Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

This was originally posted at Wonders in the Dark for their comedy countdown.

by Jaime Grijalba.

“Wi not trei a holiday in Sweden this yër? See the loveli lakes. The wonderful telephone system. And mani interesting furry animals. Including the majestik moose. A moose once bit my sister… No realli! She was Karving her initials on the moose with the sharpened end of an insterpace toothbrush given her by Svenge – her brother-in-law -an Oslo dentist and star of many Norwegian møvies: ‘The Høt Hands of an Oslo Dentist’, ‘Fillings of Passion’, ‘The Huge Mølars of Horst Nordfink’…”

They didn’t wait did they? They didn’t even wait! In the first seconds of the film we are presented with the first joke, and one that works great for those who take special attention to the intial credits of a movie: a fake swedish subtitling of the credits presented at the beginning of the film, followed by a constant sacking of the people in charge of them, followed by a complete rendition of them, what started being serious and epic (white letters over black screen, ominous score) to something completely silly and over-the-top that is at the same time completely hilarious (flashing colors screen with flashing letters naming llamas as producers, directors and actors, all accompanied with a bunch of mariachis screaming ‘ayayayays’ as if there was no tomorrow). This could be the perfect representation of the comedy of the Monty Python troupe and of this movie in particular, every scene starts as something completely serious, ominous and epic, just to be transformed into a gag, a joke, a silly intervention, chronologies getting mixed up, wordplay and above all laughs without end. It’s… Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Do you have a copy of the film? Yes? No? Doesn’t matter, let’s take a journey through this masterpiece of comedy and let’s amuse ourselves towards the commentary we can both make, it’s going to be one hell of a journey, let’s start.So, first scene, we already have an example of what I was talking about in the earlier paragraph: serious turned into sillyness. The title card that show us that is 932 A.D. and that the story takes place in England, the classical ‘historical’ setting for the legend of King Arthur and his round table in Camelot (how curious it is that there is no action regarding Camelot and the Round Table in the actual film except for one of the funniest gags in the film, but in most international titles this movie is named something along the lines of ‘The Knights of the Square Table’ to emphasize on the sillyness of the film to those countries that are sad enough to never had the experience of knowing what Monty Python is), and we are then introduced to a misty landscape, ravaged by a furious wind, and suddenly the sound of horses, on the distance we see approach a tall figure riding… it is not until five seconds later that the whole seriousness of the situation is mutated to something completely stupid and funny at the same time, a running gag that works through the entire film and it just gets funnier as time goes by: the sound of horses is just a guy behind our main character, King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman), banging two halves of a coconut t0gether to make the sound of a galloping sound, so simple yet so funny at the same time, and also cost-effective (they chose the coconuts even though the script required horses, because it was too expensive to have horse caretakers, riders as well as the trouble to teach all the actors how to ride them, better make a joke about the tight budget and also make a joke about it at the same time).

The scene continues and evolves into another issue that will be repeated in many moments of the film is that of breaking the fourth wall, pointing out the failures and the filmmaking being made, in this case it’s a light touch, something like a taste, as if it were telling us: ‘you know, this is how things are going to be in this film, but you know what? we’re going to go fucking crazy along the way’. Here, King Arthur and his faithful assitant Patsy (played by the director Terry Gilliam) come upon a castle, where they find two soldiers guarding it, there the introductions are made: he is Arthur, King of the Britons, and he wants to know if the Lord of the castle wants to join his Round Table in Camelot, but the soldiers don’t care, the only thing they do is ask why is he galloping using two coconuts and not a proper horse, and here comes the genius and a comedy staple for them in general, how a simple discussion on coconuts can become something complex involving physics, weight and airspeed velocity, something so memorable that when it’s picked up sometime in the ending of the film, is just the more hilarious when the knowledge thrown out at us regarding swallows and coconuts is thought as comedic filler (after all, swallow and coconut are funny words, woody type of words, you know? Not like newspaper or litterbin, ugh, tinny sort of words) when in reality is just strike one and two of a joke that will come much much later. How one of the people involved in the conversation doesn’t want to go through that tangent of silly conversations is another of the classic characters of the Monty Python humor, and specially Graham Chapman is one of those actors who plays the reluctant conversation partner to perfection.

