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Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

by on 2012/02/12

“Please, please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”

* * * *

To this day, I’ll sometimes comment, “What an eccentric performance.” I murmur it slightly under my breath, in mock wonder, with a poor English accent. I’ve done it for so long and often enough now I’m rarely reminded of its source. Of course, a moment’s reflection by most geeks the world over would know it. Monty Python and the Holy Grail stands as a feature of such early and ongoing excellence, it’s become nearly as familiar to mainstream audiences.

Set in England, in 932 AD, it follows the misadventures of the late King Arthur (played by the also late, and also great, Graham Chapman) and the Knights of the Round Table. The remaining troupe — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin — portray the main group and uncounted other roles. They’re assisted by frequent collaborators Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland, and Neil Innes.

But never mind them. What’s it look like? Low budget, no doubt about it, though it ensures a sense of true grit. In addition to a washed out and grainy film stock bringing out the grot and drear, the locations are always dirty, and frequently foggy, for a strangely convincing presentation. This comic high fantasy appears more authentic than many straight-up historical epics.

While action is also weighty and deliberate, it’s hardly at risk of being boring. Interiors mesh well will the outside world, a trick often missed with limited financing. Costumes are just ornate enough to retain a realistic modesty. Sword fights are brutally cumbersome, surprisingly impactful.

And even when the financial constraints are more apparent, it still works in The Holy Grail’s favour; see the catapulted cow scene, for example. Would it have been any more funny, if at all, with the funding to be less cartoony?

Speaking of funny, humour does have a little something to do with this experience. The plot is little more than a frame along and around which to drape a variety of short skits, decorated to fit into the overarching quasi-medieval context. In fact, much of the content benefits from the clash between anachronisms. A recurring motif is the lone voice of reason against an irrational mob, or vice-versa. Production-wise, segments take the form of live action dramatics, reportage, musical numbers, and Gilliam’s distinctive animation.

It’s not all striking grit and guffaws, however. Perhaps my years of familiarity have brought me too close to its humour, but a very small subgroup of jokes feel overused. The swallows and coconuts recur a bit much, as do the “not quite dead” protests, and the five/three confusions. Yet the single most notorious gag is entitled to an awful reputation: the concluding scene.

Now, I usually think twice before spoiling a plot point, or cloak it in white-on-white text. In this case, however, nothing would likely make worse of the travesty of this narrative’s “climax”. Rationalize it as you wish — anachronistic collision, postmodern observation, or the selfish petulance of schoolboys playing a prank they call “original” — there’s no question it weakens the whole, if not its superior parts.

“He must have died while carving it,” one character remarks. Intentional or not, his words are a bitter foreshadowing of the too-sudden end. It’s a testament to the quality and strength of what’s gone before that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is remembered, and well, at all. No, I don’t appreciate a denouement going forever on — yes, I’m looking at you, Return of the King — but anyone who has ever complained a movie was cut off too soon should visit (or revisit) this epic’s failing.

I mean, honestly, what sort of audience appreciates unfinished

* * * *

Rated PG

92 minutes (longer version)

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