[21 October 2003]
If Monty Python are indeed the Beatles of comedy and sketches like “Dead Parrot” and “Twit of the Year” are their hit singles, then Monty Python and the Holy Grail, now on collector’s edition DVD, is their Revolver—a long-form collection of material produced at the peak of their powers. It doesn’t have the stronger narrative of Life of Brian (1979), and it’s not quite the short film collection that is Meaning of Life (1983). But it’s funnier than both of those movies are. It may be the funniest movie ever made.
Maybe it’s the subject matter. Brian and Life tackle weightier issues, but Holy Grail manages to satirize not only the sword and sorcery adventures that came before it, but movies that would be released for years to come. (I recall David Denby’s comment upon the release of Braveheart: “Didn’t Monty Python parody this movie 20 years ago?”) Of course, Python doesn’t riff on specific scenes like Hot Shots! (1991) or Scary Movie (2000); it uses the archetypal story of the Arthurian Legend as a launching pad. And it uses the launching pad to hurl livestock over castle walls.
But Grail is not all flying cows. At its core is a favorite Python subject: Death, and its vast indignities. I can’t think of another comedy team that deals with death so zestfully—and so successfully. In the Python universe, narrators are killed abruptly, the sick are deemed “dead” before they actually expire (“I’m not dead yet!”), and heroes cheerfully slaughter hordes of innocent bystanders.
Sometimes, battles yield mere maimings. John Cleese’s bit as the knight who refuses to concede defeat is the kind of instant-classic sequence that more comedy directors should watch and re-watch. Somehow this gag has never, to my knowledge, been imitated or knocked off. All the better for the Python legacy, I suppose.
The smarter observers will have taken note, anyway. The Pythons were onto something in their translation of sketch comedy into feature film. Every member of the group has a lot to do—even American non-actor Terry Gilliam, who annoyed some of the crew with his attention to the low-budget visuals. There is a spirit of collaboration here that’s impossible to fake. This aspect of Grail hasn’t been heavily imitated either, but it seems that younger comedians may be catching on. It’s no coincidence that many of the funniest recent comedies—Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Brain Candy (2002), Super Troopers (2001)—were created by comedy troupes, not a “hot” screenwriter. Holy Grail, almost 30 years later, feels more like a classic album than ever: not every track is perfect, but it adds up to a perfect record.
This makes the Deluxe DVD edition (at least the third version, and only slightly different from the previous incarnation) like one of those re-mastered, re-issues of an album everybody loves and already owns. It’s a better package, but Grail is the kind of movie that still plays fine on VHS. That said, the extras in this two-disc set are ample and appropriately Python-y. There are two commentary tracks, one by co-directors Terry Gilliam and Jones, and another by surviving players John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle. There is no group commentary reunion; each commentary track pastes together separate recorded observations. But the thoughts and anecdotes are more illuminating than most. Cleese is especially witty and informative, discussing bits he doesn’t much like (the three-headed man routine) and others he does (the witch-burning scene where he and Idle must strain—visibly, if you look closely—not to crack up).
The DVD includes extra Python mischief. You can watch the film with subtitles from Henry IV, Part II (“For people who don’t like the film”), and look for the 24 seconds of extra footage. Also included are Palin’s brief instructions concerning the film’s famous coconuts, and a Lego re-enactment of the “Knights of the Round Table” musical number. It’s all handsomely bound (packaged to resemble a bible), and includes a book of the original script.
Still, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the real attraction. Watching it again made me want to buy dozens of cheap VHS copies and place them in nightstands across the country. Let no others die (or even be maimed) without a peek at this Holy Grail.