A story that needed to be told: King Arthur on his quest to find the Holy Grail. There was only one group bold enough or daft enough to tell this story. Monty Python. The Middle Ages were never more obtuse.
“You think your king just because some hag threw a sword at you?”
Indeed. This wasn’t PBS Masterpiece Theater.
This was the film that catapulted Monty Python into the big time. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the first film project after their series ended, and their second film overall. Despite their status, the group had to find the financing for this film. Produced by their own company, and directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, they raised the money from their rock star friends. Three of the investors were Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. They may have been thinking, tax write off, and probably shocked the film turned a very healthy profit, and probably forced them into tax exile. Damn you, Monty Python!
The absurdity of 1960s British television, became 1970s film absurdity. The Python was more than ready for the challenge, as Mel Brooks proved with The Producers and Blazing Saddles, audiences wanted comedies, zany ones.
King Arthur: I am your king.Dennis’s Mother: Well I didn’t vote for you.King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.Dennis’s Mother: Well how’d you become king then?King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ 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.
The production budget was a smallish $400,000 which required them to take short cuts in order to stretch the budget. Interestingly, the minimalist look of the film is quite engaging. On the first day of filming, their only camera broke. Initially, they could only film without sound, but that was quickly fixed, since this wasn’t supposed to be a silent film. Jones worked with the actors and Gilliam handled the photography, neither one had directed a feature film at the time. Their expertise came from work on their television show; it would be on-the-job training.
I do not believe that a nice big budget would have improved this film. Forced by finances to take a minimalist approach, it worked in their favor. Each member of the group played a variety of characters. The sets were fairly basic, they achieved a lot with attitude and a few effects. Quick editing and the use of smoke, long shots, close-ups and the unexpected, kept viewers from looking too closely. Film is the art of visual illusion and these guys knew humorous misdirection.
From the first frames, you knew what was with the humorous subtitles under the opening credits. Using lettering out of an Ingmar Bergman film, you might have to watch the film several times to fully read some of the lengthy absurd subtitles, and appreciate the other inventive gags not normally associated with the opening of a film.
The film has many wonderful scenes, but is this great storytelling? No. The story frequently deviates into side conversations that highlight the absurdity what you are seeing. There are skits within the story that are quite funny and clever: a debate about the system of government; where the coconuts they are clanging together come from; what to do with someone who is not yet dead but they want to put on the cart collecting the dead; and how to determine if someone is a witch; are just a few of the wild sidebars to the story.
The film’s main plot involves Arthur recruiting his Roundtable knights, and then they are persuaded to search for the Holy Grail. Being a king is not easy, Arthur would find out.
Arthur and his servant go galloping through across the countryside, not on actual horses, but doing their own galloping steps and making the clacking noise of hooves with coconuts. Really? Yes.
Arthur gets into a civics argument with some peasants, who seem to know a lot more about types of governance and political structures than he does.
Arthur is blocked from crossing a bridge by the Black Knight, who then is determined to beat Arthur in a sword duel. First Arthur chops off the knight’s right arm. Then his left. The knight proceeds to kick Arthur so his leg is whacked off. The dismisses the seriousness of his injuries and head-buts the King, who removes the knight’s other leg. Left without any appendages, he still tries to provoke the king, who galloped away.
Black Knight: (After noticing that he has no limbs left) “All right, we’ll call it a draw”.
Graham Chapman is Arthur, playing it fairly straight. As he collects his knights, they eventually find Camelot, by way of an adventure or two. There is always room for a song and a dance, and this is no exception. Who knew the knights were so talented?
At this point in the film, God makes an appearance and instructs them to find the Holy Grail. With nothing else on their agenda, they agree. This is a bit like King Arthur through the looking glass as they encounter adventures and death, but that’s how it rolls.
At a castle held by some French soldiers, Arthur and his knights are turned away. To make the point, cows and various wildlife are hurled down at Arthur. But, they have a plan. A Trojan rabbit is pushed up to the castle gates, unfortunately, the knights forget to get inside before it is wheeled into the castle. The large, wooden rabbit is then hurled over the castle walls killing one of the servants.
The knights split up. The film then follows each of the knights and Arthur on their own adventures in search of the Grail. Again, these are like skits that allow some fun with Middle Age folklore, turned sideways in Python humor.
This being Monty Python, there is totally unrelated animation popping up. Characters are inserted into the film for no real reason, like the historian from current times, who begins to provides commentary, and suddenly is savagely killed, with his wife running onto the scene. Later, we go back to this scene with police officers now talking to the dead man’s wife.
Humorous songs in the film were written by Neil Innes, who worked with members of Monty Python through the years on various projects. Innes passed away in January 2020. At times, the musical score is about to start in the film, but suddenly, a character calls a halt and the music stops. There is no wall between the actors and the audience, or the production.
Meanwhile, Tim the Enchanter appears on the journey. Tim is able to cause all kinds of explosions by pointing. Arthur and his knights follow Tim up the mountain to find a small, white rabbit. In reality, this is a brutal rabbit that viciously kills several of the knights. Arthur calls for the holy hand grenade, getting the instructions from the Book of Armaments, and blows up the killer rabbit.
Arthur arrives at a castle in a lake, where the Grail is supposed to be.
Just as Arthur and his remaining men are going to storm the castle for the Grail, the police show up and arrest Arthur, and shut down the film. The end.