Last night I watched, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As brilliant as it is, I’ve always had a problem with it. It’s structure is a mess. The subplot about the modern world encroaching on the reality of the film doesn’t work, and is only there to make the ending seem slightly less terrible. And most gags are never really paid off. But it remains consistently funny. It is just a shame that it didn’t have an actual movie to exist inside of.
The main joke throughout the film is the tenth century Rodney Dangerfield: King Arthur can’t get no respect. These are my favorite parts of the film and it starts out with three different aspects of it. First, Arthur gets into an argument with castle guards about how coconuts might find their way to Mercia, “The coconut’s tropical!” Eventually, Arthur just “rides” off when it becomes clear that he will not be able to get the guards to focus on the central issue at hand: that he is there to see the lord of the castle. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
This is followed by the “Bring out your dead!” scene. This is typical of Python in the worst way. It is a funny idea: a man tries to dispose of his father (?) before he is actually dead. But it goes nowhere with the idea and the ending exhibits a kind of cruel cynicism that I find upsetting. Just the same, most people I know think it is very funny. I am similarly unimpressed with the last line — “Must be a king… He hasn’t got shit all over him.” It has always left me cold, but is beloved by most people.
The next scene is pretty much a repeat of the first scene. But while that one involved King Arthur not being able to hold the attention of scientifically oriented guards, this one involves him not being able to get his way with anachronistic leftist peasants who have formed an “anarcho-syndicalist commune.” Arthur gets lectured by a radical who repeatedly points his finger at the king while he says, “Oh, King? Very nice! And how did you get that? By exploiting the workers! By hanging onto outdated imperialist dogma, which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our social.” Then, after Arthur explains how he is king because the Lady of the Lake gave him a sword, the radical responds with the best bit of dialog in the film:
Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony… You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you… If I went ’round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!
Wise words for a crazy world. Arthur fairs little better with the Black Knight. He manages to cut off all his limbs, but fails in what he wants to accomplish: getting knights to follow him to his court at Camelot. After that, Arthur finds some other knights to follow him. But God doesn’t respect them and neither do the French. And that takes us the end of the first third of the film — the first act, if we can really apply the concept to such a badly structured narrative.
And here is where I think they blow it. They introduce a modern day historian who sets up the second act by saying that the knights split up to pursue the grail individually. And then a knight on horseback rides in and kills the historian. The idea is not bad, but this is not how to deal with it. It could have worked brilliantly if the historian had been used for narration from the start and then killed at the end of the second act as the seams separating the film and reality came apart. As it is, it is just this bizarre bit along with some later ones involving the police investigation to set up the ending.
The next half hour is spent on four skits dealing with the different knights. The best of these is Lancelot at Swamp Castle, but they are all good in that particular Monty Phython… “Idiom, sir?” And then they are all back together to hang out with Tim the Enchanter, who is also rather hard to get the attention of. This leads to two funny sequences at the Cave of Caerbannog with “the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.” And then the “old man from Scene 24” at the Bridge of Death. And then the film goes into an over-long, over-fogged Terry Gilliam scene. The (abrupt) end.
I don’t mean to pick on the film. I still think its brilliance far outshines its lack of cinematic craft. But it clearly could have been a so much more fulfilling whole. The screenplay needed to be taken by a single person and structured as something other than series of skits. To make matters work, the film has battling directors. I have no problem with Terry Jones, who I think is a fine comedic director. But Terry Gilliam is something else entirely. He would go onto greatness, but it would take him a while to figure it out. And here it is just a lot fog and annoying iconography.
So both The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life are better films. But neither are as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That’s generally a trade-off I’m willing to make as a viewer. But last night I still laughed at Holy Grail. And I can laugh just thinking about scenes. Arthur trying to change the topic followed by silence and then the guard saying, “In order to maintain air speed velocity a swallow needs to beat its wings 43 times every second. Right?” Tim gloating after the rabbit attack, “I warned you, but did you listen to me? Oh, no. You knew it all, didn’t you?!” Sir Galahad answering about his favorite color, “Blue. No, yel…” Comedy never gets better than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But film does.