted adventures would lend much opportunity for other roles. And at every possible opportunity the movie format could be scuttled like the Pythons had done to television before it.

Filming took place immediately after the end of the “Flying Circus” in 1975, on a mere [pound symbol] 229,000. (Foregoing their relationship with pornographer Victor Lowndes, financing this time came from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, which is strange and random and wonderful.) To maintain creative control, and maintain costs, the film was done wholly in-troupe, with directing duties falling to the Terries – Jones and Gilliam.

As both were neophytes, there was some confusion as to what all was going on. Jones, as a Python actor foremost, was comfortable with directing his buddies’ comedic performances, while odd-man-out (i.e. American) Gilliam rather bogged efforts down with technical and visual details. This irked the remaining four, who saw no difference between Holy Grail and the cheap videotape productions they’d done for the BBC. But even Jones sided with Gilliam on the need for greater production value, which ends up being Holy Grail’s secret weapon (on top of its admittedly ingenious writing).

Filming circumstances must not have been pleasant anyway, going by the deathlessly cold visuals on display. With Holy Grail, Monty Python reinterprets the Dark Ages as something far less idealized than previous cinematic efforts; curious since our present impressions of the Dark Ages come from this historically accurate (mostly), anarchic, low-budget farce. And it is this sense of realism, of visual gravity, which supports the never-ending stream of nonsense to come.

To effectively create the impression of dank Tenth Century desolation, the Pythons filmed in a location where the Tenth Century was still in full effect: Scotland. They used many real life castles, making the film seem far more expansive than it really is.

And where expansiveness wasn’t possible, they improvised. One would assume Knights of the Round Table to ride around on horseback, but horses are damnably expensive and poor to cook. The wonder of a logically untethered approach like Python’s is that, as a substitute for horses, one can do something completely ridiculous: have all the characters bang coconut halves to simulate horse trotting, in reference to movie sound effects. This cheap and desperate solution, in turn, leads to an entire sketch taking advantage of the issue – for the Pythons sure to love them some tangents.

(The same quick fix desperation makes even the opening credits astoundingly humorous. The credits are subtitled in Swedish and, well, let’s just say this is the only time in history that “funniness” and “Sweden” have ever been united.)

In all, the comedy of Holy Grail is largely defined by one thing: tangents.

…Well, two things, really: Tangents and cat abuse.

Three things, in fact: Tangents and cat abuse and confusing the living and the dead.

Four things: Tangents, cat abuse, confusing the living and the dead, confusing “Oh!” and “Ah!”

Actually, three things – no, five things: Tangents, cat abuse, confusing the living and the dead, confusing “Oh!” and “Ah!,” confusing “3” and “5.”

Oh, and stretching ideas out far beyond a sensible on-screen length. So mis-pacing and anti-humor, generally. So, six things: Tangents, cat abuse, confusing the living and the dead, confusing “Oh!” and “Ah!,” confusing “3” and “5,” mis-pacing and anti-humor.

Is that all?

Okay then.

Anyway, ENGLAND 932 A.D. Graham Chapman is King Arthur, and the only Python with the necessary gravitas (Chapman’s function in the films – main character). Along with his boil-ridden servant Patsy (Gilliam, possibly pulling a Herzog and brandishing an unseen pistol on his leading man), Arthur rides through the fullest filth of the Dung Ages and passes by two whole sketches. One, a # 1, the other a # 6. That is, a not-dead man has trouble convincing Idle’s death collector he is not dead, and the movie just breaks down for a bit so some peasants can discuss the political efficacies of monarchies versus anarcho-syndicalist communes. These sketches are given too little shrift here, for we’d rather “get on with it” with a screen cap, and an excellent sketch.

Arthur encounters a problem which shall arise at least five times – no, three times during the film: an evil knight blocks the path. This is the Black Knight (Cleese still recognizable simply in his body language), a warrior of the utmost fearlessness. So much so that he barely notices when Arthur severs his arm (“Tis but a scratch.”), and is hardly any more distraught over the systematic hacking off of his other three limbs. This is perhaps the premiere example of “human dismemberment being played for laughs,” a fairly tired general gag in this amputation-crazed day and age.

