I loved Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was a teenager. Trying to watch the series again recently I was surprised at how patchy it is, and how poor a lot of the sketches and linking material were - it all seemed completely brilliant when I first saw it. The best way to get into it is probably the first film, And Now For Something Completely Different, a kind of Greatest Hits compilation which gathers the best bits and recreates them on a slightly bigger budget. Being absurdist and surreal, Python depends on surprise for many of its laughs, but the writing and performances are good enough that the best of it still holds up over a surprising number of viewings.
The Flying Circus was an episodic sketch show (with one attempt at a long-form episode). So the move into full length feature films was a big one, and you can see why King Arthur appealed as a narrative washing line on which to peg out a series of comic set-pieces. The loose structure of Arthurian stories is a natural fit for the Pythons, and at least one of the team - Terry Jones - was a mediaevalist. You can sense they know their stuff, and a couple of the episodes, like the Black Knight or Sir Galahad’s awkward night in the Castle of Maidens, feel almost like actual Arthurian tales, just pitched a little tiny bit further into absurdity.
There is not much plot as such: King Arthur and his knights ride around a bit (on their imaginary horses, which is very funny and must also have shaved £££s off the budget). There are a couple of self-contained sketches about how horrible the Middle Ages were - a cart collecting plague victims, a witch trial. The knights arrive at Camelot, prompting a jolly song (‘We’re Knights of the Round Table/Our shows are formidable/But many times we're given rhymes/ That are quite unsing-able…’) which is presumably a jibe at Camelot. Then Arthur has an animated vision of the Holy Grail, and they set off in search of it, facing various comedic side-quests and perils along the way.
The team each play one of the knights and double or treble or quadruple up as everyone else they meet on their quest. Graham Chapman’s posh, befuddled, slightly pompous Arthur is a variation on his posh, befuddled, slightly pompous army officer who kept interrupting the TV show to complain that it was getting silly. Terry Jones and John Cleese do their usual schticks, amusingly enough. Eric Idle and Michael Palin are the best actors. Terry Gilliam plays Arthur’s squire, trotting along behind him with coconut shells and a rickety backpack of luggage. Python-adjacent Neil Innes plays another squire.
There are no women, apart from a brief appearance by Connie Booth as an accused witch, and Carol Cleveland as the leader of the sex-starved maidens who waylay Galahad. If we’re being pedantic, there’s also an old peasant woman who has a couple of lines later on. (It’s strange how, as a teenager, I thought Python and it’s ilk was terribly progressive, as opposed to all that dreadful old sexist stuff from my parent’s generation like the Carry On films. But the Carry On films found leading roles for such funny and talented women as Joan Sims, Hattie Jaques, Barbara Windsor, Patsy Rowlands, Fenella Fielding and Liz Fraser, to name the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Monty Python just had Terry Jones in drag.)
Holy Grail starts strongly, but after about the first thirty minutes (which is roughly the length of a TV episode, probably not coincidentally) it starts to feel a bit aimless and repetitive. This is a film in which a joke where someone who appears to be dying announces that they’re feeling better gets repeated three times, and it doesn’t feel like a deliberate running gag, more as if three versions of the same idea somehow found their way into the screenplay. After the thirty minute mark there is a lot more fourth-wall-breaking: the knights refer to ‘the old man from Scene 24’ and Carol Cleveland looks out of the screen to ask us what we think of her bit - ‘we were awfully worried when the boys were writing it’. And a modern historian appears, doing a piece to camera until he is killed by a passing knight: later scenes are intercut with shots of the police investigating his murder. (Even as a teen I remember thinking the historian was a mistake: the opening half hour worked hard to create its own loony mediaeval world, and the introduction of modern characters punctures it.) The quest continues, but the film has lost momentum and it just becomes one thing after another. To be fair, however, a lot of those things are still very funny, which is obviously what matters most in a comedy.
But everybody knows Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny. If this were a blog about comedy films I'd just praise it's high gags-per-minute ratio and move on. But this is a blog about Arthurian films, so what I want to know is, why does this one colour so many people’s response to things Arthurian nearly half a century later? Why do people who can watch a Western without being reminded of Blazing Saddles, or sit through a thriller without comparing it to The Naked Gun, find themselves incapable of appreciating Perceval le Gallois or Excalibur or The Green Knight ‘because it reminds me of Monty Python’?
