My education into the Monty Python universe continues. Now I've seen all their films - I found The Holy Grail to be very enjoyable, but not fantastic or anything, and hated The Meaning of Life - and a few of their specials, but Life of Brian is, by far, my favorite.
Classic Movie Review: Monty Python's Life of Brian
By Clint Chirpich
August 9, 2016
Most of my reviews don't contain spoilers, but this one does. Since it's been 37 years and it's a comedy where particular plot points aren't that important, I'm hoping that's okay. In any case, you've been warned.
Unlike their other films, Life of Brian has a rather traditional structure - the narrative runs through the entire film - and I think that immensely helps the film. It's just so much more cohesive and consistent in quality.
The plot follows Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a baby born on the same day as Jesus Christ - and even briefly confused for Jesus by the Three Wise Men, who are one manger away from their goal - and who grows up to be an idealistic young man in opposition to the Roman occupation of Judea. Brian eventually joins the "People's Front of Judea" in an effort to drive out the Romans but only succeeds in accidentally convincing people he's the Messiah, despite his best efforts to dissuade them.
Life of Brian contains so many hilarious moments, lines of dialogue, and sight gags that I think it'd be impossible to catch everything on just one viewing. Before writing this review I rewatched the film - for the second time in as many months - and loved it even more this time.
I'd be hard pressed to pick any one moment as my favorite, as there are just too many to choose from, but some of my favorites include almost any scene with Brian's overbearing and mouthy mother (Terry Jones, in very unconvincing drag), all of the scenes with the People's Front of Judea (led by John Cleese and Michael Palin), the ex-leper (Palin again), the stoning (featuring Cleese and John Young), the Sermon on the Mount's audience scuffle, and the evolution of a Messiah, where Brian accidentally starts his own religion. I could easily name another five or ten scenes that I adored, but I'll stop there. In fact, there's only one scene - where Brian nearly falls to his death, but lands in a passing by alien spacecraft - that I didn't enjoy. That part lasts maybe a minute or two, so for the rest of the 90 minutes, the film is practically flawless.
The main strengths of Life of Brian - like any Monty Python production - are the writing and performances. The screenplay here, written by the troupe as a whole, is filled with hilarious lines of dialogue, interesting and memorable characters, and a terrific plot that satirizes not only religious ideology but also political issues. While The Holy Grail felt like a loosely connected series of sketches, Life of Brian feels like a proper film - with a clear beginning, middle, and end - and while all of the Pythons play multiple roles, a lot of the characters reoccur throughout the whole film.
Graham Chapman is perfect in the title role of Brian. His ability to shine as the "straight" man is proven time and time again, but he also gets to let loose in several different parts. One of my favorite parts of the film is a series of scenes where Brian accidentally starts a new religious movement and his followers soon crown him the new Messiah. Chapman sells every reaction - Brian is both incredulous and exasperated by his newfound popularity - and when the crowd of followers chases after him, I was laughing out loud. At the end of the chase, Brian literally stumbles upon a man (Terry Jones) who has taken a vow of silence. The ensuing confrontation is pure comedy gold.
In my research after watching Life of Brian, I learned Chapman - a long suffering but mostly functional alcoholic - so wanted to play the lead role that he sobered up for the first time in years and then, after production was finished, he stayed sober - for the rest of his life. Not only am I grateful he was able to overcome his demons and deliver a stellar comedic performance but I think it's amazing Chapman was able to stay sober after struggling with the addiction for so long. It wouldn't be untrue to say that Life of Brian changed Chapman's life. Ah, the power of film!
John Cleese desperately wanted to play the role of Brian, but the rest of the troupe thought Chapman was the better choice and wanted Cleese’s formidable talents used in several other important roles throughout the film. Cleese might have been disappointed at the time, but this was the right decision, and I can't imagine the film turning out as good any other way. Cleese is just so damn funny in so many different roles - from the High Priest presiding over a stoning to the Centurion of the Yard to Reg, the bickering and bureaucratic leader of the People's Front of Judea. Cleese plays a few other very minor roles, but these three are the largest of the film and each is wonderfully funny and memorable. Reg, especially, delighted me in each scene he appeared. Cleese's ability to speak so swiftly served him well as the leader of this group of self-righteous idiots. The "What have the Romans ever done for us" bit is hilarious and Cleese is a big part of the appeal.
