by Alexandre Paquin
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail"'s type of humour is not for everyone, but the members of the famous British group are at their best in this send-up of all medieval tales.Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, the six writers and stars of the British Broadcasting Corporation"s television show "Monty Python's Flying Circus", on the air from 1969 to 1974, are unquestioned celebrities in the world of television humour. They were first introduced in North America through a film compilation, "And Now For Something Completely Different" (1971), yet in spite of this prestigious calling card, the American public has always considered the group's peculiar type of humour too quirky. Monty Python's type of humour was typically presented as a series of unconnected sketches inspired by the absurd, and linked together by a few cartoons drawn by Terry Gilliam. While Monty Python's popularity would be diminished with the release of their third and fourth feature films, "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (1979), a deliberate assault on religious beliefs, and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983), in which subjects of disputable taste were treated in a predictably humorous manner, the group developed a cult following over the years, large enough that their old television shows can still be viewed regularly on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. The popularity of the Pythons was such that even though the group officially disbanded in 1974, they re-united for an occasional film or live show until Chapman's death in 1989.
"And now for something not completely different..."
The group's pinnacle was undoubtedly attained in 1975 with the release of their second feature film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a witty send-up of all medieval themes, written by the entire group and directed by Gilliam and Jones. Even though the film is visually splendid and truly captures a medieval atmosphere, it in fact cost a grand total of 229,575 pounds, with rock groups Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin partially paying the bill. Even though some critics despised the film, it was, thanks to the Python fans, a commercial success, to such an extent that it was successfully re-released in a few American cities in 2001 with an extra twenty-four seconds of footage.
Spoofing the medieval genre was easy -- so easy in fact that it is now almost impossible to do it without imitating a previous effort. Over the years, Hollywood had always presented audiences with the same version of the Middle Ages. In it, the gothic elements, which included barbarism and the overwhelming domination of the Catholic Church, were downplayed in favour of a romanticized portrayal, filled with chivalrous knights in armour, damsels in distress, and evil lords. Of course, any medieval film had to include an epic battle or a climactic duel, but no blood was ever shown, and the savagery of the period was carefully sanitized. While violence gradually became acceptable to mainstream audiences from the late 1960's onwards, the medieval era remained surrounded by the pink aura that earlier films had built around it until the mid-1970's. In its non-serious way, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was an early example of a film which detached itself from all the various clichés usually found in the medieval genre while at other times embracing them in order to spoof it with more effectiveness. This is a risky approach: Parodies which are particularly fond of the clichés from which they try to generate laughs often become little more than genteel pastiches of their subject matter, while "serious" historical epics which try to innovate are often dismissed as "unconvincing" or "revisionist". Monty Python found the ideal middle ground: They created a picture-perfect medieval setting from which any epic would take advantage, while constantly refusing to benefit from it by introducing themes that are clearly un-medieval.
For their parody, the Pythons selected the best known medieval tale: the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and among all the stories comprising the legend, the group wisely selected the quest for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail was originally the vessel which the Christ used at the Last Supper, and which was later used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood and the sweat of Jesus on the Cross. As Joseph of Arimathea was believed to have spread Christianity into Britain, it was normal to deduce that he had brought the Grail with him. King Arthur was convinced to try to retrieve the Grail following a vision of it by one of his knights, Sir Galahad. The topic proved particularly suited to the Pythons' type of humour for two reasons.
First, because the quest for the Holy Grail is, mostly, Utopian. Because the existence of the Grail is very much dependent on Christian beliefs, the audience does not expect King Arthur and his valiant knights to find the Grail. The quest for the Grail is, in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a pretext that carries the action forward: the characters spend almost the entire film looking for it, but it is made clear throughout the film, and particularly with the ending, that whether they find it or not is, ultimately, unimportant.
Second, because the Arthurian myths are, as chronicled by various writers since the Middle Ages, mostly based on a collection of various independent tales loosely related to each other (often retelling the adventures of one knight), which the reader would have some difficulty in aligning in a chronological order. This was the approach used by Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d'Arthur, the most famous English-language rendition of the Arthurian myths, and it bears a striking resemblance to the structure used by the Pythons for their television show. No matter how remote the subject of the film might seem, do not be mistaken -- we are in familiar Python territory.
The six members of the Python group play most of the parts in the film, but their most important roles are those of King Arthur (played in a quasi-Shakespearean manner by Graham Chapman) and his Knights of the Round Table: Sir Launcelot the Brave (John Cleese), the wise Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), and Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Launcelot (Eric Idle). After deciding not to go to Camelot, King Arthur's mythical castle, where everyone is apparently too busy tap-dancing, the brave sovereign and his vassals receive a message from God that they should seek the Holy Grail. From there, our valiant knights shall face the most dangerous perils of their life: Sir Robin meets a three-headed giant from whom he bravely runs away, Sir Galahad is trapped in a castle filled with sex-starved virgins, Sir Launcelot gets mixed up in a family business, and King Arthur must confront the terrifying Knights who say "Ni!". These are but a few of the obstacles which King Arthur and his knights would face before hoping to reach the Grail.
In spite of the meager budget and the absurdity of the story (our valiant knights have no horse but a companion who claps coconut shells together to imitate the sound of hooves), the film succeeds in creating a truly medieval atmosphere better than many large-budget productions it parodies. This was achieved by shooting on location (mostly in Scotland), by using an expectedly impressive amount of fog, and by filming all interior scenes inside a single genuine castle from different angles. Additional flavour was provided using cheap props and costumes which nevertheless looked real, for example the two-dimensional plywood replicas of castles seen from a distance, therefore proving that it is possible to create an excellent film on a budget that would make James Cameron snicker.
However, while "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" includes the usual staples made famous by the television show -- including a reference to Spam and John Cleese as an arrogant Frenchman -- the effectiveness of the subject matter wears off one hour into the film when King Arthur and his Knights meet after their individual quests. After this point, the action seems unnecessarily stretched, and although there are a few particularly hilarious moments (particularly the "bridge of death"), the action becomes uninspired, and the Pythons appear as though they are suddenly completely out of water vis-à-vis their topic. The jokes are tired, and instead of belonging to a medieval world, our protagonists seem to be just goofing around in chainmail, with no definite purpose or destination.Monty Python's humour is an acquired taste, and the film, as such, will not satisfy everyone. Some may be disappointed or even enraged by the absurd adventures King Arthur and his Knights get involved in, but there are occasional laughs for everyone, even in the opening credits. The medieval setting remains credible throughout the film, and while many multi-million-dollar pictures tried to create such an atmosphere in vain, the Pythons always try to destroy it deliberately, but nearly always in the most conceivably hilarious manner.
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originally posted: 02/27/02 11:27:40