"On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. It is a silly place." - King Arthur
Director: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Writer: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Principal cast members:
Much of the filming looks like it was done in one take on a shoestring budget. The costumes look like they were assembled by shopping heavily in the scratched and dented section of a hardware store. The special effects could have been cobbled together by a high school chemistry department. The story, such as it is, looks like a collection of somewhat theme-related scenes out of a sketch comedy show.
Well, it's no wonder this is a comedy classic.
The troop of insanity-laden comic writers known as Monty Python were rising to the peak of their hip popularity by 1975. First the British and then North Americans were getting wise to their bizarre show. Monty Python's Flying Circus was a unique television program consisting of sketches, weird animation sequences, and usually some barely tenuous connecting thread that tied it all together in episodic fashion. Their first feature film did not deviate one bit from the format of their series. The topic they chose to thematically skewer was the decidedly classic British legend of King Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail.
It is rather amazing, in retrospect, that this film got made. The Pythons really didn't have the money to pull it off. They relied heavily on funding from the rock band Pink Floyd who were fans of their show. The script was so disjointed and inconsistent it is hard to call it a narrative in any true sense. Individually, the troupe knew they had a lot of funny scenes but putting them together into a funny film was something that relied heavily on the skills of the American animator in their group, Terry Gilliam. Gilliam, it seems, understands innately how to take disparate pieces and turn them into a cohesive story. Mind you, he had a tough batch of pieces to make cohesive in this case, but he did a decent job.
Despite all the technical flaws, and there are very, very many, Holy Grail remains one of the most beloved and quotable comedy films of all time. The insanity begins during the opening credits that lapse into Swedish subtitles and the bizarre subtext involving a moose. Before long, we are immersed in a world in which the Arthurian legends all come to life in a bizarre and twisted way. We have 'horses' that consist of servants banging coconuts together. We have a persistent black knight who fights on, even having been dismembered. We have French knights living in the British countryside peppering their noble English visitors with outrageously accented insults. Before the film is over, peasants are questioning the feudal system, witches are being dragged off to be burnt, soldiers are being crushed by gigantic wooden rabbits, and bizarre old men are shooting fireballs and guarding bridges. Honestly, it is one of the most eclectically bizarre comedies of all time and it is exactly what you would expect if you were a regular watcher of Flying Circus.
Like all Python projects, the six principal actors play multiple roles in the various sketches. Michal Palin, in fact, appears as 12 different characters during the film and his infant son even gets a cameo. Normally, Python sketches feature the male members in drag to play the female roles, but in this case, the troupe actually sprang for female actors. Carol Cleveland and Connie Booth, who would work with the Pythons numerous times over the years, add significantly to their particular scenes.
Without a doubt, there is an aura of cheapness to everything about the film. This is just the nature of the work the troupe was doing in the mid-seventies. They worked on a tight budget and they freely recognized that they weren't master filmmakers. But a great deal of the charm of their work lies in that home-made feel and without question they were six of the finest comic writers of their time, or any time. Python humor is so bizarre, so farcical, and so … unexpected, they are hard to resist. Even now, when a PBS pledge drive comes on and shows Holy Grail, even the most donation-less watchers tend to tune in and stay there right through the money-begging interruptions.
Which is perhaps the truest of all tributes to their genius.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 8