Michael Palin may be my favorite member of Monty Python and he gets some great moments to shine in Life of Brian, including as the prominent and oft-quoted character Pontius Pilate. Palin's Pilate has a bit of a speech impediment and has a difficult time pronouncing words with "r's" in them, which leads to a lot of confusion and laughs at his expense. In reference to one such scene, you can go online and easily order a t-shirt, cap, or mug with Palin's visage and the message "Welease Bwian" on it. Pilate is the definition of a memorable character. Palin's charm is used to terrific effect as the ex-leper, a man who was cured (off screen) by Jesus, but now finds himself without any marketable skills for employment. The way Palin prances around, begging for change and then getting upset about the small amount he's given is just perfect. Palin also plays Francis, a member of the People's Front of Judea, and has a few great moments sparring with Cleese there, as well.
Eric Idle, as usual, is funny, quick-witted, and charming in Life of Brian. Like everyone else, Idle gets to play several memorable characters, including Mr. Cheeky - a man who just can't keep his mouth shut, no matter the trouble it causes him - and Stan - a member of the People's Front of Judea who just wants to be a woman - but Idle's most memorable moment in the film comes at the very end, when a large group of people is being crucified. As Brian complains about his fate, Idle's character turns to him and launches into a joyous, upbeat, and insanely catchy song - "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." I've read that the troupe didn't have any idea of how to end the film - in their own words, they were "always bad at endings" - but Idle was stuck with the idea of ending with a song. It's the perfect way to end a film like this and Idle's musical talents as a writer and a singer have never been better.
In Life of Brian, as in most Monty Python productions, Terry Gilliam is the least utilized member of the troupe. He plays mostly small, unimportant roles, but does have one memorable part - as a seemingly mentally handicapped Roman jailor. In addition to his small acting contribution, Gilliam was also responsible for the film's set design and two animated sequences. The first, the opening credits, is well done and entertaining. The second, the aforementioned alien spaceship sequence, is by far the worst part of the film and, like I said, the only part that doesn't fit the style or feel of the rest of the film. I have no idea how the Pythons write - I assume it's a group effort, with everyone throwing out ideas and working together to sculpt the plot and dialogue - so Gilliam might have had a large influence on the script, but judging just based on what we see onscreen, I think Life of Brian might have turned out better with Gilliam not being involved at all, which pains me to say since I like the man and love several of his directorial efforts.
The last member of Monty Python, Terry Jones, not only played the previously mentioned parts of Brian's mother, Mandy, and the naked, silent devout man, but also a couple other minor characters. Mandy is a wonderful character and Jones' fake falsetto voice is a big part of her charm. One of the film's most iconic scenes is when Mandy confronts the crowd of people following Brian and informs them "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!"
In addition to acting in the film, Jones also directed Life of Brian. There's nothing especially flashy about his direction, but everything is handled in a competent and sure-handed way. In a movie like this, the director's most important job is managing the actors and ensuring they have the best possible atmosphere to work in. Jones definitely did that here and you can tell because the cast has never performed better.
Life of Brian was filmed in several Middle East countries, but the majority was done in Tunisia and used some of the sets from the big-budget miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth. The look of the film greatly benefited from the locations and sets and I doubt it would have turned out nearly as well if they had to entirely create their own sets. The production was done on a very small budget - only $2 million - and had already been rescued after the original backers pulled out by, of all people, George Harrison. The former Beatle was a huge Monty Python fan and said he'd put up the money "just to see the film." That's a dedicated fan! Of course, Life of Brian was a big hit and I'm sure Harrison ended up making quite a bit of money in the long run.
Before the film even debuted, Life of Brian was stirring up controversy and outrage among the religious. It was banned in many British cities and several countries across the world for being sacrilegious, blasphemous, promoting heresy, and other such claims from people who aren't confident enough in their own beliefs to take a joke. The Pythons used the outrage in their marketing campaign, such as in Sweden, where they put up posters with the tagline "So funny, it was banned in Norway!"
Life of Brian has attained "classic" status in the years since it's released and has often placed very highly on lists and surveys but doesn't seem to have the reputation that The Holy Grail does. I think that's a shame. For me, Life of Brian is not only the best and funniest Monty Python film but one of the best comedies ever.
I look forward to many more viewings over the years, where Life of Brian will no doubt join the ranks of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Dr. Strangelove as films I can quote most of the lines from, well before they're spoken in the film.