Arthur’s next encounter is with his to-be sidekick, Bedemere the Wise (Terry Jones the Wise). This particular sketch satirizes the witch burning mania of the era, depicting Bedemere as a scientific quack whose skewed reasoning dictates natural laws. Violent peasants present Connie Booth as a presumed witch and/or Communist. (“She turned me into a newt! … I got better.”) By completely sensible means, Bedemere proves that since witches burn, they’re made of wood, which floats in water, just like a duck, meaning anyone who weighs the same as a duck is made of wood and is therefore a witch. Q.E.D., baby!

Actually, I don’t think I have the heart for summarizing all these Python sketches in less humorous terms. It is my failing that I prefer plot write-ups over genuine reviews, partly because so many sequels are only distinguishable from their pals by such a means. The Monty Python movies are not formulaic beasts of that nature. Narrative deconstruction does not befit them, explaining the jokes is a soulless and unlubricated act. That simply leaves “this was funny” and “this was not funny” as all one can do. Oh well, moving on…

Narration patches over the lack of plot-based sketches to inform us of the complete retinue of non-Gilliam Pythons Arthur has amassed. Let’s see, there is Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), and the aptly-named Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film (an unidentified baby). That is with Arthur and Bedemere already assembled.

What shall these Knights do? Camelot is proposed, a brief cutaway for a musical number sows the seeds for Eric Idle’s “Spamalot,” and Camelot is subsequently rejected as “a silly place.” (By Chapman, naturally.)

Rather, the Knights ride along and – Oh God!

Yes, God. Our Lord and Savior (cricket legend W. G. Grace) manifests in the clouds, bestowing a “plotline” (or “framework for a series of sketches”) upon Arthur et al. They are to seek out – the Holy Grail.

No more is said of the Holy Grail, beyond God’s assertion of its existence. This is purest deus ex machina and MacGuffin – but in a non-traditional film like Holy Grail, such narrative nakedness is a pro rather than a con.

Here’s the framework for what follows: The Knights travel, and encounter a series of confrontational grotesques. It occurs this is largely the framework of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and it occurs even more that Monty Python is thus the cinematic inheritor of that boon British “Insane Logic” tradition, in a way no genuine “Alice” movie can ever be. (Python is more cultural and less mathematic, however.) Anyway, here’s a further breakdown of this central sketch schemata…

One sketch for the Round Table as a whole. Then they split up for a series of individual sequences, Bedemere remaining with Arthur, having already had his solo sketch with the witch burners. Once this ceremonial format is complete, the Knights can reconvene for the Third Act as the Holy Grail becomes tangible again.

These various sequences stand or fail on their own merits, which lends Holy Grail’s middle section a herky-jerky pattern. The first, group scene is possibly the best, as it features a massive amount of John Cleese – actually, the Cleese scenes are generally the most successful (see the Black Knight). In this scene, Cleese appears as a Frenchman, holed up inexplicably in one of England’s great, dank castles. (Never mind Cleese is also there as Lancelot, it’s part of the film’s intentional self-undermining anti-realism.) Taunts are issued, and specific sentences you almost certainly heard uttered in your high school cafeteria are spoken for the first time here. For instance, “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” The Pythons have a way with the non sequitur.

Like Bedemere’s scheme for gaining access to Castle Frenchman, which he falsely believes contains a Holy Grail. It involves a large wooden rabbit, ala the Trojan Horse, wheeled into the castle. It does not work. In fact:

Does anyone else get a vague Wicker Man (the original one) vibe from this? It’s probably just me.

Defeated by the French, and Patsy dead (so Gilliam can take on other roles), the Knights split up. There is no amusing sketch in existence to explain this, so rather we are told by A Famous Historian (John Young). A knight murders him.

(A police investigation will come about over the Historian’s murder. This is not a sketch, but a willfully anachronistic through-line – A jokey connective tissue which even provides the Pythons a means of ending their movie without creating an ending.)

