Time to do a movie review today. If you haven't seen this one, you're going to be confused.
"The Lady Of The Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king." ~ King Arthur
"Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony." ~ Dennis
"You don't frighten us, English pig dogs. Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called Arthur King, you and all your silly k-nig-its." ~ French Soldier
"This new learning amazes me, Sir Belvedere. Explain again how sheep's bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes." ~ King Arthur
"Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who." ~ King Of Swamp Castle
There are more conventional adaptations that have been done about the story of King Arthur and his knights of Camelot. The story has been told in classic films, animation, musicals, and soaring action epics. On the other hand, a film about Arthur that features a killer rabbit, French soldiers in England for no reason, historians getting killed, and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.... well, that's something entirely different. Monty Python And The Holy Grail is the 1975 film from the British comedy troupe of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones, and it skewers the legend of Arthur in as thorough a way as can be done. It is one of those films that, if you have no tolerance for silliness, will drive you nuts. But on the other hand, if you love it, you can watch it countless times and still find it hilarious.
The Pythons wrote this film, a proper narrative with plenty of sight gags, after the earlier sketch comedy film And Now For Something Completely Different, compiling a series of comedy bits from the troupe's television series. This one was meant to actually tell a story while keeping true to the irreverent nature of the Pythons. It's become a classic comedy, arguably the Pythons at their very best, and features the most maddening (and strangely that makes it work so well) ending in movie history. The film was directed by two of the Pythons, Gilliam and Jones... along with a bunch of llamas, if you believe the opening credits. The Pythons play multiple roles throughout, backed up by other actors and actresses.
Arthur (Chapman) and his squire Patsy (Gilliam) are roaming around the English countryside gathering knights and arguing with castle guards about the air speed of swallows. Soon the core of the knights of Arthur are gathered together: Sir Belvedere the Wise (Jones), Sir Galahad the Pure (Palin), Sir Lancelot The Brave (Cleese), and Sir Robin The Not So Brave As Sir Lancelot (Idle). They and the rest of the knights are tasked by the Almighty to find the Holy Grail. Their quest leads them across the land, sometimes as a group, sometimes on their own, against all manner of threats, meeting strange people along the way. From the misuse of a Trojan Rabbit to peasants with very modern political views, the knights find themselves caught up in their quest... and in a very silly movie.
I've long since lost track of how many times I've seen this movie. The writing by the Pythons is still as fresh today as it must have been when the series was on the air and when these movies were being made. There is an absurd, anarchist streak to their style, and it comes across in this movie. Instead of telling a conventional story, they turn convention upside down, breaking the Fourth Wall, mixing together the story they're telling with a wink at the audience, their signature animation style that breaks in from time to time, and the warped humour that masks just how clever the writing actually is. If you see the surviving Pythons today, that warped sense of humour is still there in each, so the whole movie is very much their personalities writ large. And it's delightfully twisted that way.
The troupe filmed on location, and if you watch the special features, there's a short film of Palin and Jones wandering through some of the areas they filmed in. We learn that one castle was used over and over again in different ways, and seeing the two going here and there all those years later, trading stories and sharing jokes along the way, is interesting in and of itself. The troupe shot the film with the resources they had, but even so, the England of a thousand years ago looks and feels grim and dirty- indeed, when Arthur happens to be passing through a village, one of the villagers tells another that he must be a king, because he doesn't have shit on him. Peasants dig around in the mud for a living. A king keeps building castles in a swamp. And the film has that feel of being out of time, from costuming to set decoration. Even on a budget, if you look around at things while all of this mayhem unfolds between characters, it feels like you're back in the past. Jones and Gilliam direct in different ways, too. Jones goes more for the quick gag, while Gilliam is more of a storyteller- you can see hints of films yet to come for him here, since he went on to direct surreal films like The Fisher King, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and 12 Monkeys.
The Pythons are augmented by a number of other actors who appeared in various Python films. Neil Innes has multiple roles, but primarily as Sir Robin's minstrel, cheerfully singing about the knight's habit of running away from the slightest sign of danger. He had quite a lot of Python connections, and has sometimes been called the seventh Python. Connie Booth is hilarious as a woman accused by an angry mob of being a witch; she was Cleese's wife at the time. And Carol Cleveland plays Zoot and Dingo, twin sisters who live with other women at a castle Galahad comes across... all of whom are very tempting to the apparently virtuous Galahad ("let me go back in there and face the peril!" he tells the ferocious Lancelot after being dragged out).
The Pythons all have primary and secondary roles. Gilliam plays the mostly silent Patsy (though he gets a wonderfully subdued line about Camelot only being a model), but it might surprise you to know that he also played the bridgekeeper of the Bridge Of Death, a decrepit and crazy old man, barely recognizable under a whole lot of makeup. Idle plays the cowardly Sir Robin as if the character is terrified every moment- which works wonderfully. Errol Flynn would be shocked by the notion of a knight quaking in fear. Idle also gets a number of secondary roles, my favourite of that lot being a rather confused guard inside Swamp Castle, trying to clarify his orders. Jones has a primary role as Sir Belvedere the Wise, not nearly as wise as he claims to be, as much of his knowledge is simply preposterous. Perhaps his biggest laughs, however, are reserved when he's playing the secondary character Prince Herbert, being forced by his father to marry a princess when he'd rather just sing.
Chapman plays the cornerstone role of Arthur, and in this context, it's challenging. He must convey the gravity and seriousness of a king- which he does- at the same time as keeping a straight face while the king goes through simply ludicrous situations. We believe he's Arthur- he certainly looks the part, and carries himself like a king as he makes his way through his lands. It's in those more human moments that the role takes on a really marvelous quality- such as when he gets completely exasperated by the peasant Dennis to the point where he loses his temper. Cleese plays Lancelot in a way we might not expect. Where Lancelot has often been portrayed as the dashing hero who seduces the king's wife, Cleese goes for his own take on the role. Here he is the take no prisoners, ferocious warrior who charges right into a situation with his sword ready, not bothering to ask questions first. Among his secondary roles is the demented Tim the Enchanter, appearing late in the film, warning the knights of what lies ahead, and they must conclude Tim is a very strange person. Michael Palin has always been my favourite of the Pythons; he seems like such a nice person in real life, and yet you get the sense that underneath all that is a marvelously devious sense of humour. His primary role is Galahad the Pure, and he plays the character as brave and noble, loyal to the king and the quest... and when he finds himself in the midst of all those beautiful women who only want him for his body... his nobility is tested to the limit. We couldn't blame him for giving into temptation, could we? He also gets a number of hilarious secondary roles, including the peasant Dennis, arguing with the King about the responsibility of executive power, and as the King Of Swamp Castle, irritated by the existence of his son Prince Herbert, the confused guards, and the strange knight of Camelot who comes barging into his castle, wounding or killing half the wedding guests.
Monty Python And The Holy Grail represents the Pythons at their best and most demented. It's an absurd retelling of the Arthurian story that skewers the genre of swords and sorcery, infuses a twisted sense of humour into everything, and ends in a way that's just as demented. Have you seen it? And if so, what's your favourite moment in the film?