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Believe it or not, the American premiere of the smash Brit TV comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus came a full five years after the show's BBC debut. By that time news of the Pythons had reached our shores, but the only evidence we had to go by was a theatrical re-staging of hit skits from the TV show, the poorly-distributed 1971 feature And Now for Something Completely Different. Conceptual English comedy had its American fans but movie and TV executives had plenty of grim box office precedents on their books. From Spike Milligan and the Goon Show to the hilarious Peter Cook and Dudley Moore feature Bedazzled, the accepted wisdom was that dry English humor wouldn't sell here.
Talk about a reason to endorse Public Broadcasting in America ... after the commercial networks passed, courageous PBS TV stations were the first to try out Monty Python. 1974 was the year that the Pythons took America by storm, starting with the college crowd. The original writer-performers John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin described their brand of comedy as unrestrained silliness. In actuality the group had tapped onto a perfect formula for British skit humor. Concept comedy skits often began brilliantly but frequently had difficulty finding funny endings. When a skit offered no appropriate punch line the Pythons would simply let the next skit knock the first off the screen. One of the Pythons would imitate a dry BBC announcer changing the subject, or a character from the next skit would intervene, or American Python Terry Gilliam would bridge two skits with an amusing (and usually violent) animated cartoon segue. The content of one sketch might bleed into another, producing a bizarre running gag situation. More often than not, an episode's central joke just ends on an odd note, a joke at the expense of tidy conclusions.
The Python's first original movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was put together as the TV series was winding down. As it represented a new frontier for their comedy, disaffected member John Cleese returned to the fold. Python ringleader Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam shared directing chores. Although the intensely creative Gilliam contributed visual talents possessed by none of the other comedians, he wouldn't be asked to direct subsequent Python pictures. The comics preferred to be directed by Jones, who put more emphasis on performances and didn't obsess over technical issues.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is of course an uproarious and irreverent pastiche of Arthurian legend, Music Hall foolishness and outrageous play with film and stage conventions for historical dramas and costume fantasies. As in the TV show, the actors play multiple roles, often in the same scene. The knights are pompous and vain, and the miserable peasants live in mud, ignorance and superstition -- good fodder for drop-dead funny comedy material. Typical Python word games and semantic sinkholes appear with regularity. The silly-ass crusaders are confronted with The Knights that Say "Ni", an insulting French invader occupying an English castle, a magical bridge-keeper with a deadly quizola, and the monumentally stubborn Black Knight, who refuses to surrender even after Arthur hacks off his arms and legs. The knights are guided by a seer who hails by the prosaic name Tim the Enchanter. Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin) stumbles upon a castle filled with women hungry for sex, and is irked to be "rescued" by his fellow knight Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese).
Clever minimalist special effects allow the knights to do battle with the fearsome Rabbit of Caerbannog (don't forget your Holy Hand Grenades) and a horrible, indescribable and minimally animated monster called the Black Beast of Aaarrrgghh, due to the fact that nobody encountering it lives long enough to finish saying its name. But the film's simple exchanges remain some of its funniest, as when a pair of idiotic guards persist in misinterpreting their instructions to block entry to a castle room. A vacant-brained prince persists in wailing out melodies like, "Lo-ove has found me!" as if trying to turn the film into an operetta.
The show withstands the weight of its own jolly pointlessness by virtue of a series of self-reflexive jokes aimed at deflating the pomposity of the epic movie format. As if admitting that the budget can't even afford horses, the knights galumph along on foot, while Arthur's squire Patsy (Gilliam) produces clip & clop noises with a pair of coconuts. Bombastic music stings accompany the most trivial of statements. A troubadour skilled at impromptu lyrics dogs Sir Robin's heels, describing the knight's craven cowardice in song. An extended title sequence lets Terry Gilliam flex his talent for graphic absurdity -- the 'standard' title credits are interrupted, infiltrated and usurped by foolish faux-Norwegian subtitles: "Moose bites can be very nasty". Not long into the tale, a modern detective and two policemen arrive to investigate the death of a historian-narrator, slain at random by one of the knights. The anachronistic gumshoes stay on Arthur's trail, gathering clues at later gruesome killings. Perhaps the best format-based gag injects a fake Intermission card into this fast-paced 92-minute movie. It's a false alarm: just few seconds later, the show starts up again. 1
Monty Python and the Holy Grail led to two more major films starring all the key Python talent. Refusing to stay in place or repeat themselves, the features edged into more daring territory. 1979's The Life of Brian attracted criticism with its irreverent (but sympathetic) portrayal of a Christ-like would-be Messiah. 1983's The Meaning of Life leaped happily into wholesale gross-out humor, accompanied by a consistently pessimistic outlook. In terms of the group's broad appeal, Holy Grail is perhaps the high point of the Monty Python mirth machine.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a fine widescreen encoding of this handsomely photographed comedy classic. The Scottish hills and glades are always attractive. At one point in his commentary, co-director Terry Gilliam tells us that the picture-perfect clouds in one shot aren't faked -- the Scottish skies are almost always breathtakingly beautiful.
The one Blu-ray disc contains most of the extras from earlier special editions. Present from a 2001 Special Edition are three real commentaries with Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and John Cleese, Eric Idle & Michael Palin, plus a couple of gag tracks.
A favorite older extra addresses the way comedy does or doesn't travel to foreign lands, in two scenes dubbed into Japanese and translated back in English subtitles. Also included from older discs is a feature in which Lego figures sing the "Camelot Song", a featurette in which two Pythons tour various Holy Grail locations, some sing-along songs and a mock- educational piece called "How to Use Your Coconuts".
Promoted for the BD release is an extra called the "Holy Book of Days", apparently an adapted trivia track experience in which a second window appears during playback. To be activated it requires the downloading of an app on an iOS device. The dedicated Python faithful will also be interested in some newly discovered animation sequences, as well as a selection of outtakes and extended scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Monty Python and the Holy Grail Blu-ray rates:
1. I was present at the March 1975 Filmex showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the long-gone Plitt Theaters in Century City. That screening was said to have been its American premiere. The audience of about 900 laughed so loud I thought the walls would collapse. When the fake intermission card came up, at least 50 people fell for the gag and started for the concession stand, only to return to their seats amid more peals of laughter.
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T'was Ever Thus.