“Look, my liege!” “Camelot!” “Camelot!” “Camelot!” “It’s only a model.”
The 1960s brought together a unique troupe of British comedians who would end up becoming known the world over for their sketch comedy. Graduates of Oxford University and Cambridge University, six comics would cross paths in school revues and jobs at the BBC and ITV. Eventually the BBC, impressed by the performances they had given in previous comedy shows, offered John Cleese and Graham Chapman a show together. But Cleese didn’t want to do the show with just Chapman; reportedly he found Chapman a bit difficult to work with when there weren’t other personalities to intercede. So Cleese invited one of the actors they had worked with on the TV special How to Irritate People, Michael Palin, to join them; the trio had also worked together on The Frost Report a few years earlier, which was one of the reasons the BBC wanted to give Cleese and Chapman their own show. Palin then suggested that they bring in a writer his fellow writer Terry Jones and cast member Eric Idle from Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children’s show they had worked on which had been more successful with adults. Idle in turn suggested bringing in a fourth crew member of that show, Terry Gilliam, an animator. With the six comics assembled, they launched their show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a sketch comedy program where the humor ranged from slightly silly to highly absurd to an almost-Dadaist level of surrealism. It launched in 1969, and new episodes aired until 1974 in Britain.
“You must return here with a shrubbery or else you will never pass through this wood alive!”
In 1971, the troupe released their first feature film, …And Now For Something Completely Different, named for the catchphrase John Cleese would use during transitions between sketches. Intended to familiarize American audiences with the troupe, it consisted of refilmed (and sometimes slightly altered) versions of sketches they had performed on the show. While the film was successful in its native United Kingdom, it was not very successful in the United States, which had been its goal.
At the end of the third season, John Cleese left the group. He had again been finding Chapman — now a severe alcoholic — difficult to work with. Further, he felt that the group wasn’t breaking as much new ground as they had been early on. As Eric Idle said, “He gets bored more easily than the rest of us.” The rest of the group eventually found themselves in agreement, having only enough enthusiasm for a truncated season of six episodes after Cleese departed.
“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”
Meanwhile, the troupe was working on their second feature film. Initially it started with all of them writing different sketches; according to Palin, they had meant to sit down and write a film with a single story, but the anarchic nature of the group meant everyone was off doing their own thing. They would read off their sketch ideas to each other, and one of them consisted of King Arthur arguing with some guards on a wall. This would eventually become the first scene of the film.
“It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, from the castle of Camelot. King of the Britons, defeator of the Saxons, sovereign of all England!”
“Pull the other one.”
The film grew out of that single sketch into a full-fledged quest for the Holy Grail. Initially the story was set half in medieval times, half in the present day; the Grail was to be found in Harrods department store at the end. (Says Jones, “Harrods, of course, has everything!”) But after taking a year off, they decided to retool it to being primarily in the Middle Ages, as Jones had been studying the era and they felt it would benefit the film to have a single overall “look”. The group had their script. They also had their full roster, as Cleese returned, feeling this was the new ground they needed to break.
“‘Tis but a scratch.” “A scratch? Your arm’s off!” “No, it isn’t.” “Well, what’s that then?” “I’ve had worse.”
What they didn’t have was money. Because …And Now For Something Completely Different had been a modest success at best, and that only in the U.K., film studios were reluctant to fund another Python film. The troupe drummed up money by going to major musicians that were known to be fans of the group, emphasizing that it could be used as a tax write-off; backers included Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Elton John. Even so, the budget was a mere £229,575 ($365,274). The Monty Python players agreed that in order to keep costs down, they would each take only a flat fee of £2000 ($3182) and a percentage of the gross. If they wanted to make any real money off the film, it would have to be successful.
“‘Ere. He says he’s not dead!” “Yes he is.” “I’m not!” “Well, he will be soon. He’s very ill.” “I think I’ll go for a walk!”
The meager budget affected the production in many ways. This can be seen from the very beginning, as they did not have enough money to justify spending much of it on elaborate opening credits. Instead, the credits are shown in simple stark black and white… but still provide a lot of laughs as the Python crew starts adding mock Swedish subtitles, which progress into jokes about how dangerous møøse bites can be, and culminate with the credits crew being “sacked”.
It also affected their use of props, which in turn led to changes in the script itself. The group determined early on that they would not be able to afford actual horses for the film. They decided to rely on the old stage technique of mimicking the sound of horses by using coconuts… and then decided that the idea was so absurd that it would be even funnier to actually show the coconuts on screen, with King Arthur and his knights pretending to ride horses that weren’t actually there.
“Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?”
The production was a fast one, taking place over the course of five weeks in the spring of 1974; the film would have its theatrical release one year later. It was shot primarily in Scotland, and the plan was to use many of the Scottish castles for scenes in the film. However, at the last minute, the Scottish Department of the Environment withdrew permission to shoot inside the castles, feeling the film wasn’t sufficiently reverent (one wonders who the Department thought they were working with initially). Doune Castle and Castle Stalker were privately owned, and the Python crew received permission to use those castles for the film; all interior scenes take place in those locations, and most outside castle scenes are either those castles or models. The models had a tendency to fall over between takes.
“In twenty minutes you’re getting married to a girl whose father owns the biggest tracts of open land in Britain. […] We live in a bloody swamp. We need all the land we can get.”
“But– but I don’t like her.” “Don’t like her?! What’s wrong with her?! She’s beautiful. She’s rich. She’s got huge… tracts o’ land.”