But now for the Knights’ individual malarkeys…

The Tale of Sir Robin.

Robin and his minstrels (Neil Innes, potential “seventh Python”) encounter an argumentative, three-headed knight (Chapman, Jones, Palin). The knight argues with himself, and Robin flees. The minstrels sing of Robin’s brave cowardice.

This sequence is at least short, which is what it has going for it. Sadly, the same cannot be said of –

The Tale of Sir Galahad.

Caught in a terrible storm, Galahad seeks shelter in an inviting castle, the Castle Anthrax. Anthrax is inhabited solely by young, comely maidens fair, and ruled with an iron veil by Zoot (Carol Cleveland, potential “seventh Python”). For what feels like the next 10 minutes (but is really 6), two jokes fly past again and again. In one, everyone has awful names. In the other, Galahad (the Chaste) is tempted by sexual promises up to and including oral sex. And it just keeps on going on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

The Pythons were themselves aware that The Tale of Sir Galahad was the weakest part of their film. In the (slightly) lengthened DVD cut, the scene cuts away for every character to break the fourth wall and complain that it’s “just a string of pussy jokes.” “Get on with it!” they shout. It’s nice they could at least salvage something out of this, for the sequence’s only other function is to showcase an endless procession of scantily clad young harlots that – Okay, I’ll stop complaining.

The Tale of Sir LancelLLLLLL- Oh cor blimey!

ANIMATED INTERLUDE – The titles, written in an illuminated manuscript (a nice thematic variation of Gilliam’s cartoons for this picture), are interrupted by a great shaking. The sun and the clouds torment the monk like unruly teenagers, forcing –

“Get on with it!”

Okay, sorry.

The Tale of Sir Lancelot

This is a Cleese sequence, and is therefore good.

You cannot do a knight movie without doing a chivalric romance, with a touch of Errol Flynn mock heroism thrown in for…idiom. The result is a complete mini-movie, with Terry Jones locked away in a tower, not a female (no cross-dressing in this entry!), though he may as well be. Lancelot (Cleese, remember) seeks to rescue this presumed “princess” on the day of, er, his forced marriage. By misreading the scenario, Lancelot ends up slaughtering hordes of innocent wedding attendees. Then he finds Prince Herbert, rejects the King’s (Palin) con jobs, and escapes exactly as he arrived – dramatically.

There is a lot to like in this Tale. There is Jones’ propensity to launch into song at the slightest moment, always curtailed by his father. There is the King’s dialogue with his two guards (Chapman, Idle), which somehow manages to confuse the English language even worse than most of Monty Python’s efforts. There are at least three separate moments where someone is thought dead, then turns out alive (“I’m not quite dead.”). Throughout all this is Cleese’s studied physical comedy. (And, of course, lots of tiny, one-off gags having nothing to do with the larger comedic threads.)

Littered throughout these sequences are moments with Arthur. One scene, Scene 24 to be precise, is a moment of almost pure plot and filmmaking, by necessity. Arthur and Bedemere encounter a grizzled old man (Gilliam), who tells of an enchanter who knows of the place which tells of the place which tells of the Grail. Oh, right, Holy Grail is about the Holy Grail.

More amusingly, Arthur also gets a sketch…


“We are the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’” (They also say “Peng!” and “Neee-wom!”) These Knights blocking Arthur’s way wield the deadliest weapon of all: “Ni!” The word is deadly, man, be glad I’m just typing it! At threat of hearing “Ni!” again, Arthur is tasked with obtaining for the KWSN – a shrubbery! [Musical sting!]

Cutting ahead to the event my screen cap above spoiled, Arthur has obtained that shrubbery. (Twas obtained dishonestly, through the saying of “Ni!”) But to no end, for the KWSN are no longer that. They are now the Knights Who Say “Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptang Zoo Boing Zow Zing!” (“Ni!”) As the KWSEEEPZBZZ, they have a new demand. Arthur must “cut down the mightiest tree in this forest with – a herring!” [Musical sting!]

