Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
The Meaning of Life
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Terry Jones|
|Produced by||John Goldstone|
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||Julian Doyle|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$14.9 million|
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, also known as The Meaning of Life, is a 1983 British musical sketch comedy film written and performed by the Monty Python troupe, directed by one of its members, Terry Jones. It was the last film to feature all six Python members before Graham Chapman's death in 1989.
Unlike Holy Grail and Life of Brian, the film's two predecessors, which each told a single, more-or-less coherent story, The Meaning of Life returns to the sketch format of the troupe's original television series and their first film from twelve years earlier, And Now for Something Completely Different, loosely structured as a series of comic sketches about the various stages of life.
Released on 22 April 1983 in the United Kingdom, The Meaning of Life, although not as acclaimed as its predecessors, was still well received critically and was a minor box office success, grossing almost $15 million on a $9 million budget. The film has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and appears in a 2010 list of the top 20 cult films published by The Boston Globe.
The film begins with a stand-alone 17-minute supporting feature entitled The Crimson Permanent Assurance (directed by Gilliam). A group of elderly office clerks in a small accounting firm rebel against their emotionlessly efficient, yuppie corporate masters. They commandeer their building, turn it into a pirate ship, and sail into a large financial district, where they raid and overthrow a large multinational corporation.
The film proper consists of a series of distinct sketches, broken into seven chapters.
- Part I — The Miracle of Birth
- A woman in labour is taken into a hospital delivery room, where she is largely ignored by doctors (Cleese and Chapman) and nurses, who are more concerned with using the hospital's most expensive equipment to impress the hospital's administrator (Palin). When the baby is born, the head physician (Cleese), briefly shows it off to the room but not to the mother, before shuffling it off to the maternity ward. When the mother asks for the sex of her newborn child, Chapman admonishes her for applying gender roles this early.
- The Miracle of Birth Part II — The Third World
- In Yorkshire, a Roman Catholic man (Palin) loses his employment. He goes home to his wife (Jones) and an impossible number of children, where he discusses the church's opposition to the use of contraception, leading into the musical number "Every Sperm Is Sacred". He then sells off his children for medical testing. Watching this unfold, a Protestant man (Chapman) proudly lectures his wife (Idle) on their church's tolerance towards contraception and having intercourse for fun, although his wife is somewhat confused, stating that they've had sex twice in their marriage, and have two children resulting from those encounters. Her husband specifies that they could have non-reproductive sex if they wanted to, not that they would.
- Part II — Growth and Learning
- A schoolmaster (Cleese) and chaplain (Palin) conduct a nonsensical Anglican church service in an English public school. The master lectures the boys on excessively detailed school etiquette regarding hanging clothes on the correct peg. In a subsequent class, the schoolboys watch in boredom as the master gives a sex education lesson by physically demonstrating techniques with his wife (Patricia Quinn). After a boy is caught sniggering in class, he is punished by being forced to captain a student rugby team playing against the teachers later that afternoon. The team of boys is beaten — physically and on the scoreboard — in a violent rugby match against the masters.
- Part III — Fighting Each Other
- A World War I officer (Jones) attempts to rally his men (Chapman, Gilliam, Palin, Idle and Cleese) to find cover during an attack, but is hindered by their insistence on celebrating his birthday, complete with presents and cake.
- A blustery army RSM (Palin) attempts to drill a platoon of men but ends up left alone when he excuses them one by one to pursue leisure activities.
- In 1879, during a devastating attack by Zulus during the Anglo-Zulu War, an officer (Idle) wakes to find that he has had his leg bitten off during the night. The military doctor (Chapman) hypothesises that a tiger might be the perpetrator, with everyone in camp, including the Zulu warriors who promptly beats a retreat, being baffled that a tiger would be present in Africa. A hunting party then encounters two suspicious men (Idle and Palin) dressed in two halves of a tiger suit, who attempt to assert their innocence through a succession of increasingly feeble excuses to explain why they are dressed as a tiger.
- The Middle of the Film
- A woman (Palin), as if on a talk-show called "The Middle of the Film", introduces a segment called "Find the Fish" — a brief surreal piece in which a drag queen (Chapman), a gangly long-armed man (Jones) and an elephant-headed butler eerily challenge the audience to find a fish in the scene.
- Part IV — Middle Age
- A middle-aged American couple (Idle as the wife and Palin as the husband) heads to a dungeon-themed Hawaiian restaurant at a holiday resort. They are presented with a menu of conversation topics by their waiter (Cleese), and choose philosophy and the meaning of life. Their awkward and generally uninformed conversation quickly grinds to a halt, and they send it back, complaining "this conversation isn't very good".
- Part V — Live Organ Transplants
- Two paramedics (Chapman and Cleese) arrive at the doorstep of Mr Brown (Gilliam), a card-carrying organ donor, to claim his liver, to the confusion of Mr Brown who (correctly) points out that organ donation is meant after you die. His protests go unheard, as his liver is harvested by the paramedics. One paramedic unsuccessfully attempts to chat up Mrs Brown (Jones), then requests her liver as well. She initially declines, but after a man (Idle) sings a song about man's insignificance in the universe ("Galaxy Song"), she agrees.
- In a large corporate boardroom, a businessman straightforwardly tables a report on the meaning of life. This is followed by an attempted takeover of the building by the Crimson Permanent Assurance from the short feature, which is promptly brought to a halt by having a skyscraper tipped over onto the CPA's building-ship.
- Part VI — The Autumn Years
- A posh restaurant (complete with a pianist played by Idle, singing "The Penis Song" in the style of Noël Coward) is visited by Mr Creosote (Jones), a morbidly obese man in the autumn of his years. Creosote swears at the unflappable maître d' (Cleese), vomits copiously, and consumes an enormous meal and a huge quantity of beer and wine while constantly vomiting to make further room for his feast, to the disgust of other patrons. After he has finished, the maître d' offers him a small after-dinner mint; Creosote eats it then explodes, showering the restaurant with human entrails and vomit, and causing a chain reaction of vomiting from the other guests. Afterwards, two of the restaurant's staff offer their own thoughts on the meaning of life while cleaning up the remains of Mr Creosote.
- Part VII — Death
- A condemned man (Chapman) is allowed to choose the manner of his execution: being chased off the edge of a cliff by a horde of topless women.
- The Grim Reaper (Cleese) visits an isolated country house, and finds himself invited into a dinner party. Not knowing who he is, the dinner guests spend a lot of time arguing with him before finally being told they've all died from eating contaminated salmon mousse. