It is more than four decades since the phenomenon comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail hit the theatres. Even though it is not as relevant as it was back then, there is no doubt that the movie played a key role towards the development of comedy in film. Before the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had not yet made a feature film, and despite the low budget of only $400,000, they were able to direct one of the most influential comedy films of all time. The cast, which comprised of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, was also responsible for the script. The film was set in the plains of Scotland and took 28 days to shoot.
The Monty Python crew had already gained a cult following with their phenomenon classic British television program Monty Python’s Flying Circus that aired from 1969 to 1974. However, the last episodes of the show had seen their relevance dwindle a bit and the Holy Grail was just the thing they needed to revive their careers. But things were not rosy for the crew even after the success of the Flying Circus. They struggled to get financing for the project, as no movie studio was willing to invest in them. But much to the chagrin of the whole British film landscape, British musical acts such as Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd came to their rescue- not because they were interested in the project, but as a way of saving their money from the high taxes in England.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is therefore a work of miracle, if we consider the crippling budget that the crew hard to work with. Couple this with the fact that Terry and Terry had no prior experience in making feature films, the Holy Grail should be hailed as the best comedy film of all time. Anything short of the best should be regarded as blasphemy towards the film fraternity. According to the two directors’ admission, there was no proper planning for the movie and so they had to improvise along the way. Whereas the film lacked in opulence of financial extravaganza, it compensated with unmatched humor that has been adopted by some notable comedies to date. So instead of pondering through the tidbits of behind the scenes, let me heed the calls of the hilarious cast and just…
”Get on with it.”
The Holy Grail is a clash between general absurdity and genius, humor and seriousness and a conflict between modernity and ancient times. While the movie was planned to include half of the scenes in medieval times and the other half in modern times to be meshed together to trace the whereabouts of the Holy Grail to the Harrods department store, what we witness is a complete clash of generations, with British cops and vehicles penetrating through medieval scenes and arresting king Arthur leading to a completely disheartening ending. Terry and Terry ignored all tenets of film making and just went on with whatever was on their minds.
The opening credits are probably a prophecy of what is to come in the movie. What seems like Swedish translations of the English credits are nothing but faux messages with not the slightest relevance to the movie. “Wi not trei a holiday in Sweden this yer?” “See the lovely lakes.” “The wonderful telephone system.” “A moose once bit my sister”- are some of the weird subtitles. We are treated to more drama as the film announces that the people responsible for the translation have been sacked all the directors of the movie are llamas from South America.
The movie basically revolves around locating the Holy Grail, which according to legend is the cup that Jesus Christ used during the last supper. It was later used to receive Jesus’ blood as it flowed on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea became the keeper of the Holy Grail, which sustained him with food and drink when he was imprisoned and left to starve. Upon his release, he traveled far and wide reaching Britain, where he parted with the Holy Grail. The legend further postulates that the Grail found its way into a castle and was guarded by Kings. Eventually, the whereabouts of the castle housing the holy relic was forgotten. Set in the medieval time, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is therefore a fictitious attempt to trace the mythical cup by King Arthur and his knights of the round table. What transpires however is a mocking, rather than a glorification of one of the most notable kings of England.
The film begins with King Arthur traversing the country sides of Britain in search of knights worthy enough to be included in his Round Table at Camelot. Without horses, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) pretends to be riding a horse, while his loyal servant, Patsy follows him closely hitting two shells of coconuts to make the sound of horse hooves. The irony of it all is that while we assume that the characters in the movie will take it as though King Arthur is riding a horse, the castle guard in this scene is perturbed by King Arthur’s assertions that he is riding a horse. They have a hilarious exchange about swallows carrying coconuts to that part of the world, which frustrates King Arthur and he leaves.
The King then stumbles upon a peasant who engages him in the concepts of democracy. He questions his claim to the throne and asserts that “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” Annoyed, King Arthur strangles the peasant who cannot bring himself to shut up. The king is however forced to flee when other peasants, attracted by the commotion, come to the peasant’s rescue. His adventures lead him to the Black Knight (John Cleese), who is involved in a brawl with a Green Knight (played by Terry Gilliam). He is impressed by the Black Knight’s victorious defeat of the Green Knight.
He requests the Knight to join him, but the Black Knight remains adamant and wants nothing but a duel with the king. What transpires is one of the highlights of the film. The most feared Black Knight is defeated without much effort from the king. The Knight’s left arm is the first to go, but he says “tis but a scratch”. The battle continues and the Knight loses his right arm to which he casually says “just a flesh wound” to Arthur’s disbelief. Without arms the Knight starts kicking the King, which prompts Arthur to chop off his legs. But the Knight still wants to continue the battle with nothing but his upper torso. King Arthur ignores his calls and crosses a nearby stream, which prompts the Black Knight to say
“alright we’ll call it a draw”.
Thanks to animated narration done cleverly, we soon realize that King Arthur is able to assemble men he believes are suitable for the Round Table. They include the wise Sir Bedivere (Terry Jones), the chaste Sir Galahad, the brave Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) and the not-so-quite-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot Sir Robin (Eric Idle). All the characters play several roles in the movie with Michael Palin playing the most- 12 roles to be exact. The team heads to Camelot, where the Knights are marveled by its appearance on the hilltop, but King Arthur’s servant hilariously remarks that it is only a model. We are then treated to a musical delight courtesy of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
They however abandon the idea of going to Camelot as it is boring and head away from the castle. On their journey, an animated god appears to them and tasks them with finding the Holy Grail. The team splits into different missions in order to increase their chances of finding the relic, but not before they are humiliated by French soldiers, who hilariously throw both cows and obscene, albeit funny insults to them. We get one of the funniest lines in the movie courtesy of the French: “I’ll fart in your general direction.” The first Knight we see is Sir Robin, who is accompanied by his minstrels singing amusingly of his cowardice. He encounters a giant with three heads. Sir Robin flees from the giant, as the heads are busy arguing about drinking tea and biscuit and how they smell.
The scene shifts to Sir Galahad, who believes the Holy Grail is in Castle Anthrax after he sees a model of the cup. Unbeknownst to him, the castle is full of young women between 16 and 19 years. Led by their leader Zoot, the girls try to tempt Sir Galahad into staying. He is however rescued by Sir Lancelot. The funny bit of this scene occurs when amid acting out her lines, Zoot’s identical twin goes into a tirade revealing that the scene was almost cut. At this point, random actors are introduced and they shout to her to “get on with it”.
The next scene features King Arthur and Bedevere, who seek the guidance of an old man with magical powers. After leading them to a dangerous path, he disappears with his hut. In a forest, the two meet the “Knights who say Ni”, whose sole weapon is saying “Ni”. Arthur and Bedevere submit to the Knights’ demands and agree to bring them a shrubbery. We then move on to the adventures of Sir Lancelot and his servant, Concorde. While galloping, Concorde is hit with an arrow on his chest. The arrow has message tied to it that Sir Lancelot misinterprets to mean that a damsel is in distress. He goes into a series of merciless killings in a wedding ceremony at the swamp castle. He is however disappointed to learn that the letter was sent by a boy and not a girl.
Eventually the Knights link up again and they encounter the killer bunny that devours half of their crew. They luckily destroy it with a holy grenade safely carried by a pious group of Catholics. Once they reach the Bridge of Death, where you only cross once you answer three questions correctly, Robin and Galahad are devoured by the Gorge of Eternal Peril. On the other side of the bridge marks the climax or rather, the anticlimax of the movie. The three Pythons are intercepted by police and arrested after they are connected to the murder of a historian earlier in the movie.
Sounds absurd doesn’t it? But, that’s just about it. The directors chose to use this unconventional approach, because the funds had dried out and they had to come up with an ending anyway. We will however not blame the directors for this. The story part of the film was not that important. The Pythons wanted to make comedy and they created something special, more than they had anticipated. Monty Python and the Holy Grail film analysis proves a revelation that the aspect of finance is only a tiny issue when it comes to making an excellent movie.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Wikipedia
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Movie Review
- John Cleese and the Holy Grail | Bergen Performing Arts Center