By Scott Ross
Movie comedy, at least in America, has gone through some interesting permutations. Silent comedies let mayhem loose on society but the basic, conservative social structure was maintained and returned to at the end, even by Chaplin, whose Tramp was otherwise deeply outside the prevailing social norm. It took the sound comedians — the Marx Brothers especially but also W.C. Fields, and even Mae West — to unleash anarchy at the movies. When the Production Code Administration stepped in, its ostensible reason for censorship was sex (and West in particular) but it’s notable that comedy itself got tamed; with the Marxes further neutered by MGM, if you wanted a touch of unrepentant anarchy in your comedy you were pretty much left with the Three Stooges. It took another 40 years to see a re-emergence of the anarchic spirit at the cinema, and it didn’t last long this time either: Aside from the Pythons, Ken Shapiro’s The Groove Tube (1974) and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) there were few other takers, and the brief re-emergence of plotless, anarchic comedy pretty much died with those pictures. (Although you can if you like stretch the period to include Python’s 1983 The Meaning of Life and the 1980 Z/A/Z Airplane!) There seems to be something innately reactionary in American movie audiences that needs to see the old conservative values upheld by the fade-out; even the relatively unfettered Mel Brooks routinely gave us happy endings. Not so the Pythons who, if they hated anything more than punch-lines it was surely warm wrap-ups. Of course, that can lead you up a pretty dim alley sometimes, and it says something fundamental that only one Monty Python movie (Life of Brian) has a strong finale. The others tend to just trickle away: Good-night, folks.
The Holy Grail comes on strong from the opening credits (Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretti nasti…) and the first scene, in which Graham Chapman’s King Arthur and his servant Patsy (Terry Gilliam) appear without mounts but with coconut halves. (That’s how you make a virtue of not having the budget for horses.) It’s all scattershot, and not every joke lands. But most of them do — some are among the funniest bits in post-War comedy — and there are almost no longeurs; the only extended sequence that isn’t especially funny (“The Tale of Sir Lancelot”) is still engaging, especially for Terry Jones as a wan, ashen, dim, lethargic, spotty and almost indeterminately feminine prince with a desire to sing who turns the damsel-in-distress fable on its head. The occasional Neil Innes songs are wonderful, and Terry Bedford’s rich cinematography, coupled with the authentic-looking costumes (Hazel Pethig) and physical production (Roy Smith), make the picture both better looking than most comedies of the period and, deliberately, worse, by design. Not for Python the gleaming towers and scrubbed interiors of Hollywood’s Technicolor® Middle Ages — Eric Idle’s collector of the dead is able to identify Arthur as a king only because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”
It’s often said that true satire cannot exist in a vacuum, and the Marx Brothers are trotted out to prove the theory; a criticism sometimes leveled against Dr. Strangelove is that, while the Marxes bounce their insanity off the stuffily sensible, the Kubrick picture has no sane character at its center with whom the audience can identify. But who would want to identify with Margaret Dumont? And in a world seemingly gone collectively insane, and in which those running the show are madder than the lunatics committed to our asylums, exactly where can that normative figure be found? On this basis Candide, possibly the greatest of all literary satires, is also a failure, for if Candide himself seems saner than the people around him, his absolute belief in a philosophical system that repeatedly betrays, robs and abuses him makes him the maddest inmate in the world. In the Python world, similarly, it’s simply assumed that there is no underlying sanity. The troupe’s motto seemed to be, If we were sane, could we live like this? Consequently, they all behave as though they’ve been bitten by moose.
The chain-mail headgear John Cleese wears as Sir Lancelot makes you aware of just how classically handsome his face was in the ’70s; with his square jaw and straight, sharp nose, he could almost pass for an insipid young matinee idol — at least until he speaks, or screws up his eyes, or gets that hilariously blank look which, along with his bellowing mania, is his particular comic specialty. His best roles, however, are as the taunting French knight (“Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?”) and the Scots enchanter, Tim, of whom even Chapman’s Arthur notes. “What an eccentric performance!” Idle is an amusingly cowardly Sir Robin and, later, a vacuously smiling castle guard, Michael Palin funniest as the leader of the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, an anarcho-syndicalist peasant and one side of a three-headed giant, and Chapman cuts a dashing figure as Arthur. Although he got fewer of the script’s good lines, he has a memorable verbal shtick: Faced with outrage, being pelted with a catapulted cow, a killer rabbit or a rain of ordure he inevitably screams “Jesus Christ!” In the context of Arthur’s quest for the goblet Christ allegedly drank from at the Last Supper, that’s an hilariously blasphemous exclamation. The Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, perhaps because they were busy directing, had less to do than the others, although Gilliam has a great bit as a bridgekeeper and, aside from the prince, Jones plays the “learned” Sir Bedevere, constantly and superfluously raising the open visor of his helmet and dispensing idiotic “scientific” advice.
There are so many sequences in the picture that have attained a classic status (The Black Night, the witch trial, the French knights, the “Camelot” song and dance, The Nights Who Say “Ni!”, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Gorge of Eternal Peril, Gilliam’s frequent animations based on Medieval tapestry) that watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail now is akin to listening to a “Greatest Hits” album — you perk up whenever you get to a favorite scene or bit of comic business, then settle back in to wait for the next. But it’s the same with seeing Monkey Business or Duck Soup, and no Marx fan complains about that.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross