Still Irreverent After All These Years
What else can be said about Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The British troupe’s first film is now 35 years old, and ranks among the most beloved comedies of all time. It’s had the special edition-DVD treatment and just came out on Blu-Ray with a wealth of extras (a deluxe iPad app lets fans go even further behind the scenes). Now it’s being re-released in select theaters, a new print with additional footage and a remastered soundtrack starting in New York and making one-night stops throughout the United States.
Luckily, the film is as fresh and anarchic as it was in 1975. If there’s still anyone who hasn’t seen Holy Grail, the plot is simple: God tells King Arthur (Graham Chapman) that he must seek the Holy Grail. Along the way, he recruits brave knights of the realm. The episodic format allows the Python crew to string together sketches and play multiple characters, a formula familiar from their television show.
Holy Grail came together in 28 days during the break between Seasons Three and Four of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was famously plagued by setbacks, including losing permission to shoot with a number of Scottish castles (hence the observation by Patsy [Terry Gilliam] that Camelot’s exterior is “only a model”), and Chapman’s problems with alcoholism. And of course, the use of coconut husks to simulate the clopping of horses came about because they couldn’t afford actual horses.
Looking back, it’s likely that the low budget and tight shooting schedule led to the film’s gleeful anarchy, a feeling of run-and-gun comedy that’s the precursor to the DIY-affected work on, for example, Funny or Die. In one scene, Eric Idle (playing Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot) bites down on a scythe blade to keep from laughing. With more time, the scene might have been reshot, but the “improv” provides one more charming detail for devotees to parse.
Now, the movie looks decidedly low-fi, and also as if the crew was scrambling to get their scenes done, the roaming, oft-unsteady camera affording some energy. Still, it’s a focused energy: beneath the apparent disorder, Holy Grail is crafted. The dialogue so beloved by fans was scripted rather than improvised. It has a honed silliness, frequently based in absurdity or repetition, but it never seems flabby. Unlike Apatovian comedies that run over two hours, Holy Grail never drags or seems self-indulgent.
Holy Grail was Monty Python’s first theatrical release, but the group had already established its sensibility on television. The Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983) are arguably better productions, but they also look restrained next to Holy Grail‘s freewheeling style. Re-seeing this first film now, we can imagine what it was like to experience Monty Python before it became a cultural institution.
Which, of course, it did. In the 12-minute short feature that accompanies this re-release, “Terry Gilliam’s Lost Animations,” the co-director plays faux curmudgeon, free-associating over a selection of “rediscovered” animations. He doesn’t have much to say, he claims, because “I’m a famous film director. I don’t have to stay here and talk to the likes of you.” True, now. But in Holy Grail, he’s just Patsy, a character with one line. He’s probably joking when he says, “I don’t watch the film. Why? We’ve got lives to lead.” Or he might be articulating an ambivalent relationship with his earlier creative work.
We’ll never know. But we don’t have to worry about what Gilliam’s already done and what he might do next. We can simply appreciate Monty Python and the Holy Grail, still irreverent after all these years.