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The Magic Christian

The Magic Christian
1969 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 92, 101 min. / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $14.98
Starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Leonard Frey, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch, Patrick Cargill, John Cleese, Ferdy Mayne, Graham Stark, Roland Culver, Yul Brynner, Graham Chapman
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Production Designer Assheton Gorton
Art Direction George Djurkovic
Film Editor Kevin Connor
Original Music John Keene, Paul McCartney, Ken Thorne
Written by Terry Southern, Joseph McGrath, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Sellers from the novel by Terry Southern
Produced by Denis O'Dell, Anthony B. Unger
Directed by Joseph McGrath

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

More than just a misfire, The Magic Christian is perhaps the main film responsible for killing off all hope for the upscale black comedy, a trend which began with the wonderfully baroque The Loved One just a few years earlier. With a lack of point or wit that in comparison makes his Candy seem like Some Like it Hot, gonzo writer Terry Southern exercises his love of absurdity with a passel of top British names and behind-the-screen talent. But, despite the fact that some find it absolutely hilarious, it all just sits there, and we're forced to appreciate what scraps of inspiration that can be found in the wreckage. By comparison, the same talent's out-of-control Casino Royale was an epic: at least that dumb spoof knew how to be amusingly grandiose.


Millionaire Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) lives in luxury on the Thames while mismanaging his many obsolete companies. One day, he adopts a bum in the park (Ringo Starr) whom he dubs Youngman Grand, Esquire. Together they go on a grouse hunt, a train ride, etc., while Guy indulges his extreme tastes and penchant for excess. Finally, with the rest of the trendy, meaningless society set, they book passage on the maiden voyage of The Magic Christian, a colossal luxury liner that nobody has seen.

It wouldn't be fair or accurate, but one is tempted to relate the collapse of the British film industry with The Magic Christian, a film which must have turned audiences out feeling alienated and cheated. With its pedigree of talent, one would think there'd be a movie there, but what we get are are series of blackout skits that were probably sketched as text but improvised free-form on the set. Terry Southern has a strong reputation as a conceptual satirist, but his film work from this time looks like nothing less than talent squandered. If he had anything relevant to say about the decadence of society, it's not here.

The Magic Christian is less than plotless. Peter Sellers can be sublime, but when he just puts his manic energy into pulling faces and accents, as he does here, he's a bore. Just one scene into the film, we recognize Guy Grand as a class-A Ass, and from then on there is no development of character or theme whatsoever, just a reiteration of the proposition that the rich are corrupt, that business is corrupt, that England and the world are decadent and valueless.

Guy and Youngman ruin a grouse shoot by calling in anti-aircraft cannons to blast down the luckless birds. Outraging the stuffy shotgun-toting rural landholders is the only result, but we realize that it's all a repeat gag from Casino Royale.

A board meeting held in Guy's train starts with a pep talk and ends with everyone (including a perfectly phlegmatic but wasted Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets) being summarily fired. But not before a new business idea is presented with an audio-visual assist from a cartoon by Richard Williams, of a gigantic luxury car with a back seat designed for a dozen huge-breasted women. Guy starts out enthusiastic on the car, but then dumps the idea.

Guy and Youngman bribe the Oxford rowing team, with the collusion of their coach (star-billed Richard Attenborough, on-screen for maybe five shots). In the middle of the race, the students ram the opposing boat and sink it.

Most of these gags center on Guy bribing people to do outrageous things, an idea that immediately runs dry. The apparent point is that modern consumer society is corrupt, and that the public gets what it deserves. Unfortunately, as Southern points his finger at the audience while showing us one unfunny scene after another, we sooner arrive at the conclusion that we are watching a movie made by spoiled filmmakers who are themselves collecting huge salaries while sneering at a public foolish enough to spend money to see their work. At the end, Guy induces a bunch of bowler-hatted gentlemen to leap into a vat full of blood, urine and animal manure, by throwing a fortune in pound notes into the mix. The soundtrack dutifully plays Paul McCartney's Come and Get It by Badfinger. What sport.

True satire has long since been absorbed and co-opted by society. Some of the old Mad Magazine's pure barbs now read like the ancient wisdom of a lost civilization. Most every stand-up comedian is dirtier than Lenny Bruce, but none even approach his sincerity or truthfulness. There are plenty of comedies with dark and cynical outlooks, even commercial fluff, that nevertheless have a point to make. The Magic Christian is a pretender that thinks it's the Real McCoy.