Now the various Knights of the Round Table (KOTRT) reunite before the KWSEEEPZBZZ, whereupon they discover the one weakness of…of the Knights Whose Abbreviation Is Very Irritating to Type. That is…“it.” The word “it,” which appears in their conversation with pronoun-like regularity. (Ignore the continuity error of “it’s” former utterance, for that’s just how Monty Python rolls.) And so Arthur can continue, on into – the Third Act. [Musical sting!]

Following an ANIMATED INTERLUDE (filled with “much rejoicing”), the Knights encounter the enchanter Arthur heard about in Scene 24: Tim the Enchanter (Cleese). Amidst an inexplicable pyrotechnics show, Tim delivers the group’s next set of locational exposition. The Grail’s location is given in ancient mystic rune in the Cave of Caerbannog. The only problem is the dread monster guarding the cave…

A Killer Rabbit. Many Knights we’ve never seen before fall victim to the rodent’s furious fury, leaving them in perilous peril. For a PG-rated film, death sure soaks Holy Grail.

After running away (Arthur the tactician’s one and only tactical tactic), a new Eric Idle character who is not Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot appears: Father Maynard, keeper of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Maynard consults the Book of Armaments, because one of the Pythons wanted to write a spoof of the King James Bible (these guys don’t aim low). Once completed, they blow the bunny to beastly bits of blood and bile.

The cave reveals where the Grail is: Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh

Then everyone turns into a cartoon, in order to be chased by a Terry Gilliam animation. All seems at a loss when – “the animator suffered a fatal heart attack. The animated peril was no more.”

Sketches are mostly over at this point, as Holy Grail goes about the business of finding the Holy Grail (which, by the way, is never actually seen in this film). There are a few gags left, but now it’s just the Terries mostly playing around and struggling to wrap up all the silliness they and their cohorts created. One task is to start mercilessly knocking off the remaining cast, mostly at the Bridge of Death (an adequate place for such a task).

That is Gilliam, appearing as I believe he does on a daily basis. He is the Bridgekeeper, whose devious questions send most of the Knights hurtling to an untimely demise. At last only Arthur and Bedemere are left, forced to provide the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow. Arthur has something resembling an answer, capitalizing on the seemingly pointless swallow/coconut detour the movie took in its 3rd minute. Gilliam is knocked off, as only Chapman and Jones remain to behold the Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh –


- and run through a joke-free series of epic moments that recall, variously, Roger Corman’s The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, that one “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode with the Sampo, and stuff Peter Jackson would put out three decades later. We’ve seen this sort of moment before, the sort of cinematic heavy-lifting the Terries prop their comedy up with. It’s oft lugubrious, as Holy Grail is only partly successful on its filmmaking alone, and at its toughest here when there is very little humor (or humour) remaining.

Despite these minor speed bumps along the way, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an astoundingly successful effort, and one of the highpoints of ‘70s cinema. It doesn’t even read as a sequel, in the standard sense of the term, as there is nothing in continuity with any other Monty Python product (or itself). Rather, Monty Python’s “franchise” is based on their brand name alone, which indicates the style of comedy contained therein.

The “Monty Python” name is surely a sign of highest quality. Holy Grail is a huge reason why that is the case. The film is considered among both critics and the public as one of the greatest comedies ever made, with humor so effective it patches over the complete lack of drama, characters, story, logic, any of that. The thing is so respected now, it even acts as the source of “loving plagiarism” in Eric Idle’s hit Broadway musical “Spamalot” – this being like Mel Brooks before Python, whose The Producers became “The Producers” became The Producers again. For this umpteenth Twenty-First Century Python repurposing, the film is such holy writ that stage productions can coast partly on recitation of famous dialogue and choice one-liners. It’s the nerdgasmic Church of Python grown up and become a powerful force of cultural elites.

This reputation and legacy would be a very difficult act to improve upon, and yet somehow Monty Python arguably did just that. In fact, the one legitimate complaint about Holy Grail is that it ends all of a su-

Related posts:
• No. 1 And Now For Something Completely Different (1974)
• No. 3 Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
• No. 4 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
• No. 5 Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

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