Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(United Kingdom, 1975)
I was first exposed to Monty Python and the Holy Grail before I ever saw an episode of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." (In fact, it was in the same junior high school class where I first saw Patton, 2001, and The Great Escape.) My initial viewing left me nonplused – I wasn't sure what to make of the movie. Parts of it were certainly funny, but other scenes were simply... weird. (The knights that say "Ni?" A shrubbery? The air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?) Of course, at age 12 or 13, my sense of humor had not developed, and, in order to fully appreciate Monty Python, a mature (and, at times, twisted) sense of humor is mandatory. Needless to say, when I revisited The Holy Grail some time during high school, I thought it was one of the most hilarious motion pictures I had ever seen. In addition to being laugh-aloud funny (to use the newspaper ad cliché), Monty Python and the Holy Grail is probably the second-most quoted movie (right behind Casablanca). Even those who have never seen the film are probably familiar with about a quarter of its lines. It has been said that you can determine how much of Python geek you are by how much of The Holy Grail you can quote. While I'm not nearly as familiar with the film as some of my friends, I can recite a few of the better bits. In terms of pure humor, nothing done by the Pythons as a group is funnier. The best skits in "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (such as "The Spanish Inquisition," "The Dead Parrot Sketch," "The Lumberjack Song," and "Defending Yourself with Fruit") are on par with The Holy Grail, but not superior. Which brings us to the natural question of which is the best Python movie. And, to answer that, I can only say... to be continued.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Monty Python and the Holy Grail opens with some of the most innovative credits ever to grace the big screen. It's difficult to imagine a stronger beginning, but the film's irreverent humor doesn't flag as we get into the action, which sees King Arthur (Graham Chapman) riding around the countryside gathering supporters. There's a problem, though. Instead of sitting atop an impressive steed, Arthur mimes riding one while his trusted servant knocks together coconuts to mimic a horse's clomping sound. (This continues throughout the movie.) Arthur doesn't encounter universal support - peasants argue that his kingship is the result of an arbitrary and unfair method of choosing a ruler ("Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!") and that he's repressing them. Others doubt his authenticity. Then there's the infamous Black Knight, who wants to prevent Arthur from crossing a particular bridge, even after the king has cut off his arms and legs. Finally, Arthur gathers a band of brave knights, including Sir Launcelot (John Cleese), Sir Galahad (Michael Palin), Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), and Sir Robin (Eric Idle). After given a quest by no less than God, the five men, along with their retainers, split up and seek the Holy Grail. Along the way, they encounter a variety of dangers, with Sir Launcelot slaughtering a group of wedding guests, Sir Galahad falling into the clutches of a bevy of sex-starved women, and Sir Robin fleeing danger while his minstrel companions sing of his cowardice.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail features the same kind of brilliant comic writing that characterized the best episodes of the television series, "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Everything, from Marxist rhetoric to scientific observations to religious doctrine, takes a beating. Most comedies saturate the audience with gags and jokes in the hope that one-third to one-half of the material might be funny. But, in The Holy Grail, there's hardly an attempt at humor that fails. That's a rare claim for any movie to make, but, even when a viewer isn't laughing aloud at this film, he or she will almost certainly appreciate the incisive intelligence evident in the Pythons' approach. The quality of the humor - irreverent, smart, and challenging - is one of the things that differentiates Monty Python and the Holy Grail from so many other motion picture comedies. Regardless of where an individual's comedy zone lies, it's impossible to deny the intelligence of the script, and the movie's willingness to take chances and be different. Those qualities alone should be enough for even a humor-impaired viewer to find something to like about Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And, for those who "get" the jokes, this motion picture represents one of the best and brightest comedies ever to shine from the silver screen.
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