Classic Movie Review: Monty Python's Life of Brian
By Clint Chirpich
August 9, 2016
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.