Viking Night: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
By Bruce Hall
October 16, 2012
Is there anything I can tell you about this movie that you don't already know? I'm sure you've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail - as have I - about 30 times, and there is little need for me to tell you of its greatness. Even those who have never seen it have heard of it, and it is their suspicion of it that even now, keeps them from reading this article. For you see, most people fear what they do not understand, and most people don't understand things that are silly. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the finest comedies of all time.
This is mainly because it's very, very silly.
Think back to ninth Grade English, when your teacher made you read all that boring Shakespeare and Chaucer. You wanted to ditch class and catch an afternoon showing of Top Gun but no, the stupid Vice Principal caught you and made you go back to class. And there you sat, listening to stories about stupid King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. You remember their names: Arthur, the King. Lancelot the Brave. Galahad the Pure. Bedevere the Wise, And of Course, Sir Robin the not Quite so Brave as Lancelot. Their quest was to retrieve the Holy Grail, used by Christ at the Last Supper. It took place in Jerusalem, which is the most obvious reason why it needed to be brought to England.
It's on this legend that the Python troupe based their film. Directed by either Terry Gilliam or Terry Jones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a little different from what you learned in school. Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his squire Patsy (Gilliam) scour the English countryside looking for knights to join the Court of Camelot, destined by God Almighty Himself to retrieve the Grail to England…for some reason. Things don't go well at first. Everyone Arthur encounters is either an insubordinate idealist or a grim faced proletariat swelling with futuristic dreams of an egalitarian state. And that's not me being too cool for school. That's how everyone speaks to their King.
Monty Python are towering figures in the world of ironic humor and in that regard, they're lucky to be from a country that's old enough to provide an endless supply.
Arthur eventually collects his Knights, and receives his task from God. They split up and set out for the Grail, against such foes as Snooty Frenchmen, insolent minstrels, three headed knights, the horrors of Castle Anthrax, killer rabbits, and more. You don't have to be intimately familiar with Arthurian Legend to get a laugh out of this. The Pythons deliver witty, highbrow humor in such easily accessible ways that anyone with a little patience should be able to laugh not just once, or twice, but all the way through the film. It's a classic, epic adventure told with a smirking twist and a low budget, and with a healthy respect for the things that make almost anyone laugh.
That would be a healthy dose of simple irony, inventive but largely inoffensive sight gags, funny songs, clever use of double entendre and the sort of easy charm with which anyone could make friends with anybody at any party. The Pythons are resourceful, too, as there was precious little money available for this film. Discerning use of miniatures and low budget visual effects goes for great comic effect, and the threadbare production lends itself well to the script's deprecating wit. When they famously were unable to afford horses, the Pythons resorted to banging coconuts together and skipping in front of the camera. It sounds bad, but it's one of the film's defining characteristics and in retrospect, the use of actual horses would have gutted the film of a lot of humor. It's often rare coincidences like this that turn good films into great ones.
When I said Holy Grail is "silly", I wasn't using my own words. The goal of the film is good natured tomfoolery with a dash of intellectualism thrown in almost by accident. All the cast members play multiple roles, which is a python Hallmark, partly because it's what they do and partly because they didn't have any money. And in the hands of a professional, it's effective not only from a comedic standpoint (I'll always pay money to watch John Cleese argue with himself) but from a thematic one as well. There is no way you will find yourself emotionally invested in these characters or their quest, but watching the Pythons duel each other (and themselves) across multiple roles - often in the same scene - will surreptitiously endow you with great affection for the story. It's easy to love the acting when you love the actor.
Just ask Samuel L. Jackson.
Still, I guess I have to do my part to dispel the popular myth that everything the Pythons do is gold. For every legendary sketch they produced, there were two lousy ones. And I'd say their other two original films are an acquired taste closer to the first time you tried coffee, rather than ice cream. Then again, most people kind of like coffee, or at least they seem to tolerate it. And so it is with the Pythons. Holy Grail is the sort of winking humor even your mother might enjoy, which reminds me of a joke I'd like to tell, but I have been told this isn't that kind of website. My point is that this is one of the most consistently, uniformly funny things the Pythons ever created and if you're new to them, it's the one thing I'd suggest you see.
Either you come away with the understanding that an African swallow could probably carry a coconut, while a European one could not, or you don't. That's as much as I can help you.