The show can be seen as the hand-off film between the original Goon Squad (Spike Milligan appears in a small role) and the upcoming Monty Python tomfoolery, as a young John Cleese and Graham Chapman appear and also had a hand in some re-writing. But both Goons and Pythons were first and foremost undeniably funny, with a reverent & infectious belief in silliness for its own sake. Like too much of Terry Southern's work, The Magic Christian is empty and pretentious, a string of cameo appearances in pointless scenes. Theater of the Absurd goes in its own direction, and a superior show like The Bed-Sitting Room (made the same year) attracted a certain admiration while playing to empty houses. The Magic Christian has about it the smell of total commercial sellout.

As with Candy, I've heard The Magic Christian referenced by individuals as the funniest movie they ever saw. It must have been a good date, or perhaps the viewer was immature, as was Savant when he was a teenager and thought things like The Road to Hong Kong, Sergeants Three, and Laugh-In were fall-down funny. A typical gag has Sellers buying a hot dog from a vendor through the window of his private train, as it waits at a station. The train is leaving, and Sellers can't make change, so they're shouting back and forth. This would seem to be a typical Goon Show-type situation, but it doesn't go anywhere - Sellers switches between hysteria and unconcern, and we're more interested in a physical payoff to the gag (it's a real train, really moving) that doesn't materialize. Once again, the satire is invisible. The train passengers are upperclass twits several patronizing levels removed from humanity. Their train is capable of going anywhere ("We're in the United States now."). The thoughtlessness of the scene is best expressed in the fact that Ringo Starr, who accompanies Sellers everywere, just sits and does nothing, as if using the film to make a, "They're gonna put me in the movies" statement.

(mild spoiler)

The main setpiece supposedly puts every important personage in Britain on a luxury cruise in a giant futuristic boat clearly meant to represent the future of the country. Naturally the whole thing is a fraud, and the passengers are fools being hoodwinked for thousands of pounds each. Just as in Casino Royale, the big-time cameos are trotted out for one last thrill before the show collapses from its own weight. Christopher Lee wanders in as 'the ship's vampire', a gag repeated three times for no purpose. An impressive shot of him stalking a corridor has some design value, but his makeup is inadequate and he doesn't seem to be very intense as he bites a passenger - it's really a flaky echo of the Frankenstein Monster that shows up at the end of Casino Royale.

There isn't much shocking except a mild crudity that only makes the film seem less imaginative. The upperclass villains use racial slurs, and Leonard Frey plays a character called 'Laurence Faggot'. Lawrence Harvey does a Shakespearean striptease that shows effort but falls flat for lack of any point beyond itself. Even Mel Brooks had an underlying sense of despair for the devaluation of entertainment, in his bad-taste Springtime for Hitler musical number.

The most-oft published photo from The Magic Christian shows beautiful Raquel Welch in ornate Conan-like fantasy garb as the Priestess of the Whip, an S&M slave driver who flogs an entire gallery of topless oarswomen. From a production point of view, it's the only truly eye-catching 30 seconds of the film, but like the Dracula gag, it becomes frustrating when it amounts to nothing more. It's easily topped by a minute's worth of footage at the ship's bar, where a silent Roman Polanski is serenaded by an eerily familiar female impersonator, who turns out to be Yul Brynner. Brynner's voice is dubbed for the song (I hope) but the little scene-let is truly jolting. It's a reason to see the film for more than just its overall curiosity value.

In parting, it needs to be stressed that through this criticism of Terry Southern it must be remembered that he's still the credited writer of the superlative Doctor Strangelove, the most successful black comedy of them all.

Artisan's disc of The Magic Christian is an okay package. The transfer is reasonable throughout, looking much better than the edited 16mm prints Savant used to see on television. But the marketers clearly didn't know what to make of the film. Miscreant comedy satirists Joe McGrath and Terry Southern show up nowhere on the packaging, but the long list of cameos does, with John Cleese getting first mention and the ad copy trying to insinuate that this is a Monty Python-related production.

It's in 2.0 Dolby Surround, but Savant noticed no separation in the audio. An MGM-like diagram proudly says the film is 'Presented in the original 1:33 aspect ratio in which the film was shot'. This shows ignorance that rivals Guy Grand. In theaters, the 1969 film's aspect ratio would vary between 1:66 and 1:85, depending on where it was screened. Yes, on the camera negative, the image was 1:37, but aspect ratios are descriptions of theatrical presentation, not how the film was exposed. On my widescreen TV, the show had lots of dead space in 1:37, and looked fine when cropped off to 1:78.

If the IMDB speaks the truth, this release of The Magic Christian is nine minutes longer than some editions. I don't know of the film ever being cut ... ?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Magic Christian rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 1, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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