We cut to the classic ‘Bring Out Yer Dead!’ scene, where a guy announces at the top of his voice that he is picking up dead bodies in a cart, and that he charges people for them, and here we have the most classic exchange of how someone wants to leave an old familiar that is surely annoying to the cart, even if he’s not quite dead yet (in fact, he may be go out for a walk in a while). Sure, the sketch itself is funny (pay attention to how I call this scene) but there is a profound knowledge of medieval times here, because not many filmmakers depicted Middle Ages in Britain as dirty as in this film, I don’t know if there are any earlier examples, but here is an example of something that we don’t see in King Arthur films: the death, the sickness, the dirt, the shit, the social commentary of how much dead and poverty there was among the general people, and how kings were practically the only ones that avoided death and shit (even though there are some reports that kings went years without a proper shower, but here we are talking about the sacred figure that is King Arthur, we can’t shit on that, do we?). All of this topped by the passby of King and the final blow of a joke that is ‘he doesn’t got shit all over ‘im’, that serves as a punchline, even though they as a troupe hated that word and the fact that they had to use it sometimes. Now, remember how I called this scene a sketch? Well, I do think that specially these first parts of the film and some in the middle until the final third, it’s pretty much made of sketches with different characters that follow a very thin deep plotline… now, is that bad? Not at all! The sketch continuum was the essence of Monty Python during their TV series, and that is what makes this film (for me) the greatest comedy ever made: it works on the basic of comedy, that is jokes, the simplest form of comedy, and most great jokes are short and sweet, and sketches are short narratives, short and sweet, thus, being the simplest form of comedy, it also comes closer to being the purest, and the fact that every joke works, you have the perfect comedy right there.

Monty Python was always known for their perfect handling of two kind of humours, completely different and at the same time equally impressive in their delivery: cerebral and physical. Sometimes they mix the two of them together (like an accountant giving a speech as he undresses to a striptease song), and other times they just work in one of the two ‘genres’ and force all their work in that direction, giving us a perfect piece of cerebral (The Philosopher Song is quite funny if you know what every philosopher thought) or physical/slapstick comedy (The Minister of Silly Walks is a perfect example, not cerebral in any moment, as much as a Minister he is). In this film we are given two scenes consecutively that show us how they can make two types of comedy, one after the other, first they go after cerebral humor when King Arthur asks two peasents (played by Terry Jones – in drag – and Michael Palin) about their government, taking hits at both to the overcomplex matter of giving all the power to the people and at the same time to the oversimplification of giving all the power to one person, the conversation is interesting and at the same time funny, because you feel like they are both wrong and right at the same time, and the exhasperation of the King and the accusations of the peasent played by Palin are just outrageous in every way. This stupendous scene is followed by (Note: I love the soundtrack) a funny montage that cuts between Arthur and Patsy galloping in the forest, with two knights fighting in a clanky and bloody way, we are witness of one of the most physical and goriest fights, yet at the same time is one of the best examples of how to edit a comedy/fight scene making it entirely funny all the way through. Starting with the cuts inbetween the galloping and then to the conversation between Arthur and the ferocious Black Knight, how every word of the King is answered by a silent shot of the Black Knight fixated in his place, looking deeply into the souls of the audience, and also a group of my favorites lines of the movie (‘You make me sad’, ‘Tis but a scratch’, ‘You’re a looney’, ‘Alright, we’ll call it a draw’), it all then evolves into a fight in which every limb and quip of the Black Knight is in place to be destroyed and ridiculed, slapstick was gory as this, and this is a perfect example of the juggling between types of comedies by the Monty Python minds.

I remember the first time I watched with my brother the chanting group of monks hitting themselves with large pieces of wood we were laughing so hard that we had to stop the film and take a breather, it was just so unexpected, simple and at the same time completely hilarious, that I can’t think of anything else in this entire film that took me in surprise as much as this. Any way, this is followed by the recruiting of Sir Bedivere, the man of ‘science’ in the Round Table of King Arthur, something that is shown quite easily via the ability he has to tell if a woman is a witch or not, using the most basic logic, even you would be fooled to think and react like Bedivere does, and how he is like a beam of light in the town in which he is some kind of an officer, as he tries to make the townspeople think logically for themselves (in fact, my favorite line of this scene besides ‘I got better’ is ‘So, logically…’ where he makes the people take the wildest assumptions to measure if the woman in front of them is a witch or not), the scene is topped by some absurd ending, when the weight of the witch is actually the same as the one of a duck, so she is a witch and will be burnt to death, something that is kinda expected at this point, but it’s still outrageous. This is one of the few scenes that actually follows an opposite flow as the one we’ve mentioned before (from seriousness to sillyness), this one starts wild and funny (the monks hitting themselves) all the way through the logic exam, the ending, and finally a serious moment in which King Arthur names Bedivere his knight of the round table, what a majestic scene… and, of course, nothing really funny about it, it even manages to use that magnificent score to make the whole process solemn and holy.

Yeah, Camelot is a bit of a silly place:

When God appears and gives the knights of the Round Table is where the movie actually starts and starts to follow some kind of a firmer narrative, even though the members of the team take separate ways (and their own happenstances are divided in ‘Tales’ as in sketches) they are longer narratives on their own and find their own way of finding laughs with each independent adventures. How telling of a film it is that it has its title appear in the minute 25 mark, and that is something that we can’t deny… it’s genius and bold.

