It’s 40 years since the Pythons’ take on the Arthurian legend was released. Mickey Noonan revisits the cult classic, but will it get a “Yay!” or a “Ni!”?
What and why: It was a proud day in medieval history A-level (shut up, we learned loads of important life lessons*) when we convinced Mr Graham that Monty Python and the Holy Grail should be part of the syllabus. Or at least our syllabus.
Set in 932 AD, the Pythons’ 1975 movie (considered their first film proper) follows King Arthur and his gallant Knights of the Round Table’s misadventures as they seek the Holy Grail amid mud, mist, mad foes, comely wenches and some armour-clad French tossers.
Shot on a shoestring budget and with the Terrys Jones and Gilliam sharing directing duties, the daft imaginations of Messrs Chapman, Cleese, Palin, Idle, Jones and Gilliam were sorely put to the test. Coconut halves clippety-clopped together instead of horses? They couldn’t afford horses. Patsy’s observation that Camelot is “just a model”. It was just a model, as there were no funds for different locations, meaning they relied on two castles for every shot. And there are a lot of castle shots.
Chapman was in the depths of his alcoholism, and suffering acrophobia, forgetfulness and trembling. The sole camera broke on the first day of filming with no cash for another.
Somehow, thank the gods of comedy and some financial input from Led Zep, Pink Floyd and Genesis, they got it made. The cult classic turns 40 today and, in celebration, a lot of places are showing it on the big screen – which is bound to make the killer rabbit of Caerbannog an even more terrifying proposition.
Rated or dated: It is epic nonsense. From the faux pre-movie Dentist on the Job to the opening dour moose/party llamas credits to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh right through to our heroes’ abrupt arrest by modern-day coppers, the Pythons do not rest in their quest for relentless and glorious silliness. It is a brilliant tapestry of one-liners, slapstick and non-sequiturs that just about keeps an eye on the story at its heart.
Michael Palin takes on 12 characters, Graham Chapman four, and the other Pythons various numbers in-between. Highlights, of which there are way too many to list, include:
• Palin’s constitutional peasant, Dennis, who tears a strip off Arthur and is basically Jeremy Corbyn covered in filth.
• The Knights Who Say Ni (led by a gloriously eye-rolling Palin) and their outrageous demands for a delightful garden.
• Idle’s dim-witted guard who can’t get his orders straight.
• Cleese’s indomitable Black Knight, who refuses to back down even when he’s just a torso (“You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to ya! I’ll bite your legs off!”).
“Must be a king. He hasn’t got shit all over him.”
“You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ‘cos some watery tart threw a sword at you!”
“Look you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left.”
“’Tis but a scratch!”
“I wave my private parts at your aunties.”
“We want… a shrubbery!”
And “Ni! Ni! Ni!” Obviously. At volume. On repeat. Until you’re asked to leave Tesco.
The attention to comedy detail is phenomenal; all conceivable gags are wrung from every situation. Background characters beat dusty cats against walls or try to catch fish by hitting them with a log. There are numerous call-backs, including people who aren’t quite dead yet and discussions on the African/European swallows. Time has not diminished The Holy Grail’s ridiculous charm and this scene, where Lancelot takes a run-up, still makes me nearly shit a lung, laughing.
In hindsight, watching the film probably did bugger all to help me get that solid C, but for a class of 17-year-olds, it was an A* introduction to the comedy legends and what the word ‘irreverent’ really means (also see Life of Brian). Oh, and the start of a lot of taunts involving farting, hamsters and elderberries. Thppppbbbb. RATED.
*such as: never force a coffin lid down on a fat, bloated corpse; it will explode and the stench will be unbearable. See William the Conqueror’s funeral.4291 Views
Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.