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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List: #381 - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

You know a comedy group is part of pop culture, nay culture itself, when they are included in a dictionary. Pythonesque: after the style of or resembling the absurdist or surrealist humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British television comedy series (1969-74). British comedians Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and American Terry Gilliam changed the face of televised comedy, paving the way for Second City, Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall, The Simpsons, and even South Park. And then, in 1974, the gang decided to make movies. The result: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Horses not included, but coconuts were available.

Funny thing about the very first time I saw this Holy Grail of comedies. It was in Spanish. I don’t exactly remember where, but this was back in the late 90s when my family and I were living in South America. It was playing on TV and since my dad used to live in England, you can bet he knew who the Pythons were. I didn’t know, but once I saw the bit with the Trojan rabbit I was sold. I didn’t understand all of the dialogue since my Spanish wasn’t that good at the time, but once you’ve seen a giant wooden rabbit being tossed through the air by a bunch of vulgar Frenchmen, you get the picture. 

The plot, or what stands for a plot, is the standard legend of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. Except in the Python’s world, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) along with his squire Patsy (Terry Gilliam) must first convince people he really is the king. “I didn’t know we had a king,” says a well-spoken peasant. “I thought we were an autonomous collective.” The peasant gets even more skeptical when Arthur tries to convince him he got his legendary sword from a lady in a lake.

Once Arthur has assembled the Knights of the Round Table, which include Sir Bedevere The Wise (Terry Jones), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), and Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), the quest is on. After an unfortunate encounter with the aforementioned foul-mouthed Frenchmen, Arthur believes the knights should seek the Grail separately. This leads to several humorous misadventures for each knight, such as Lancelot crashing a wedding party, Arthur and Bedevere running into the dreaded Knights who say Ni, and Galahad nearly losing his purity with Zoot (Carol Cleveland) and her fellow lascivious ladies at castle Anthrax.

Will they find the Grail? They should be more concerned about the poor modern-day historian who was slain by one of the knights, triggering a police investigation. The Pythons don’t just break the fourth wall; they bring it down with a bulldozer.

Since the cast came from a television background and were more used to performing sketch comedy, it might explain why the movie is not so much a straight narrative but a series of gags waiting to happen. The result is a loose story with a running time of 87 minutes, but every sketch works. Unlike the lazy guys behind “Epic Movie,” “Disaster Movie,” and, I don’t know, “Crappy Movie,” the Pythons don’t only rely on cheap physical gags to appeal to the lowest denominator. When the knights find clues about the Grail’s location inside a cave, they debate whether or not the name of the castle indicated on the walls is really “Castle Aaaarrrrrggghhh” or if the writer actually wrote down his own scream as he was being killed. Seriously, which explanation is the least ridiculous when reading something like that on a cave wall?

For devoted Python fans, I highly recommend the Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition of the movie. It includes a visit to the movie’s locations by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, a featurette about the proper use of a coconut, and my favorite, a Lego animation of the “Camelot Song.” With a song and a dance number like that, its proof these guys would be funny in any language. 


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