All right, I’ll just say it. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the most sublimely irreverent, most jaw-droppingly hysterical movie of the last twenty years. How many films, after all, have Knights who say “Ni!,” filth-eating peasants, and 160 nubile virgins with names like Zoot and Dingo? How many contain lengthy discussions on the aerodynamic properties of African swallows and scenes where overzealous knights hack entire wedding parties to bits, all couched in a wicked deconstruction of cherished Arthurian myths?
What aberrant comic zephyr blew the film’s six brilliant creators (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) together at precisely the right moment in history, and who in their right mind unleashed them on an unsuspecting public? Surprisingly, comedy’s great benefactor was that stodgiest of British cultural institutions, the BBC. Young but experienced in the ways of TV sketch comedy, the team was brought together in the late ‘60s to create a late-night show that would appeal to England’s unchained youth. Visualized as the bastard off-spring of Peter Sellers’s Goon Show and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was an inspired mix. The high-flown verbal gymnastics that were the trademark of Cambridge grads Chapman and Cleese, and the lowbrow physical comedy mastered by Oxford’s Idle, Jones, and Palin, were perfectly balanced by Gilliam’s voluptuously grotesque animations. This was high-wire hilarity at its most death-defying.
By the end of the show’s increasingly successful four-year run, the Pythons were internationally famous, and talk of making a feature film naturally arose. Their decision to tackle medieval myths long held sacred by their countrymen led to delirious liberties. What if “brave” Sir Robin were actually a coward, dogged by a minstrel who sung incessantly of his misdeeds? What if Lancelot were headstrong to the point of imbecility? What if they portrayed God not as a radiant beneficence, but as a dyspeptic bully? What if He were a cartoon? Never have poor Arthur and his men been so severely goosed, nor history so mangled. Although their brand of humor may seem to teeter on the edge of pandemonium, they’re actually following a strict comic credo all their own—once revealed in a different context: “Our chief weapons are fear, surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.”
It’s said that art flourishes in adversity, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is proof. Shooting on a nonexistent budget in the dank and rainy Scottish countryside (dressed in chain mail, no less) was rough enough, but the problems were compounded by the fact that four of the Pythons found themselves, for the first time, taking orders from two of their own. The twin Terries’ directing efforts were reportedly met with much teeth-gnashing resentment from their cohorts, who felt that they were taking too long to set up shots. Cleese has said that he felt his life was endangered on several occasions, particularly in the pyrotechnic Tim the Enchanter scene and the run across the rickety Bridge of Death. (He finally had a stunt man perform the latter for him.) Fortunately, once they saw the dailies, they realized they work making something worth stubbing a few toes over, and they soldiered on.
The Pythons agree that, had Holy Grail failed, they would have quietly disbanded. Thank God, it didn’t. The film was an enormous success on every level and the world has since been treated to (subjected to?) further acts of highly intelligent babbling lunacy. As great as the later works are by mere mortal standards, they still fall short of Holy Grail‘s monumental achievement. The faux-biblical <I>Life of Brian</I> (1979) plays like a not-as-funny retread of the earlier film and The Meaning of Life (1983)—notwithstanding a memorable appearance by Mr. Creosote, the most revolting special effect in human history—is a return to sketch comedy rather than an advancement. Holy Grail represents the shining moment when the Pythons were hitting on all six pistons, when their unique blend of music hall and university comedy attained perfect combustion.
Lately, the Pythons have gone their separate ways and one (Chapman) has gone to his final reward, but in thanks for this enduring, transcendent comic masterpiece, let us now bow our heads and say . . . RUN AWAY!