To use the word Epic is to elicit a feeling of grandeur. Films associated with the word are usually huge, sprawling works with vast landscapes and larger than life historical backdrops such as the Civil War or ancient Rome. Classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind typify the genre as grandiose spectacle with long running times and gorgeous vistas. A small sub sect of the genre is the Epic Comedy. These are comedies that are huge in scope, whether they are lampooning a disaster, a historical piece, or another type of film. Such examples of these would be Airplane with its non-stop joke a minute style while spoofing disaster pictures, or Mel Brook’s masterpiece Blazing Saddles with its skewering of the Western and its extremely lavish finale. All these are great movies, but not the best of this subgenre. One picture above all is the epitome of the Epic Comedy. Instead of a cast of thousands, it simply uses its cast members over and over again. Instead of grand sets, this picture contains bad models or castles that had to be rented out. In place of horses the picture uses a guy banging coconuts together.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones.
The shenanigans start right off the bat with the films opening credits. Solemn, serious music gives way to silly title cards and incomprehensible Swedish subtitles. We as the audience then learn that those responsible for the title cards have been fired (sacked), and then as the titles start back up and then sputter into silliness again, those that fired those responsible for the titles get fired. After a seemingly unending credit sequence, the film begins.
A foggy English countryside, complete with a desecrated corpse, gives way to the sound of a horse galloping towards foreground. We expect to see a knight on his noble charger, but instead it is only a man banging two coconuts together. He is walking behind a man who looks to be of noble birth and pretending to ride a horse like Don Quixote. The coconut method was actually a sound effect used by BBC radio, and the team thought it would be a good joke, but it also turned out to solve another problem as none of the Pythons knew how to ride a horse.
At any rate, the King strides with his head held high as he comes upon a castle wall, declaring that he is Arthur, King of the Britons. He is looking for knights to join his court at Camelot. Graham Chapman’s performance as Arthur is supremely important to the film’s success. Chapman plays the role completely deadpan, as if he was starring in Excalibur instead of one of the silliest films of all time. As he comes up to a castle wall in the film’s opening scene, Chapman is steadfast in his seriousness, while the guards upon the wall point out that his ward is only banging coconuts instead of him riding an actual horse. In a hilarious sequence the conversation with the guards breaks down into whether a swallow would be able to carry a coconut to England.
This short scene establishes two running themes in the film. First, as Arthur and his men ride from place to place, they are often interrupted by others who bother them for no reason. The Knights are often stopped by goofy looking characters, such as the Knights of Ni, or the Three Headed Knight. The second theme established is the contradiction to the wisdom of the period, mostly by commoners. On the commentary for the Special Edition DVD of the film, John Cleese muses about how in any other film, the guards would have immediately gotten their master. In the Monty Python universe, the most famous King in the history of the World is held up on whether a coconut could migrate to a temperate zone with the help of a bird.
Chapman keeps up his solemn performance as he meets up with John Cleese’s Black Knight. As Arthur walks up, the Knight is in mortal combat with the Green Knight (Terry Gilliam). The funny thing is, is that this fight between the Knights is actually quite exciting up to its hilarious, ultra-violent ending. This sequence was done without the use of stunt doubles as Cleese and Gilliam actually trained for the fight before filming. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Chapman dispatches the knight one limb at a time with hilarious results. This scene was actually done with Cleese for the most part, but when the Knight loses his first leg, a real one legged actor was used. The following shot has Cleese standing in a hole with his arms tied behind him to get the effect of him being limbless. Victorious, the King marches on in his quest.
It’s actually a surprise that Chapman is good playing the straight man in the film as he was battling alcoholism at the time. Apparently in one sequence, Chapman had to be replaced as he could not walk across a bridge. To battle his condition, Chapman began taking Antabuse, a drug in which the body gets very sick if it ingests alcohol. Drinking alcohol after taking the drug can apparently result in flushing, throbbing in the head and neck, respiratory difficulty, nausea, vomiting, sweating, thirst, chest pain, blurred vision, confusion or in extreme circumstances death. That’s one way to beat alcoholism I suppose.
A lot of the film’s laughs come from the troupe poking fun at the superstitions of the time. For instance, during medieval times cats were blamed for the Black Plague as villagers associated them with witchcraft. Throughout the picture, cats are constantly being abused in hilarious ways. In the famous, “Bring out your dead” scene in which a man with a cart goes from house to house picking up plague victims (a funny scene in and of itself) , there is a man standing around, simply beating a cat against a tree. In the “Knights of the Round Table” musical sequence another cat gets stepped on. One scene has the Knights passing an old woman who is just leaning over a small brook while beating a cat as if she were beating a rug.
Terry Jones’ Sir Bedevere is introduced in a scene in which a witch is on trial, in which the line “She turned me into a newt” was immortalized. The scene begins in a frenzy as a handheld camera makes the sequence feel as if it were supposed to be in a more serious film (which in and of itself is a joke). The witch is then put on trial in the most ridiculous tribunal in history with Sir Bedevere as the moderator. The trial ends with the girl being burned and Bedevere joining Arthur’s quest.
Co-Director Terry Gilliam’s irreverent film making style can be seen in the following scenes depicting the recruitment of the rest of the Knights. The scene has a woman’s hand (his wife’s) and then a gorilla’s hand (his own) turning the pages of a book with pictures of Sir Lancelot, the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Robin, the Not So Brave as Sir Lancelot (Eric Idle), Sir Galahad, the Pure (Michael Palin), “and the aptly named Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film,” which was actually a picture of Michael Palin’s son, William.
More of Gilliam’s style of humor comes out in the various animated sequences in the film. One of the first is in the appearance of the only character to appear in all of Python’s films, God. The animated Almighty sends our goofy group on a quest for the Holy Grail. From there an entirely new set of bizarre animated credits begin, well into the film’s running time.
Perhaps in the films second most famous scene, the Knights are once again turned away by a Castle full of French troops, headed by an uproarious John Cleese. The French taunt the King and his men and throw barnyard animals at the men of Camelot until they are forced to leave. The scene is actually based on historical accounts of soldiers who were assigned to taunt their opponents on the field of battle before the fighting began. This was a tradition in the Middle Ages for some time. What’s funny is that the French taunts in this scene aren’t that insulting at all. What’s so bad about elderberries?
An important element in the film happens in the next scene as a “Famous Historian” is killed while giving an account of Arthur’s actions by the only horseback riding knight in the picture. The scene is completely over the top with its slaying of the Historian, but the comic effect is tremendous. This scene is the crux to the end of the film as well.
The rest of the film is episodic in nature as each of the actors gets a section of his own. The first is Eric Idle’s cowardly Sir Robin, who runs into a nasty Three Headed Knight, but manages to sneak away. The funniest thing about the sequence is Sir Robin’s minstrels who constantly sing about how spineless he is. The lyrics were actually written by Eric Idle.
Bravely bold Sir Robin rode forth from Camelot. He was not afraid to die, oh brave Sir Robin. He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways, brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin. He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken. To have his kneecap split, and his body burned away, and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin. His head smashed in and heart cut out, and his liver removed, and his bowels unplugged, and his nostrils raped and his bottom burned off and his penis split…
Idle’s funniest scenes actually come in smaller parts. In the “Bring Out Your Dead” sequence, Idle is the one calling out for the plague victims. As Arthur trots by him, Idle ad-libs a line where he states that the man must be a king. When asked why he states, “Because he hasn’t got sh*t all over him.”
Actually this is a running gag in the film that peasants are constantly covered in filth. A throwaway gag in the sequence even has Michael Palin eating dirt for no reason in the background. While Michael Palin’s peril at Castle Anthrax as Sir Galahad is quite funny, the actor’s funniest scene comes earlier in the film as he plays a peasant called Dennis and complains about the system of government while seemingly either packing or eating dirt again. Arthur is drawn into another ridiculous argument as Palin’s Dennis goes on about how Arthur has become king “By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.” The scene is hilarious as Dennis calls the “Lady of the Lake” legend a “farcical aquatic ceremony.” This is all while the man’s partner is screaming “Oh there’s some lovely filth down here.” The scene is absolutely hysterical.
John Cleese’s time to shine comes with the “Tale of Sir Lancelot.” In this section, the brave knight goes to rescue a Princess that turns out to be a Prince with a penchant for singing (which is a joke referring to the musical Camelot). While fighting his way in to rescue the Prince who he thinks is a woman, Lancelot puts his legendary prowess to use by unnecessarily killing a great many unprepared guards and unarmed wedding guests.
When the Knights finally regroup, Cleese shines again as the sorcerer Tim, a Scottish accented know-it-all who guides them. The performance is so eccentric that the script even calls for Arthur to point it out. Tim leads the group to a ferocious man-eating rabbit and then to the final bridge right before the film’s ludicrous finale.
It would seem at first the movie would be doomed to fail. The production was fraught with trouble. A week before filming was to begin; the group lost the right to film in any castles they had planned to shoot at in Scotland. Fortunately, the proprietor of the privately owned Doune Castle let the troupe do their worst to his fortress. Doune ends up standing in for portions of Camelot, Swamp Castle, Castle Anthrax, and French castle. Another stronghold named Stalker Castle stood in for the Castle Aaaaaaaaarg.
When the problem of funding for the film came up, the band Pink Floyd came to the rescue. Rumor has it the band were such big fans that they would stop recording to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When the troupe needed money for their film, the band stepped in with portions of their proceeds from Dark Side of the Moon.
While this was Monty Python’s second feature, this was their first original work in some time when it premiered. What looked to be a cheap, nothing Comedy turned out to be one of the greatest of the whole genre (and my personal favorite). The combination of high concept humor (Listen. In order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second, right?) to low brow (Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.) to sight gags (It’s just a flesh Wound!)to the bizarre (Ni!) have made the film one of the most beloved Cult films ever. Of the four Python films, this one probably has a bigger following than the rest.
In its own way, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a masterpiece. The picture is actually more watchable than any other Arthurian legend ever filmed. The film is not pretentious or stuffy, just gives a great King Arthur tale and makes you laugh out loud. By pointing out how ridiculous the legend actually is, the film becomes a great King Arthur movie in and of itself. Of the Epic Comedies, no other film has the sheer silliness to keep itself as fresh as when it came out. What’s funny may go in and out of favor, but this film has stood the test of time.
Oh and by the way, the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles per hour, beating its wings 7-9 times per second rather than 43. And a 5 ounce bird cannot carry a one pound coconut.
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