Friday, October 7, 2011

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

          Inspired lunacy from start to finish, the Monty Python comedy troupe’s first narrative feature is rightfully beloved as one of the funniest movies ever made. Clever, perverse, satirical, silly, and sometimes just playfully deranged, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is ostensibly an adaptation of the King Arthur myth, but it’s really the troupe’s first experiment at stringing their surrealistic sketches together as a (more or less) coherent full-length story. So, while the picture represents a significant moment in cinematic history because it was a milestone in co-director Terry Gilliam’s evolution from the Python’s resident animator to a world-class narrative filmmaker, its real value is as an irresistible laugh machine.
          Any list of unforgettable gags in the picture would go on forever, including brilliant contrivances like Sir Robin’s minstrels (who torment him by describing his cowardice in song), the snotty French soldiers guarding a decrepit castle (which they defend against invading Englishmen by launching a cow with a catapult), the persistent but eventually limbless Black Knight (“It’s only a flesh wound!”), the politically conscious farmers who taunt a visiting king (“Can’t you see him repressing me?”), and, of course, the coconuts the Knights of the Round Table use to simulate the sound of the horses they’re not actually riding.
          Right from the beginning of the picture—when ominous opening-credits music is riotously juxtaposed with bizarre subtitled discursions about llamas, Swedish tourist attractions, and crew members who’ve been sacked—the writer/performers who comprise Monty Python use every tool at their disposal to fill the frame with textual, verbal, and visual jokes so that each scene is jammed with dozens of comedy concepts. Ideas from the fertile minds of Gilliam, co-director Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin spill onto the screen so feverishly that watching Holy Grail is like getting an intravenous feed of their whimsical outlook, which is all to the good.
          Inveterate pranksters who take the piss out of every imaginable authority figure and social structure, the Pythons target everything from the media to monarchy to religion in Holy Grail, though some of their best stuff skewers those who are haplessly opportunistic; a great example is the classic “Bring out your dead!” scene in which corpse collectors aren’t too picky about whether the corpses they’re collecting have actually expired. Not everything in the picture is satire, of course, because many of the most heart-stoppingly funny moments in Holy Grail are unhinged non sequiturs, like the killer rabbit that causes one of the Knights of the Round Table to “soil his armor” (twice).
          The lore about Gilliam’s and Jones’ ingenuity is well-known, because the pair worked wonders with minimal resources, accentuating evocative costumes and grubby locations over the pricier production values they couldn’t afford, and, as in all Python projects, the gang saved a bundle by casting themselves in multiple roles. It’s hard to say which Python deserves the MVP prize, but a case could be made for Cleese, whose character roster includes the Black Knight, Sir Lancelot, and the Taunting French Guard—one should not challenge the virtuosity of the man who memorably threatens to “fart in your general direction.”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: OUTTA SIGHT

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