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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I wrote a while back about a course on special education. In my final paper, I found myself quoting from the 1975 classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here's how: prior to the advent of modern medical science, the mentally disabled were commonly thought to be possessed by Satan, and either imprisoned or put to death. Into my head popped the image of Eric Idle as a peasant, shouting "She's a witch!" and then poor Connie Booth being weighed alongside a duck. Accusations of witchcraft were ways of destroying any woman who might have been different from the prescribed norms.

So I wrote my paper and realized I hadn't watched the film in a while, and popped it in. I've seen it several times, of course (I probably first saw it in college) and marveled at how it hasn't really aged or lost its lustre. It is certainly one of the best comedies ever made, and while the group didn't quite match it in their subsequent films, anyone having their name on this has done enough for one lifetime.

If you're on of the two or three people who haven't seen it, it is the story of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, written and acted out by the geniuses who were Monty Python, five Brits and one American who had a TV show called Monty Python's Flying Circus, which ran in the late '60s and early '70s and fully justified the invention of television. Their first feature that was not a compilation of TV material was this one.

Graham Chapman was given the role of Arthur, who we first see riding along the countryside. Well, actually he's miming riding a horse, with his servant (Terry Gilliam) clapping coconuts together to make the sound of hoof beats. This was a happy accident, as horses were to be used but proved too costly. From this surreally hilarious image, Arthur rides around looking for knights for his round table. He finds some--Bedevere (Terry Jones), Lancelot (John Cleese), Galahad (Michael Palin), and Robin (Idle) They are then spoken to by God himself (one of Gilliam's brilliant bits of animation) and sent on a quest to find the Grail.

The story is played out in a series of vignettes that, for the most part, have proved to be classic and quotable. Arthur gets in an argument on government with a peasant, who asks him how he got be king. Arthur tells him about the Lady of the Lake, and Dennis the peasant, played by Palin, responds: "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."

Then comes the classic Black Knight sequence, in which Arthur cuts off all the limbs of his foe, but is still taunted "It's just a flesh wound!" And then the bit with Cleese as a Frenchman on top of a castle, also taunting Arthur and his knights; "I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries." Those of a certain generation know these lines like others know Shakespeare or the Bible.

The film then follows each knight on his own adventure, the middle of the film and the weakest part, with Galahad's in a castle full of women the one that doesn't really have many laughs. Lancelot's, in which he ends up rescuing a very effeminate prince from an unwanted marriage, is a little better. When the knights get back together the film picks back up, with the great "Knights who say Ni!" bit, to the Killer Rabbit, to the crossing of the Bridge of Death, when three questions must be asked. Here we learned that it is important to differentiate between the European and African swallow.

Monty Python were made up of educated men--the five Englishmen were Oxbridge--and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is based on a sound knowledge of medieval England. There is no shining armor or "Yonda lies the castle of my fada" here--Idle, as the collector of corpses, notes you can tell Arthur is a king because "He hasn't got shit all over him."

One of the things Monty Python could be accused of is not knowing how to end sketches--on their TV show, one usually just transitioned into another. The film also doesn't quite know how to end, as it does by the actors being arrested for killing a historian. But that kind of meta attitude is what makes the film so great. You're doubled over in laughter by the time the credits end. First, the wrong movie starts playing (Dentist on the Job, a forgettable 1962 British comedy) and then there are Swedish subtitles urging people to come see the moose. Every part of film convention is considered and skewed by the group. It is an amazing piece of artistry.

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