Saturday, August 29, 2009

“…and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped.”

And now, to pop the proverbial cherry of Arthurian films (Dragonheart was just foreplay) we come to the inimitable, indomitable, incorrigible Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or Mønti Pythøn ik den Høli Gräilen) from 1975.

Well, there’s this king in England in 932 AD, and he’s riding around the countryside, seeking knights for his court. When he finds them, the heavens open up and God tells him to look for the Holy Grail. The knights split up, have some ADVENTURES!, reconvene, have more ADVENTURES! and hilarity ensues for 91 or so minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple.


King Arthur: Graham Chapman is our Hero, King Arthur. He plays the character pretty straightforwardly, actually. He seeks the Holy Grail for the glory of god & country. Something like the only sane man in a mad world, and it works well. The only real quirk they give him is his constant confusing of the numbers three and five.

Patsy: Terry Gilliam (the silent Python) plays Arthur’s squire, baggage handler and cocoanut clapping “horse.” Always by Arthur’s side, the character has one line. (Which isn’t to say that Gilliam doesn’t do more stuff in the film: he’s also the Old Man from Scene 24)

Sir Bedevere: Terry Jones is Arthur’s first recruit, the scientifically inclined thinker with an impractical helmet, Bedevere. He also has difficulty saying “aghhh”

Sir Lancelot: John Cleese plays the homicidally brave Lancelot, who on his solo adventure, storms a castle and slaughters some wedding guests.

Sir Galahad: Michael Palin is the chaste Galahad and becomes imperiled by a castle full of virgins. Isn’t sure about his favorite color.

Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot: Eric Idle as the coward Robin, who carries a huge shield with a chicken on it and is followed by minstrels.

The Killer Rabbit: The film’s badass is a fluffy white stuffed animal that is also a merciless killing machine that kills several knights.

Now, there are loads of other characters in the film, most played by the Pythons themselves, and they’re all comedic, insane and only around for a scene or two each. Its not practical to go into them, but Cleese’s Tim the Enchanter, a wizard with a thick Scottish brogue stands out as exceptionally hammy. Also, Connie Booth & Carol Cleveland (veterans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers) make brief appearances.

Directed by Terries Jones & Gilliam, the film balances between a kind of gritty realism (armor is done fairly historically accurate with chain mail, tunics, etc. - Jones himself is a bit of a medievalist) and absurd visuals. The visuals themselves were done partially as a stylistic choice, but also heavily influenced by time and budget (they had precious little of either) and the cocoanuts instead of horses, Gilliam’s animations, and even the sudden ending of the movie are all iconic parts of the movie. Which isn’t to say that it looks bad. It’s a fine looking movie, but it also has that low budget, indie film feel.

All six Pythons wrote the script, as is their wont, and its very difficult going into how insane it all is. Told more or less episodically (they were a sketch comedy troupe) the form works here, since Arthurian legends themselves are generally episodic in nature. A lot of thought is given to even the most incidental characters, and the dialog is sharp enough to cut yourself with. There’s a reason why people can quote the movie from beginning to end.

The score was worked on by a number of people, and the “Holy Grail/Main Theme” is fantastically epic. The songs by the Pythons, well, the only full song is “Knights of the Round Table,” but the Pythons’ lyrics are as gloriously insane as their dialog.

Its rather difficult to write up this movie for people who’ve never seen it before. It is gloriously insane, brilliantly written, endlessly quotable and all that other stuff. The humor is very British, and some people are off-put by that. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is easily one of the best comedies out there, even if it has been quoted to death and turned into a musical.

No comments: