Anniversary re-releases of classic films become more overstuffed with each passing decade. Whether that is to convince the wary purchaser that they should plunk down more money for essentially the same product or to truly honor the artistic achievement depends on what you believe drives the film industry. Another argument could be that this is done to keep us from considering just how rarely recent films prove worthy of that designation.
Whatever the matrix of rationales, the holiday season now gives us one of the best and worst gift ideas ever: the 40th Anniversary Edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Why best? Because this sturdy old coconut-clapping steed of silly remains a structural support column for modern comedy and deserves the proper treatment. Why the worst? Because that “Ni!”-spouting friend of yours certainly already owns it — and not just the ordinary one that PopMatters was provided with, but the ultra-deluxe mega-limited edition, the one with the catapult and little rubber farm animals.
Shameless merchandising aside, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film that deserves any hoopla catapulted in its direction. That is despite it having a fairly uncertain provenance. Shot by a ramshackle Dadaist comedy troupe over a chaotic and fairly drunken month in Scotland in 1974, right around the time that their Flying Circus TV show was coming to an end, and funded primarily by having some rock star friends of the troupe (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) throw in a few thousand pounds each, the film should have been one of those debacles where everybody wishes they had just packed it up and retired instead. Among the extras on the anniversary edition — including outtakes and some newly unearthed animations by Terry Gilliam — is an on-the-set BBC piece where Gilliam seems more chuckle-headed college joker than co-director, John Cleese barely able to contain his irritation with being directed and all the last-minute rewrites, and set mechanics so primitive they could be out-done by an early Doctor Who episode.
What resulted from this circus was a subversively boundary-busting mock epic packed with musical numbers, goofy play-acting, and tangled vaudevillian wordplay.
As a sublimely funny lark on Knights of the Round Table romances, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is in theory a quest narrative. Its story about King Arthur gathering up knights for his God-ordered quest to find the Holy Grail, however, is just a structure that allows for the Python troupe to string together medieval-themed skits skewering the implausibly heroic stories about the time period.
The knights are not only unheroic, they’re a collection of fools, cowards, and madmen. Their adventures make little sense. King Arthur is so impressed with his own kingliness he can barely see what’s right in front of him. The Grail quest itself, a particularly impenetrable mainstay of medieval romances, is tossed into the film almost as an afterthought. Also, instead of the Arthurian tales’ eyes-averted take on reality, the film is awash in blood and filth.
The last element makes particular sense, given the time period. Post-Vietnam and post-Nixon disgust with the seeming hypocrisy of the classic Hollywood narrative was standard operating procedure in the creative classes during the mid-’70s. Disenchantment with fictional heroics, though, came late to Arthurian sagas. The clean moral dialectics of Westerns, those stripped-down updates of the old knight errant stories, had already been getting chopped and bloodied up for years. The Man With No Name, the conflicted Indian killers of late John Ford, and the wholesale butchery of Sam Peckinpah ripped away the Western’s aura of the calming fable. By the ’70s, the films had been recast as either post-Vietnam indictments of imperialism or more straightforwardly violent tales of retribution.
With the exception of Robert Bresson’s anti-romantic Lancelot of the Lake in 1974, however, the same full-scale deconstruction never happened with the Arthurian stories. For one, they had never translated that commonly to the screen. That probably had something to do with the expense of all those suits of armor and castles. (In fact, the Pythons’ running gag where Arthur’s knights skip about as though riding horses when the sound of hoofs comes from their servants clapping coconut shells together was probably born out of budgetary necessity.) Whatever the reason, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the first widely-seen cinematic demolition of the legends, and a surprisingly devastating one.
For any satire to work, the jokes have to land. The intervening years have shown no diminishing of the gags’ impact, from the peasant who decides Arthur must be a king “because he hasn’t got shit all over him”, to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch prayer (“Bless this, O Lord, that with it, that mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits”), and the bickering over the migratory patterns of European and African swallows. To create real satire, the comedy has to derive from something truthful. The historical record backing up the Pythons’ comedy helps deliver the sting to what is usually regarded as nothing more than a loony farce.
