Viking Night: Monty Python's Life of Brian
By Bruce Hall
January 25, 2017
The “mistaken identity” trope doesn’t get used in nearly as often as it should. It’s given us a treasure trove of material, spanning many different story types and varying levels of quality. For example, on one end of the spectrum I’ll cite North by Northwest and The Big Lebowski. These are two very different film experiences, both of which I think we’ll all agree turned out pretty well. The room may prove more divided on John Woo’s Face/Off and the Wayans brothers in White Chicks. Both movies have their apologists, and because we (as of this writing) live in a free country, I respect their God-given right to be wrong.
Although to be fair, I am willing to cut Face/Off some slack. Despite being a terrible movie, it is paradoxically one of the greatest things that has ever happened. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta play mortal enemies who, for reasons that are stupid, switch faces. To this day, that remains the best idea for a movie that I have ever heard. The finished product was a steaming pile of dog vomit, but I don’t want to get too far off track. My point is that a case of mistaken identity can sometimes be an organic device that adds depth and intrigue to your story.
Or it can just be an excuse for two of the world’s biggest weirdos to spend a couple of hours setting off explosives and doing hilariously inaccurate impressions of one another. And as for White Chicks, I’m actually sorry I brought it up. Like I said, there are a lot of ways to approach this kind of story.
So obviously, when Monty Python’s Life of Brian takes a crack at this well-worn cliché, it does so entirely on its own terms. For those of you not familiar with Monty Python, I would remind you that 99 percent of ISIS recruits are also not familiar with Monty Python, so just think about what kind of company you’re keeping. Also, it’s the movie where the guy who was Jesus Christ’s next door neighbor gets mistaken for the Messiah.
Well, imagine that as the baby Jesus was born, in the stable right next door, so too was Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman). Just like the Christs, the Cohens live under Roman occupation. If you didn’t sleep through ninth grade history, you’ll remember that this was both a good and bad thing. When the Romans rolled into your town, they brought with them running water, education, healthcare, entertainment and agriculture. On the down side, their preferred methods of dealing with dissent all involved torture and death. And then, usually, more torture.
Because of this, Jesus grows up to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Brian grows up to be an aimless romantic, content to watch the world change from the sidelines. This is what he’s doing as the Book of Mark unfolds before him; standing on the fringe of the crowd, along with a bickering group of intellectuals. More or less oblivious to both the sermon and the argument next to him, Brian eventually trucks off to his day job, a vendor of assorted viscera at gladiator games. I don’t know how much you got paid to sell badger spleens back in Ancient Times, but it doesn’t look like enough.