(Mønti Pythøn ik den Høli Gräilen )

Written by Jill Silos. Jill Silos, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at Hesser College. In her spare time she volunteers with Confuse-a-Cat Ltd. and collects grail-shaped beacons. A moose once bit her sister. No, realli!
USA, 1975. 91 min. Python Pictures Ltd./ Michael White Productions. Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin; Animated Sequences: Terry Gilliam; Production Design: Roy Forge Smith; Produced by: Mark Forstater, Michael White; Written by: Monty Python; Directed by: Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam.

Monty Python is big business these days. In addition to all the calendars, key chains, refrigerator magnets, and stuffed killer bunnies with nasty, big, pointy teeth available at your local novelty store, the market-savvy Pythons have conquered the world of video games, websites, and now, the Great White Way with Eric Idle’s Tony-winning musical Spamalot. The once cult status of Python has given way to a media juggernaut, ensuring that even when Michael Palin travels the globe for the BBC and winds up in some remote village, someone will run up to him and say, “Ni!”

It was not always this way. Once upon a time, knowledge of flying sheep, Trojan rabbits and the dangers of a giant Dinsdale-seeking hedgehog was an indicator of a certain kind of person: PBS-watching, Anglophilic, probably a bit geeky–and not a little twisted. You also had to be dedicated to finding Python. In the very early 1980s, I clearly remember desperately trying to create an antenna from a clothes hanger for the small television in my bedroom, all because a distant PBS channel was broadcasting old episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and I did not want to be left out when my friends sat around the high school cafeteria reciting the Argument Sketch. But that was before the VCR revolutionized the movie experience and provided access to films no longer screening in theatres, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, creating a whole new generation of fans who would grow up to become the computer programmers that would expand the Python universe even more.

The home video boom brought the Pythons into a new realm, the world of obsessive fandom. Certainly Flying Circus had its dedicated viewers the first time around; indeed, a wealthy ten of those original fans, including members of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, financed Holy Grail. But Flying Circus and the Python films opened a window to a more radically creative era for those of us who missed it the first time around. At a time when comedy was dominated by witless sitcoms, the “slob humor” of sexploitation films such as Porky’s, and the adolescent self-indulgence of John Hughes movies, some of us could retreat to the video store and pick up the Python version of comedy: aggressively subversive, anti-authoritarian and satirically self-referential. The Pythons subverted their own medium, lampooned the idiocy of unquestioned social assumptions, and championed a surreal vision of a world turned upside down. They were also gloriously, relentlessly silly.

Though Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the second film for the Pythons, it was their first attempt at a sustained narrative film. The silliness—and irreverent genre mockery—of the film begins with the opening credits. It becomes immediately obvious that Holy Grail is as uncompromising in its subversion of the film medium as Flying Circus was of television. Ponderous, self-important, and laden with the weight of the serious historical epic, the credits are quickly undercut by fake Swedish subtitles, written by Michael Palin as a nod to Ingmar Bergman—and a way to cover for a budget shortfall. Clearly, this film that purports to tell a sacred story will hold absolutely nothing sacred in its vision of an ancient and beloved myth.

On the enhanced DVD director’s commentary, which is full of all the little tidbits of trivia that Python fans love, Terry Jones, who co-directed Holy Grail along with Terry Gilliam, observes that, “It’s very dangerous to look for significance in Python stuff,” repeating the group’s litany that they were just being silly and that all they ever really were trying to do was make each other laugh. And yet, it is hard to overlook the origins of the group in the anarchic sixties, when the rug was pulled out from under authority by stark revelations of betrayal and incompetence. In the spirit of the era, the Pythons questioned authority. And they had a lot to question, from the fatuity of the English class system, to the prevalence of violence in entertainment, and the obliviousness of everyday people to such mundane absurdities as their parents’ wartime staple, Spam. The decision to take on a history held dear for a thousand years is in keeping with the Python tradition of slaughtering the sacred cows of western culture.

Among the many anarchic—and anachronistic— aspects of the film is the way that time itself is collapsed, so that the world of the knights’ quest is a kaleidoscopic view of the entire Middle Ages. Though the titles indicate that the year is 932 AD, Jones notes that the actual period of the film is the 14th century. This accounts for not-dead-yet plague victims at a time when the Great Plague had yet to make its way from Constantinople, as well as the appearance of chanting flagellants three hundred years before that movement began. Everything happens at once in this film, regardless of actual historical time. Terry Gilliam has noted the appropriateness of this ahistorical take on history: “The whole medieval world, where reality and fantasy were so blended, I don’t know if the line was very clear where they separated…and that’s a different mentality than we have today. I think in a strange way the freedom with which we approached things in the film and jumping from ideas and different forms of reality is not an unmedieval way of thinking.”

But there was some very unmedieval thinking in popular currency when the film was first released in the States. At the New York premiere, the anti-war crowd, still in the throes of Vietnam, had a very difficult time dealing with the violence of the Black Knight scene, a kind of violence that permeated the Middle Ages. But that was only until the ending of the scene made it clear that the unhinged militancy of the Black Knight was itself the subject of the satire. It was also following a New York screening that two burgeoning talents named Gilda Radner and John Belushi, who would soon do their best to poke holes in American society and politics, approached the Pythons to tell them how much they liked the film.

How could they not? From the anachronistic political philosophies of the Constitution Peasants, to the Laurel and Hardy-esque routine of the guards at Swamp Castle, and to the old BBC radio trick of using coconuts to simulate the sounds of horse-hoofs, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has something for everyone. And, best of all, it’s really, really silly.

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