The six Monty Python members play the bulk of the roles in the film, with each taking several parts. Graham Chapman, playing King Arthur, had the fewest side roles, but Terry Gilliam had the smallest screen time overall; each played one of the knights, but Gilliam’s role was Sir Bors, whose main moment in the spotlight is being slain by the Beast of Caerbannog. Gilliam and Jones directed the film together — the joke was that anybody named Terry got to direct — and the differing directorial styles caused some friction in the group. While the group admired Gilliam’s vision, they felt that he was too fussy over visual details and didn’t direct with humor in mind. While Gilliam would go on to be an acclaimed director, all future Python endeavors had Jones as sole director.
“Clear off! Go on! Go away! Go away! Go away! And you! Clear off! Bloody weather!”
There were also problems with Chapman. A severe alcoholic, and used to drinking to calm his nerves, Chapman was cut off from alcohol due to the nearest town being too far away. At the time, fellow cast members thought his shaking was merely stress from the weight of his costume — he was the only one wearing true chainmail; the others were wearing painted wool — but it was actually a case of delirious tremens brought on from withdrawal. This led to Chapman, an experienced rock climber, needing a double to cross the “Bridge of Death” for him due to an onset of acrophobia.
“Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.”
Chapman would also often forget his lines, which caused difficulty due to the need to shoot as few times as possible to stay within the limited budget. Of course, forgetting lines is something that happens to most actors, and Chapman wasn’t the only one. One of the more famous lines in the film is the result of John Cleese forgetting his lines and ad-libbing a response that was absurd enough to make it in the final cut. Watching the film, one can see a slight hesitation on the part of both Cleese and Chapman on the adjusted line; Cleese had forgotten the fanciful name of his character from the script, and made up a significantly more mundane one on the spot.
“There are some who call me… Tim?”
Given the farcical nature of the film, it was also sometimes difficult for the actors to keep straight faces, and occasionally their inability to do so remained in the film due to the need to shoot as few times as possible. This is particularly notable during the witch trial scene, where Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and John Cleese each had difficulty avoiding breaking into laughter. Idle even bites down on his scythe at one point to keep from laughing aloud. This wasn’t helped by Cleese — the troupe’s anecdotes give the impression it was usually Cleese or Chapman causing minor disruptions — shouting “Burn the Witch!” out of turn and with greater enthusiasm than his cohorts. The witch, of course, was being played by Cleese’s wife, Connie Booth.
“Logically…” “If… she… weighs… the same as a duck… she’s made of wood.” “And therefore?” “A witch!”
Booth, while not an “official” member of the troupe, was one of the recurring players on the television show. Other regular players were also given small roles: Neil Innes plays the part of Robin’s minstrel, and Carol Cleveland plays the role of the temptress Zoot and her twin Dingo. Unusually for a Python production, most women seen in the film are actually played by real women; the sole exception is Terry Jones as the mother of Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist communist peasant.
“Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help! I’m being repressed!”
Despite the narrative structure of the film, it still bears the absurdist humor that made Monty Python’s Flying Circus a success. Many of the gags consist of the troupe trying to see just how silly they can make Arthurian legend. There’s a black knight who refuses to admit defeat despite being completely dismembered, Galahad gets unwillingly “rescued” from a castle of seductive young women, and at one point the knights are saved from a vicious animated beast by the animator suffering a heart attack. There’s even humor on the meta level of film viewing, with an intermission that lasts five seconds and comes when only 10% of the film remains.
One of the most famous scenes is when the knights have to face the Beast of Caerbannog — which turns out to be an exceptionally vicious bunny rabbit. While the attacks are achieved through puppetry, most of the scene uses an actual rabbit; it is one of the few live animals seen in the film. Gilliam has stated that if the crew had been more experienced with film-making, they would have simply purchased a white rabbit of their own; as it was, they borrowed one. The rabbit came to no harm during filming, but the crew discovered to their dismay that the dye they used to simulate blood wasn’t actually washable. This resulted in a desperate, and failed, attempt to clean the rabbit before its owner returned to find they would be bringing home a bloodstained bunny.
“Well, that’s no ordinary rabbit. That’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.”
As filming came to a close, the limited budget reared its head again. The plan had been for King Arthur and an army of knights to storm the second French castle and find the Grail, but there wasn’t enough money left to shoot the scene. There was, however, enough left for a literal cop-out — the film ends on a deliberate anti-climax, with the knights being arrested by the police for the killing of a historian early on in the film. It then immediately cuts to black, with music playing, but no end credits — the credits crew, after all, had been sacked during the opening.
“Come on. Anybody armed must go too.”
It is difficult, at this point in time, to know just how successful the film was initially. Re-releases to the theatre have clouded box office returns on most statistics websites. But this in and of itself is a testament to the lasting popularity of the film; it has become one of the most recognized and most highly quoted comedy films of all time. It was nominated for the Hugo Award (one of the more prestigious awards for science-fiction and fantasy literature) for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1976, losing to A Boy and His Dog, but most of its accolades have been more recent. The film was placed at #40 on Bravo’s list of the 100 funniest movies. Two audience polls in Britain have placed it in the top 10 comedies; Total Film placed it at #5, and Channel 4’s poll had it only one lower, at #6. (Both polls were topped by its successor, Life of Brian). It fared even better in an American poll, hosted by ABC and People magazine, where it was chosen as the #2 best comedy, after Airplane!.
“Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can ‘ni’ at will to old ladies. There is a pestilence upon this land. Nothing is sacred.”
Notorious for being quoted extensively by fans, Monty Python and the Holy Grail would almost seem like a cult classic, except that it is appreciated by the public at large nearly as much as by the die-hards. It successfully marries absurdist humor, humorous dialogue, and an entertaining (if meandering) narrative structure together for a film that holds up to the years and repeat viewings. It’s a comic masterpiece, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“Well, on second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”