Part of the problem is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail just looks too good. Among its many talented members Monty Python included one actual visual genius, Terry Gilliam, and this is his directing debut. (Terry Jones is credited as co-director, along with a surprising number of llamas, but the stuff that catches my eye is so close to the style Gilliam develops in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits that I’m assuming the look of the film must be largely his contribution.)
|Terry Gilliam suffers a fatal heart attack. (He got better.)|
Through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s an alternative vision of the Middle Ages had been starting to displace the familiar Robin Hood/Ivanhoe Hollywood version. Instead of gaily-apparelled knights and minstrels doing their thing in Californian sunshine, an altogether grittier, grimier, more gruesome version of the past took hold. You see it in films like Orson Welles brilliant 1965 Chimes at Midnight, where the climactic battle devolves into a mud-splattered, armoured scrum, and in Polanski’s bleak, blood-soaked Macbeth, and Pasolini’s bawdy Canterbury Tales. You see it it in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. (You probably see it in lots of Eastern European films I’ve never heard of too, and perhaps it owes something to revisionist Westerns, and the Samurai movies of Kurosawa and his contemporaries.) This is the vision that Gilliam (and Jones) tap into to create the world of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and they do it very well, with much use of drifting smoke, rugged landscapes and ragged peasants. But in doing so, they associate this style forever with stupid jokes, so that as soon as people see it they are primed to laugh. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were having fun with genres which were already history: nobody was looking to make classic Westerns or black and white monster movies in 1974. Monty Python and the Holy Grail attacks a cinematic tradition that’s still developing.
And it is an attack. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are affectionate parodies. Mel Brooks is so enamoured of James Whale’s Frankenstein films that Young Frankenstein virtually is one, just done as comedy instead of horror, and it makes you want to watch the originals all over again. Another film I discovered around the same time as Monty Python and the Holy Grail was Woody Allen’s Love and Death, a spoof on War and Peace (and also on other great Russian novels, and Bergman films). I knew nothing about Tolstoy or Bergman when I saw it, but watching it I could sense that that Tolstoy and Bergman would be worth knowing about: Allen is clearly using them as the basis of his gags because he respects them. But if I hadn’t already known King Arthur, I doubt Monty Python and the Holy Grail would have inspired me to learn more. Rather the reverse. Like The Life of Brian after it, it proceeds from the assumption that no one who matters could possibly take this old rubbish seriously any more.
Python doesn’t respect the legends it’s drawing on, because Python doesn’t respect anything. That’s it’s whole deal. It’s bracingly irreverent, but also cynical to the point of nihilism. Beauty, nobility, and any sort of deeper meaning all exist only to be derailed by absurdity. It has a middle class schoolboy's view of the world, in which authority figures are demented and cruel, working class people are stupid and aggressive, women are dim dolly-birds or screeching harridans, sex is weird and dirty, and all human interaction ends in argument, bewilderment, or cartoonish violence. The Gilliam-animated title sequence of Monty Python’s Flying Circus sums up their whole style remarkably well: if you want a vision of Python, imagine a cartoon foot stamping on an elaborate but two-dimensional dream-world forever.
Eventually, Arthur and his knights arrive at ‘the Bridge of Death’. Galahad and Robin fail the test and are pinged off into the abyss, which I always find a bit sad, but nobody in the film cares, because nobody cares about anyone in Python. Arthur and Bedivere get across to find a lake where a dragon-prowed ship awaits to carry them to the Castle of Aaargh where the Grail is supposed to wait. It’s a beautiful image, the ship sailing across the water to the castle, Arthur’s armour gleaming in the misty sunlight. It makes me wish Gilliam in his prime had directed an actual Arthurian film: think what he could have done with Gawain and the Green Knight or The Sword in the Stone.
But it’s an image that exists only to be subverted, so when they get to the castle all they find is some annoying Frenchmen. Arthur assembles a huge army from somewhere to lay siege to the place, but the police turn up and arrest him, and there the film simply stops, with a rozzer placing his hand over the camera lens. It's a literal cop-out, but it's faithful to the spirit of the Flying Circus. Monty Python never bothered much with endings.