Anyone who knows me knows that my sense of humour has been long shaped by the Monty Python guys. One of my very first memories was being sat in front of the TV, watching Fawlty Towers with my parents, and it wasn’t too long after that that I was introduced to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. First, via And Now For Something Completely Different and then by the rest of the movies (oddly enough, I didn’t actually see the full run of the show proper until the late 80’s). Needless to say, once I had a DVD player, I soon enough bought the entirety of the Python filmed catalogue.
Out of all the Python product that I own, there is one that I can go back to again and again, and laugh like an idiot, and that is today’s film. In my opinion, one of the funniest films ever made: Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
To me, this is the perfect example of a comedy film. No matter how many times you watch it, no matter how easy you can quote it, no matter how ingratiated into the pop culture landscape it has become – it remains as it should be, hilarious. And, believe me, this film is as much a part of the pop culture landscape as much, if not more, than anything else that Monty Python have come up with.
This really is one of those films that has transcended its genre and makers to really become part of not only nerd pop culture, but mainstream pop culture too. Even people who have not seen the film are aware of such things as The Black Knight, Coconut Horses, French Taunters, Camelot (“It’s only a model”), The Knights Who Say “Ni!” and Killer Rabbits (with nasty, big pointy teeth). And here is where they all come from. But, even above those well known parts, there is so much more – and it is so ingrained in my comedy psyche, to the point where I could probably quote the entire film to you. Please don’t ask me to do that though, I would like to retain some small sliver of coolness.
The plot, in a nutshell – a comic retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Search For The Holy Grail. King Arthur (“I didn’t vote for ya!”) is charged with a holy task, and so gathers the noblest and most valiant knights of the land to help him. Along the way, they run into all manner of not at all helpful people (ranging from the rude to the insane to the downright mad to the Old Man From Scene 24). Do they eventually reach their goal? I think we can all answer that one, because – let’s face it, Arthur and his men aren’t exactly the smartest themselves.
What you notice about this film is, right from the start it’s dripping with the same level of inspired lunacy that one would expect from Monty Python (and teaches you all about the dangers of moose). From there, it just gets sillier and more awesome, moving almost immediately into a quasi-scientific discussion about swallows and their migration patterns in regards to coconut distribution. After that, it’s an argument about class systems with a couple of very belligerent peasants. Following this is the very well known battle with The Black Knight (who’s had worse). And then, the meeting of Sir Bedevere and a lesson on how one can discern witches from other things (they do not weigh the same as very small rocks, or gravy), and others, including the aptly named Sit Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. And, of course, Camelot (where they eat ham and jam and spam a lot). And all this before the quest has even been handed down from the most Terry Gilliam god ever.
Speaking of Gilliam, to me this is probably his best work, in terms of his cut and paste art additions. Mainly, because I am a huge fan of Illuminated Manuscripts and that is where the lion’s share of the art has been influenced by, if not outright comes from (at least until the artist has an enormous heart attack and dies).
It’s not the big, well-known and well-quoted parts of this film that crack me up the most, though (although, they do consistently crack me up). There is one line that always wrecks me – during the first run-in with the French Taunters, after being taunted mercilessly, Sir Galahad asks (with all the innocence in the world, in the face of these belligerent, juvenile idiots) “Is there someone else up there we can talk to?” Just the level of sheer hopefulness imbued in that one line is the funniest thing ever to me.
Following defeat at the hands of the French Taunters, the knights decide to split up and end up all running into not very helpful at all people. From Sir Robin and his brave running the hell away from a three headed giant, to Sir Galahad’s run in with a cadre of very silly named naughty young ladies and their grail shaped beacon (GET ON WITH IT!), to Sir Lancelot’s misconstrued maiden rescuing adventure – it seems that everyone in medieval England was just insane or stupid (and, yes, even the insane and stupid have those even more insane and stupid to deal with). Why, even King Arthur himself has a run in with the hideous Knights Who Say “NI!” and their demand for a sacrifice (“We want...A SHRUBBERY!”) and then just get even sillier.
For those who haven’t seen anything of Python, two things – first, why not? And second, the troupe play basically all the main roles in any of their performances themselves, regardless of gender (a trope that goes back Shakespeare). Granted, Holy Grail has a lot of roles not played by the boys, even a couple that one could construe as being main roles; but each member of the round table (as well as several other roles, not laden by armour) is played by a Python. And, as is the Python way – no matter how loony things get, it is all played with a strange level of seriousness. And seriousness is what one should have when attempting good satire, which is what is missing from garbage like those Movie Movies. That is why people think fondly on things like Mel Brookes’ movies, like the later career of Leslie Nielsen, like Python. Satirists all, but no matter how crazy the situations were or how satirical the situations, they all played things with a level of seriousness, and allowed the viewers to work the humour out for themselves.
Like I said, this is one of the most perfect examples of a comedy film that I can think of – eminently quotable, always hilarious and covered in a sense of outright fun.