Published on April 9th, 1975 | by Padraic Coffey0
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Laughter is an involuntary action. We cannot choose what we find funny any more than we can choose what frightens us, which makes comedy and horror arguably the easiest genres of film to assess on purely visceral terms. Alas, it also means these genres age quicker than most. What one generation finds hilarious, the next might face with stony silence. And, just as repeated viewings of a particularly shocking moment inevitably blunts its impact, so too does overexposure to the same joke lessen its appeal. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a case in point. Since its release in 1975, countless scenes of this medieval send-up have been aped, homaged, quoted and inspired incapacitating drinking games. As such, first time viewers will already be familiar with many of the key set pieces and lines.
Does this undermine Monty Python and the Holy Grail? To an extent, yes. However, outside of its laugh quotient, which is itself a rather reductive way to consider the merits of a comedy film, one cannot help but admire the sheer effort with which the ‘Python’ gang – that is, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam – construct gag after gag. From the hilarious opening credits, an apparent parody of the subtitles of European – specifically Swedish – cinema, we are firmly planted in a world of absurdist comedy not seen elsewhere in Britain. The Holy Grail’s closest counterparts are Mel Brooks, whose Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were released a year previously, and Airplane!, which it predates by half-a-decade.
A curious tradition in British comedy is the prevailing presence of the bookish intellectual, as witnessed in Stephen Fry or Armando Ianucci. The Pythons were no exception. Terry Jones, who drifted between studying English and History at Oxford University, penned an academic treatise on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, entitled Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary in 1980. His evident love of the history of England, as explored though literature, infuses The Holy Grail with a level of affection common in the best parodies. The Holy Grail follows loosely the accepted narrative on King Arthur, and features segments on certain Knights of the Round Table, including Galahad, Lancelot and Bedivere.
While the Pythons are sufficiently respectful of the Arthurian legend to instil the film with some level of consistency, its plot is nonetheless mainly a hook on which to hang as the most outlandish visual and verbal gags imaginable. These rang from impassioned satirical speeches on the difference between a dictatorship and an autonomous collective, excessively blood-spurting comic violence, song-and-dance numbers and truly bewildering moments, such as when a gorilla’s hairy paw enters to turn the pages of a storybook. The medieval backdrop elevates The Holy Grail above the troupe’s first foray into feature film, And Now For Something Completely Different, which merely reproduce popular sketches from their Flying Circus television series.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail made its budget back (and then some…), inspiring a Tony-award winning musical, Spamalot, which continues to run on London’s West End. Indeed, the frugality of the production is one of the film’s greatest assets, inspiring some of the most memorable comic moments, be it the coconuts clapped together to replicate the sound horse-riding, or Terry Gilliam’s trademark animation for a scene in which the Knights are attacked by the ‘Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrggghhh’.