Great comedy cannot be confined within normally accepted boundaries of taste and sensitivity. The essence of the Pythons was that they were always ready to take on formidable, daunting subjects that others might find too dangerous to contemplate. The idea for Life of Brian seems to have sprung from a remark by Eric Idle during a promotional tour for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When asked what the Pythons’ next film project would be, he snapped back: “Jesus Christ—Lust for Glory.” As far as taste was concerned, the Pythons could hardly outdo Cecil B. DeMille and his various onslaughts on the good book.
Much later, discussions began in earnest and the team kept returning to a biblical theme. After a year of script-drafting, including a few weeks’ working vacation secluded from wives and girlfriends in Barbados, Brian of Nazareth, as it was initially called, came together. Barry Spikings, then production head of EMI, agreed with the Pythons’ producer, John Goldstone, to back the film with a budget of $4.5 million. Sets built for the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth were still standing near Monastir in Tunisia, and were earmarked for the Python film, which was due to begin shooting in April 1976 with Terry Jones directing.
Unfortunately, a number of self-appointed moral guardians, recognizing an easy target, loudly condemned the project, and Lord Delfont, EMI’s chairman, smelling trouble, canceled it. The Pythons found themselves out of pocket and without a film.
George Harrison, the former Beatle, came to the rescue. At that time, his business partner was Denis O’Brien, a banker. “Because they were friends of mine, and because I wanted to see the movie, I had a word with Denis. ‘How can we help my mates?’ ” Harrison said. “A while later Denis rang me back and said ‘Okay, I’ve figured a way to get it made.’ ” Handmade Films, a new force for the next decade of British movies, was born at that moment.
Production began six months later, in the fall of 1978. When it was released in August of the following year, uproar ensued. In the United States it was condemned by Catholic groups, who wanted attendance deemed a sin. A pressure group, Citizens Against Blasphemy, tried to prosecute. In Bible Belt states, local pressures caused its run to be terminated when outright bans failed. William Buckley, the right-wing New York Post columnist, claimed that in the last scene Monty Python himself was crucified, indicating he had not seen the film and had scant idea what the Pythons were about.
In the United Kingdom, an organization called the Festival of Light successfully lobbied many towns and counties to ban it, or reclassify with an X-rating, preventing under-18s from seeing it. John Cleese, attacked on British television, argued that the film was really about closed minds not being prepared to question faith, rather than an attack on faith itself. As if to illustrate his point, one municipality eagerly imposed a screening ban even though there were no movie theaters within its limits. Not until Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 was so much religious indignation unleashed by a movie. As so often happens, the censorious fuss only boosted the box-office take, and it was already in profit by the time of the British release in November 1979.
In fact, the Pythons never intended to lampoon Christ or Christianity. Throughout, it is apparent that Brian, played as a Canaanite Candide by Graham Chapman, is not Christ or even a thinly disguised likeness. He just happens to have been born at the same time, and at first the Magi mistake his manger for the authentic one just down the road. Later, when Brian has grown up, Christ (Ken Colley) is seen delivering the Sermon on the Mount and is inaudible to those on the fringe, who think he says: “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” As a mob harasses Brian, believing him to be the Messiah, his shrewish mother (Terry Jones) yells, “He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy.” Coincidences and misunderstandings mount to form the basis for the film’s absurd climax. By the time Brian ends up on the cross—a common Roman punishment—he joins a crucified chorus line led by Eric Idle in his jaunty original song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Life of Brian is the best of the Pythons’ handful of movies, presenting their characteristic lunacy within a fully-developed story structure. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was compromised by budgetary limitations, often giving it the appearance of an extended version of their television work. Such constraints did not apply to Life of Brian, which benefits from magnificent locations, sets, and costumes, and effectively corrals large numbers of extras in several spectacular crowd scenes.
The Pythons naturally play many parts. Cleese is particularly notable as the official who finds himself on the wrong end of a stoning and as the talkative leader of the People’s Front of Judea, who plot to kidnap Pilate’s wife. Michael Palin is a lisping Pilate and a cured leper, while Terry Gilliam makes a thoughtful appearance as a mentally disadvantaged jailer.
The direction of Terry Jones maintains a fluid pace, and the severity of Pythonian self-criticism has led to taut editing, with the discarding of material that they felt weakened the flow. Unexpected is the intervention of an abduction by grotesque aliens and a brief battle in outer space, serving no purpose other than to extricate Brian from an awkward situation. It is a topical touch; the monumental success of Star Wars, first released in 1977, evoked a mania that affected even the Pythons.
Now sadly without Graham Chapman, who died from cancer in 1989, the remaining five members have pursued individual careers, yet always harbor hopes of re-forming. We can dream. Meanwhile, Life of Brian remains the summit of their big-screen career.