The key to a successful spoof is in the complete understanding of the genre being lampooned (Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein being perfect examples of this concept), but the greatest achievement in this area is none other than Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which the Python gang set their sights on the self-importance and pomposity of the Arthurian legend. For decades Hollywood had been giving audiences lavish spectacles of knights in armour fighting over beautifully clad damsels, extolling the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. So in 1975, it was a perfect time for five Brits and an American to take the piss out of the whole thing.
Having found success on television with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Pythoners decided to take a stab at the big screen with a movie called And Now for Something Completely Different, which was basically a collection of their best sketches. Then the idea of a knight miming he was riding a horse while a trusted servant would knock together coconuts, to mimic a horse’s clomping sound, slowly grew into a feature film. As was the case in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the members of this comedy troupe assumed numerous roles — with Michael Palin playing 12 characters while animator and co-director Terry Gilliam popped up as several bizarre incarnations — but the chief roles were that of King Arthur (Graham Chapman), Lancelot (John Cleese), Sir Bedivere (Terry Jones), Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) and Sir Robin the Brave (Eric Idle) as they romped across Britain — though filmed in Scotland — in their quest for the Holy Grail.
Though Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a departure from the random sketch aspect found on their television show, with the Holy Grail having a core central theme and not being just a collection of favourite bits, the movie still relied heavily on that familiar sketch format. The film’s basic story was that of the Search for the Holy Grail, but that was really only the framework to which the Pythoners could then attach various medieval-themed sketches. Arthur and company would confront some stereotypical rude French knights who, when asked if they wished to join the quest for the Holy Grail, claim, “We’ve already got one,” and led to Arthur’s skirmish with the Black Knight — “No man shall pass” — as well as Sir Bedivere trying to save Connie Booth from being burned alive as a witch. Then there was Sir Robin avoiding a fight with a Three-Headed Knight by bravely running away, while Sir Galahad the Chaste was being lured into Castle Anthrax by a bevy of nubile and amorous young ladies. Arthur and Bedivere receive an uncomfortable challenge from the Knights Who Say Ni! in the form of “Bring us a shrubbery,” and Lancelot has an over-enthusiastic rescue of someone he thought to be a lady being forced to marry against her will. We also get some nice bits of animation by Terry Gilliam that adds an extra bit of fantasy to the world on display here.
• I would have loved dearly to have seen the Python version of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, with perhaps Terry Jones as Guinevere.
• Graham Chapman’s stolid and dignified performance as King Arthur is what grounds the comedy.
• The brutal and bloody sword fighting in this movie is more accurate than the dozen or so Hollywood films about the Middle Ages that preceded it.
• Monty Python and the Holy Grail wonderfully depicts the time period as being an unpleasant and much-filled world.
• Though we do get John Cleese as “Tim the Enchanter,” there is no Merlin in this Arthurian tale.
If the film is said to have a weakness it would be in the ending, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail doesn’t really have one; at least, not a fully satisfactory one. The film was originally scripted to have King Arthur and his knights discovering the Holy Grail in Harrod’s Department Store — “They have everything here” — but this idea was abandoned when the focus of the film shifted from consisting of fifty percent Middle Ages and fifty percent Modern Times to being one hundred percent about its medieval setting. We still get a “Famous Historian” being killed by a passing Lancelot, whose wife immediately notifies the local constabulary, but that was just to set up for the entire cast being arrested by the police at the end of the film as if they were nothing but a bunch of crazed Ren fair enthusiasts.
That all said, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is still one of the funniest films ever made and though its bizarre sensibilities may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to deny this movie being a comedy classic. If you don’t laugh throughout this movie, you may want to see a doctor as it’s possible you are missing a sense of humour.
If one is looking for a laugh-filled journey through the world of Arthurian folklore, there are certainly worse tour guides than the men of Monty Python, and I would stack this film up against many of the other so-called “prestige pictures” that take on the same subject matter. If it’s not the greatest comedy of all time, it’s certainly one of the most quotable.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Movie Rank - 8/10
When it comes to Python films my favourite has always been Monty Python and the Life of Brian but close on its heels is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and though it may suffer a little from its “non-ending” one can not dispute the sheer amount of laughs to found within its 90-minute running time.