On the 45th anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail
For all the talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the Python troupe’s first “proper” movie — with a narrative and everything, unlike their previous film, the sketch assortment And Now for Something Completely Different — it is still, in large part, a sketch assortment. The film turns 45 this month, and in the intervening years, its bits of business have become every bit as iconic as the boys’ greatest hits from Flying Circus. “Bring out your dead.” The Knights Who Say Ni. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. And so on. The movie’s anarchic, shambolic nature (and the abruptness of the troupe’s desire to get on with it and get out of a bit) will shock a string of laughs out of the first-time (like-minded) viewer, but past a certain point, as it did this most recent time I sat with it, it becomes simply a warm bowl of comfort food. The film’s world of amiable nonsense looks so much better than the world of frightening nonsense we now occupy.
The filmmaking duo of Python, the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam), cut their teeth here. Having no idea how to make a film, they taught themselves how to make a film by making this film. It shows, though charmingly. Occasionally there is a striking image that links Holy Grail to Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and so forth, but largely it’s a slovenly piece of work directorially, though not necessarily in a bad way. The Pythons, after all, were thumbing their noses at the very concept of films, or epic films. As a film artist, Terry Gilliam grew astronomically in the ten years between Holy Grail and Brazil. Terry Jones, bless his soul, did not improve. The Jones-directed Life of Brian, naggingly funny as it often is, is as crude as the crudest parts of Holy Grail, and he continued to prove in such uneven attempts as Erik the Viking that filmmaking was not his strength. (I would say that aside from performing, Jones excelled as a writer and historian, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)
None of this is to throw shade at the film as a cult object and cultural going concern (even though the lucrative spin-off musical Spamalot ended up costing the boys 800,000 pounds in legal fees and royalties). We settle into the film’s ramshackle absurdity very quickly, as soon as the credits start being subtitled in increasingly baffling “Swedish.” We all agree to accept the “story” of King Arthur (the perfectly cast Graham Chapman) assembling his knights in search for the Grail, though usually the agreed-upon illusion of this as a story we’re being told doesn’t last long. There’s just too much meta-commentary for that illusion to hold firm. I don’t remember, say, Airplane! even at its most chaotic calling its own structure and credibility as a movie into question the way Holy Grail does. I think it was Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 who floated the notion that we may as well be watching an asylum escapee who thinks he’s King Arthur, and the assorted goofs and loons accompanying him. Like Life of Brian, this film has little respect for mob illogic; a straight line could be drawn from the “Burn the witch” bit to the easily gulled crowds of followers in Brian.
I’ve seen Holy Grail on cable, on video, on the big screen (possibly a 20th-anniversary showing at the Coolidge Corner), and now on Netflix. All the things I appreciate in it — its restless, reckless imagination and its insistence on using its budgetary limitations for comic effect — are still there. Much as I love Python, I find a little of them goes a long way for me, and my watch beckoned a couple of times here, as it does during all their other feature-length romps. (It’s possible that their cinematic swan song, The Meaning of Life, has held up the best solely by virtue of not having been quoted to death.) Still, Holy Grail has a rumpled, unpretentious quality that ties it to other well-loved British cult films like Withnail & I and much of Edgar Wright’s output. It is the very definition of “right, boys, let’s go putter around these Scottish castles and see what we come back with.” The comedy may be harsh at times — its quantity of (glaringly fake) gore may raise eyebrows among parents who take its PG rating on faith — but its impulse to entertain via what amounts to a clothesline of blackout sketches is reassuringly human.