How <i>Monty Python and the Holy Grail</i> Influenced Film by Satirizing It
40 years after its release, the film remains the gold standard for subversive comedy.
Wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër? See the løveli lakes. The wøndërful telephøne system. And mäni interesting furry animals. Including the majestic møøse. A møøse once bit my sister…
Any writer, comic or otherwise, can attest that beginnings are the hardest part, but Monty Python never seemed to have that problem. The opening of each episode of the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus demanded attention like no other comedy ever had: A bedraggled, bearded, senescent Michael Palin crawls toward the screen through some dramatic locale, collapsing in front of the camera, and intoning, “It’s—,” before the calm tones of John Cleese completed the sentence, “—Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
The Beatles of Comedy
Television was still chintzy and cheerful when Monty Python first aired in 1969, so to satirize it, the show had to be as dramatic as possible. But the opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group’s first “proper” cinematic effort, which was released 40 years ago, did the opposite. The trappings of film are inherently epic, particularly in 1975, and in scraping together the funds to make Holy Grail, Monty Python had shot for the moon, creating a spoof tale of knights and magic in Arthurian times. So those opening credits, set to foreboding music, with irrelevant Swedish subtitles boasting about “møøse,” do a quietly perfect job of upending any expectations. No single element in the film is allowed more than a second of seriousness before getting a pie in the face.
I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my grandmother at the age of 10 at the historic Stanley Theater in Utica, New York—the grandest setting you could imagine for the grandest piece of irreverence ever produced. I had, perhaps, seen clips from the film before, or at least knew its highlight reel—the Knights Who Say Ni, “I fart in your general direction,” the killer rabbit, and so on. But with its opening credits, Monty Python and the Holy Grail hoodwinked me in the same way it did audiences in 1975, in the same spirit with which it will continue to poke fun at viewers ad infinitum.
You barely notice the subtitles at first, beyond chuckling at their pointless inclusion, then realize what’s going on—that the edges of reality are being blurred; that there’s no premise, not even a simple credit sequence, that this film won’t seek to subvert. The Swedish text turns into a tourism advertisement, then the film stops altogether and the audience is assured that everyone involved “has been sacked.” But the møøse won’t go away, not until the credits are overhauled in a bright, energetic new style, and even then they’ve only been replaced by llamas. Before any actors have appeared on screen or any dialogue has been spoken, the film has its audience in hysterics.
Holy Grail is never
mean-spirited, but it reminds its audience never to take anything too seriously.
It’s possibly redundant to state what an impact Monty Python had on comedy, but needless to say, almost everything that came after it had some link, however tenuous, to the work of Cleese, Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. Showing Holy Grail to a young comedy fan now can almost be like showing Casablanca to someone who watches a lot of Hollywood dramas—it’s like seeing the template for success; one that’s been repeated, tweaked, challenged and paid homage to over and over again. Saturday Night Live began airing later that year with one foot firmly planted in Monty Python sketches; Matt Groening called it a great influence on The Simpsons; every subsequent film that broke the fourth wall felt in its debt.
Holy Grail has an appealing cheapness to it that it constantly winks at—the knights clopping coconuts together to imitate horses—and it doesn’t hide the brutal, damp backdrop of Scotland that everything was shot against. It can’t really pretend to be an epic movie, but then it doesn’t need to—part of the fun of Holy Grail is that, despite its setting, it’s not really satirizing anything specific. The group’s follow-up film, Life of Brian, feels like a much more targeted swipe at the widescreen cinema of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille, and the inflated self-importance of every mythic tale, but Holy Grail is more an assault on the self-importance of cinema itself.
After the opening credits, King Arthur marches on screen, dancing on an invisible horse, and presents himself to a castle as the Sovereign of all England. “Pull the other one!” comes the voice from over the wall. Throughout the film, the humor continues in that vein—Arthur is lectured for automatically proclaiming himself king and “hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma”; the feared Black Knight is chopped to pieces in the briefest of duels; the finery of Camelot is rejected because Arthur decides “it is a silly place”; and his knights finally meet their match at the paws of a harmless-looking rabbit. Perhaps that’s why I remember seeing it in all the finery of the Stanley Theater, which it seemed almost built for. Holy Grail is never mean-spirited, but it reminds its audience never to take anything too seriously, regardless of its trappings. No matter what the future of cinema, or comedy, might be, that message should easily carry through for another 40 years or so.