What is the best role of this film played by John Cleese? Of course it is the french soldier with the outrageous accent, in all its glory in the scene that follows the introduction of the film, and every aspect of it is complete genius: the taunts from the french soldiers, the animal catapults, the sounds of construction and the reactions by John Cleese (my favorite, he hits his head and makes a face as if he just had an aneurism), the plan of the Trojan Rabbit that obviously goes wrong (we already know what’s wrong when we see their heads pop up in the frame), the first apparition of the classic ‘Run Away!’ chant by King Arthur, something that we will end up hearing a lot of times in the course of this film… the whole sequence is like the description of a total failure, we now know that the group is a disaster and that the dream of the Holy Grail is something that is quite far away, and we will enjoy our time laughing at their faults, that is the whole object of the film, to laugh at how incompetent are these powerful and legendary figures. This is contrasted by the death of the ‘Famous Historian’ (named Frank, we think) where he chronicles the recent defeat as just one step that brought them even closer, it serves also as a bridge to tell a separation that would’ve been boring as a scene to begin with, the makers of the film knew that they needed to separate them to keep on working with the sketch material they had prepared for most of the knights, and it also manages to insert a plot point that is silly and at the same time constructs what will become the future of the film… a mounted horseman with a sword (the only real horse in the whole film) slices the historian’s throat (another nod to the break of the fourth wall) and the police will go above and beyond to investigate the murder, and we already know who the suspects will be.

Each of the tales of the of the knights work in their own cinematical genres. For example, the Tale of Sir Robin works as a musical/fantasy, where he is accompanied by his favorite minstrels who sing the many (none) happenings of Sir Robin and his (nonexistant) bravery, who ends up encountering a fantastic knight with three heads (who argue with each other, even though they are one entity, something quite philosophical, specially when one head asks ‘what do I think?’ and one head answers something, while the other head answers something completely different), only to then run away to the music of the now classical song of ‘Brave Sir Robin Ran Away’, and for the longest time this was one of my favorite scenes of the whole film, and while that has changed, it is still (thanks to the music of the minstrels) in my top 5 favorite scenes. The Tale of Sir Galahad mixes the genres of mystery and erotica, where the chastest of the knights ends up in Castle Anthrax filled with the most beautiful and youngest girls, where he is constantly confused about what is happening and at the same time towards the identity and intentions of the women there who try to make him fall into the temptation of sex at any step he makes, just to end in one of my favorite jokes, where the chief girl in the castle adresses the audience telling how much she is enjoying the scene, just to be responded by characters from past scenes and (something quite incredible) characters from scenes that haven’t happened yet with a final yell of ‘Get on with it!’, and then we are witness of the biggest cockblock in the history when Sir Lancelot barges in and ‘saves’ Sir Galahad from the ‘peril’ that was about to happen to him by the hands of the ladies present there… I’m with Galahad in this one, I’m sure Lancelot is gay.

The tales are interrupted by a stone in the direction of the fourth wall that destroys it completely, as the narrator tell us that we are in the scene 24, where King Arthur knows some important information about how the plot will evolve in the future, as the ‘Old Man from Scene 24′ tells them where is the Grail, or maybe the road to it, as well as transporting them to a dangerous forest where they will encounter the reason for this movie to be considered a cult classic, something that maybe too many people are tired to quote or hear, but I’m just fascinated by the whole sequence regarding the knights who say Ni! Peng! and Niiii Wo! Just impressive, I think I don’t need to talk more about this, it’s legendary and a cult classic at this moment, maybe if you haven’t watched you just need to put your head out of your own ass and get haste on your comedy viewing, your belly will thank me later when its giggling.

