"Subversive" is an extravagantly overused term frequently bandied about in the world of film. In recent years it has become a kind of buzzword applied to virtually any movie with the slightest cult appeal, including many utterly ordinary, mainstream movies. But on movie screens back in the mid-to-late '70s, Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) broke all the rules and literally did subvert many of the conventions of social satire, genre and historical parody, from its pseudo-Nordic subtitles over the opening credits (that quickly break off into a tangential conversation about moose) to its abrupt final cut, when its narrative is cut short by an on-set police raid. Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and Woody Allen's Love and Death were released around the same time to great reviews and, in the former case, huge box office, but now seem very conventional compared to Monty Python's film, whose theatrical run in the U.S. was largely confined to midnight screenings and college campuses.
Thirty years after it was first released, Monty Python and The Holy Grail is a difficult movie to assess. It and the TV series that preceded it, Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74) proved so influential that it's probably fair to say that better than three-quarters of comedy writers, directors, and performers working in TV and film today were at least somewhat influenced by the (mostly) British sextet. Holy Grail is one of the most-quoted movies of all-time and arguably the movie with the largest number of frequently-quoted lines. If you were in high school or at university from 1975-85 it was almost impossible to escape it.
The film is structured around the story of King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. This being a low-budget Monty Python movie, King Arthur (Graham Chapman), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Lancelot (Eric Idle), intellectual Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), chaste Sir Galahad (Michael Palin), and footman Patsy (Terry Gilliam; he and Jones co-directed), among others, skip along without horses as various aides bang cocoanut shell halves together, simulating the sound of equestrian hoof-steps.
Though its anarchistic approach is more extreme than anything that had come before it, Monty Python and The Holy Grail's humor and interests have clear and sometimes obscure antecedents. For example, the film's fidelity to a grimy historical past with humor that contrasts it with modern anachronisms may at least have partly been inspired by Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) which similarly presented Ancient Rome in grimily authentic terms, perhaps a first in screen comedy.
All six performers (as well as peripheral quasi-Pythons like Neil Innes, who appears onscreen and wrote several songs) contributed to the script, and as with the other Python movies, the film is a somewhat uneven mix of comic sensibilities, though in this case the mishmash is almost entirely agreeable. There are Carry On-style sex jokes (Galahad trapped in a castle of horny maidens), Keaton-like, purely cinematic sight gags (including a hilarious bit of discontinuity as Sir Lancelot repeatedly charges a castle), Gilliam's very funny animation, musical numbers, over-the-top graphic violence (the killer rabbit), absurdist social satire (uneducated peasant Dennis, played by Palin, debating monarchial theory with Arthur, etc.) and on and on.**
Sony's "Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition" is the third Region 1 DVD version to date (previous editions were released in October 2001 and September 2003), which in turn came on the heels of multiple laserdisc versions, including one by Criterion (as The Voyager Company) which is where some of the supplements originated. Though there are a lot of extras, about 90% are carry-overs from these earlier versions, though the transfer is new and admittedly very impressive.
Another carryover this reviewer wasn't prepared for and thus thoroughly delighted with was this: When you hit "play" the Pythons try to mess with your mind by beginning the presentation with the first several minutes of a completely different movie: the 1961 almost-Carry On comedy Dentist on the Job. I only wish the entire movie had been included as an extra feature - it looks like a lot of fun, actually.
Video & Audio
Except for The Voyager Company's laserdisc, this reviewer hadn't seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail since the days of those midnight screenings more than 25 years ago. Compared with the scratched-all-to-Hell 35mm prints theaters used to run back then, or even Voyager's scrubbed-and-polished laserdisc, this 16:9 mastering is a revelation. The movie looks brand-new, as if Lowry'd or run through some other elaborate digital clean-up, and the image so sharp you can watch John Cleese's spit fly in all its glory (with Cleese in the role of Tim the Enchanter). Except for a few grainy dissolves, the film looks near-flawless with superb color (original prints by Technicolor) and great 5.1 Dolby Digital sound that really comes alive during the musical passages. A 5.1 Portuguese and Dolby Surround French track are included, along with the original English mono, with optional subtitles in English, French, Chinese, Thai, and Portuguese, though curiously not Spanish. The film does include 24 seconds of material previously cut from the original theatrical release but included on earlier DVD versions, as well as the roughly 2 1/2 minutes of exit music cut from some showings.
First, here's the breakdown of supplements previously included in earlier DVD incarnations:
Audio Commentary by Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, plus "general complaints and back-biting" by John Cleese, Eric Idle & Michael Palin
Subtitles for People Who Don't Like the Film (taken from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II) [This is quite amusing]
On-Screen Screenplay: Read the screenplay while you watch the film!
"Follow The Killer Rabbit" Feature (linking the viewer to corresponding documents and drawings)
The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations (46 minutes)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail excerpted in Japanese! (with English subtitles)
1974 BBC Film Night with the Pythons on location
An Interactive Cast Directory
Theatrical trailers (including an original UK trailer that sounds like it's narrated by Burt Kwouk)
As for honest-to-goodness New Material, the well has pretty much run dry. Disc Two promises A Taste of Spamalot, but instead of excerpts from or behind-the-scenes footage of the hit Broadway show, this extra turns out to be nothing more than several minutes of Broadway soundtrack excerpts over Terry Gilliam-type animation. (His participation in the design of the discs elaborate menu screens is unknown, but this reviewer would guess others did the work with Gilliam given final approval.)
Next is The Holy Grail Challenge, an elaborate multi-choice quiz offered at five different levels. It's okay, but nothing special. Especially lame is what's billed as Secrets of the Holy Grail which in fact is a video promo for the set, nothing more.
Finally, a third disc offers a CD of The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python & the Holy Grail, which contains long audio excerpts from the movie but also a lot of album-specific material.
Sony and Python Pictures are really reaching with this release. The new transfer is splendiferous and had the studio marketed the DVD on this alone few would complain. For those (like this reviewer) who put off buying the DVD until now this version with its fine transfer and seven-course feast of extras ranks as a DVD Talk Collector's Edition title, while those already suckered into buying the film twice already may want to Skip It.
** The film references other movies, including one I've never seen confirmed but would bet money on: John Cleese's highly-eccentric delivery as Tim the Enchanter seems to have been inspired by an almost identically daffy character in the obscure Hammer potboiler The Viking Queen (1967).
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.