Take one of the film’s sharper sequences. Arthur (Graham Chapman, doing his imperiously sniffy best) comes across a knight, Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), trying to persuade some peasants to think rationally about why they’re accusing a woman (Connie Booth) of being a witch. The filth-covered peasants run through a litany of obviously fake reasons, from “she has got a wart!” to “she turned me into a newt!” before returning to their cathartic shrieking of “burn her!”
Put that up against this passage from Stacey Schiff’s book The Witches, where she compiles an example of the fluid list of what New Englanders in the late-1600s believed showed some unlucky soul to be a witch:
The witch bore a mark on her body indicating her unnatural compact with the spirits that engaged her. Those could be blue or red, raised or inverted. They might resemble a nipple or a fleabite. They came and went. Essentially any dark blemish qualified…
Trying to pinpoint the substantive difference between evidentiary proof of witchcraft in 17th-century legal proceedings and the Monty Python version of a witch trial would be a fool’s errand. It could be argued that the scene is intended as strictly comedy, without any subtext. But given the specificity of ignorance being detailed (due in large part to co-writer and co-director Jones being a medievalist) and when set against the rest of the film’s subject matter, it becomes hard to maintain that the Pythons didn’t have bigger targets in mind. Throughout the film, assumptions about the rightness of Arthur, his knights, and this strange quest they’ve engaged themselves in are blown to smithereens, and not just for a giggle.
Thinking he’s rescuing a princess locked in a tower, Sir Lancelot (Cleese) charges into a castle and slaughters everyone in his way before stopping and deadpanning, “Sorry, sorry….” This could have been done as an (admittedly bloody) skit about a mistake, but its ironically heroic music and Lancelot’s crazed-sounding laugh turn it into a skit about a psychopath hiding behind a coat of arms. Elsewhere, the knights are shown to be cowards like Sir Robin (Eric Idle) or simply idiots who shout “run away!” when, in fact, they’re running away from the enemy, whether it’s taunting French guards or a vicious and throat-ripping rabbit.
The epic hero narrative is more openly undermined in scenes like the one where Arthur is shocked by the uppity challenge offered by the peasant Dennis (Michael Palin), who is first offended that Arthur doesn’t address him by name: “I object to how you automatically treat me like an inferior.” An autodidact Trotskyite, Dennis harrumphs further about the king’s faithful recitation of the Lady of the Lake story, one of the core tenets in the Arthurian mythos:
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!
The anachronism here is funny enough, and the sort of thing that today’s more reflexively postmodern comedy outfits from Saturday Night Live to Family Guy take as their post-Python birthright. (In fact, during one of the Q&As collected in this set’s piles of extras, Idle points out that John Belushi and Bill Murray were at the film’s premiere, before deadpanning that their gang of National Lampoon comics soon surpassed the Pythons in popularity.) The pointedly Marxist subtext is there for a reason.
All of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, in fact, a dismantling of the knight class’s violent and odious entitlement, not to mention the habit of Arthurian myths’ habit of treating all non-knight and –wizarding types as one undifferentiated mass of peasantry. The film’s focus on them as mistreated and occasionally rebellious individuals is line with what Jones talked about in Medieval Lives, the book he co-wrote with Alan Ereira. That book starts with the so-called Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381, in which tens of thousands of commoners assaulted London in England’s one and only mass uprising, which included the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Illiterate, uncouth, little more than an animal, the medieval peasant cuts a wretched figure in our imagination … [But the] rising was not the mindless insurrection of brutalized semi-slaves. It was highly organized and carefully prepared.
Though not as revolutionary as all that, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is nevertheless a subversive comedy that wears its political leanings right there on its silly sleeve. It’s a loud, blatting raspberry to the entire concept of heroic mythology, quest literature, and even plot itself.
A few years later, the Pythons would tackle another cherished myth, organized religion and the divinity of Jesus Christ, in Life of Brian. In that same Q&A mentioned above, Cleese says that Life of Brian is the more popular Python film in Britain, while Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the top one among American fans. He doesn’t offer any explanation for this. Maybe it’s because the Arthurian mythos is not nearly so much a part of the American cultural and mental topography as Christianity. Most likely we’ll need to wait until the release of Life of Brian’s 40th anniversary DVD in 2019 to get the answer.