The Tale of Sir Lancelot starts with my favorite scene of the movie, the conversation between a young lad and his father, a King who built a castle in the swamp (and then sunk, but then he built a second one, that also sunk into swamp, then he built a third one, that one burnt, fell and then sunk into the swamp, but the fourth one stood) that is trying to marry his son with a princess whose father has a great deal of land. The scene develops in a great manner, where the son calls his father mother, where the father calls his son Alice instead of Herbert, and the son himself tries to break into song as if it were a Disney animated film and if he were a princess (his manners are quite affeminate to speak the truth, as well as his situation, he is the one being obliged to get married). The whole scene is ended with an endless tirade between the guards and the king on the issue of guarding the prince and making sure he doesn’t leave the room, completely genius and clueless at the same time, because the film has accustomed you to a certain degree of logic, yet after watching this scene many many times, I still can’t find a reason for the guards to be so confused about the order they are given… maybe they are just stupid… but anyway, the whole thing is ended in a mute comedy where the prince fires an arrow with a message in front of the smiling and nodding faces of the guards. The arrow is received by Lancelot’s helper (he is the one who bangs the coconuts together) Concorde, that imitates the old man at the beginning of the film, that says that he is not dead yet, that he is indeed fine and he can pull through, which in this case is true, and even if Lancelot is so keen on having to rescue a damsel in distress (if he only knew) he wants to heighten the tension and the heroic stance by leaving behind his helper in a melancholic speech (‘Sweet Sweet Concorde’). The genre of this specific tale is Action and Adventure, the whole situation is placed as if it were a great epic, even a movie on its own, with Sir Lancelot finally ravaging the wedding party, killing the guests and then finding himself with a boy instead of a sweet damsel, and finally to be saved by Concorde, who has come to save his master, what a great scene and Tale, maybe my favorite of the bunch, filled with visual and verbal jokes, what a treat this one is.

Anyway, so the issue of finding the shrubbery for the Knights who say Ni! hasn’t ended yet, what is funny about the whole issue is that the word itself, ‘Ni’, is so bad among other people, where King Arthur and Bedivere are forced to use it to gain some information and find the shrubbery they are looking for. When they come back to the knights, they no longer say Ni but something completely different, and that’s what kills it for me, even though they no longer say ‘Ni!’, some of the smaller knights still say Ni under their breath, and the word itself is still quite dangerous as when King Arthur says ‘the knights who until recently said Ni’, Bedivere still jumps a bit when he hears that word. The sequence evolves into complete sillyness when Sir Robin appears and finds the weakness of the Knights, the word ‘it’. And there was much rejoicing.

How crazy and completely awesome is the introduction to Tim, the Enchanter, a master of unnecesary pyrotechnia (all his incredible wizardry deflates when he tells them his simple name… ‘there are some who call me… Tim?’), that knows what they are doing (‘A Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaail?’), where he falls into what could be accurately called over-acting by John Cleese using an outrageous scottish accent, specially when he makes use of his hands and mouth to signal the ‘big nasty pointy teeth’ of the beast that lies in front of the Beast of Caerbanog (‘what an excentric performance’). The Rabbit of Caerbanog sequence is the perfect blend of action, blood and comedy, specially thanks to the inclussion of the Holy Hand Granade of Antioch, one of the sacred Relics a Brother Maynard carries with him… and here’s something that is done so quietly that we believe that Maynard has been with them for the whole trip, same goes with the rest of the Sir Not Appearing in this Films that die against the beast with its teeth. Another of my favorite of my bits is the reading of the Book of Armaments, where the style of the Bible is imitated in an incredible manner until the last versicle, as well as the first speech impediment that has become apparent for King Arthur, where he can’t seem to be able to say ’3′ and instead keeps saying ’5′, which is funnier specially when the Book of Armaments itself says that ’5 is right out’. The sequence that follows is serious in tone just to be trumped by the mention of the Castle of Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh. The blend of animation and live action had never been so perfect and telling of the already completely broken fourth wall, where the animated peril of the Black Beast of Arggghhhh is killed when the animator (Terry Gilliam) suffers a heart attack.

They are encountered with the man of Scene 24, and here is where on all the threads and jokes are closed, the swallows, the confusion of 3 and 5, the killing of the famous historian, the french taunters, the complete breakdown of the fourth wall, including an Intermission (in a film that’s only 10 minutes to end). This film is perfection and I don’t want to spoil the ending to those who haven’t seen it or don’t remember it, but it is one of the most comedy perfect endings, it is completely natural to the feel and the comedy of the movie itself. For movie this film is a riot, I can’t stop laughing every time I see it, and it’s just a miracle that a film like this can become so watchable, re-watchable, even if you know the jokes by heart, you are easily surprised each time with something new, different and funny at the same time, you don’t laugh less, but you start to laugh at more and more things… and only the Pythons could’ve managed that. I’m so so pissed that this film didn’t manage a top 10 position, but hey, you can’t have everything in life, do you?

Ni!

How Monty Python and the Holy Grail made the list:

#1 Jaime Grijalba

#4 Peter M

#6 Sachin Gandhi

#8 Dean Treadway

#16 David Schleicher

#16 Maurizio Roca

#20 Steven Mullen

#20 Dennis Polifroni

#21 Pat Perry

#21 Pedro Silva

#23 Marilyn Ferdinand

#28 J.D. La France

#28 Samuel Wilson

#29 Pierre De Plume

#36 Sam Juliano

#40 Frank Gallo

#40 Jon Warner

#41 Brandie Ashe

#42 John Greco

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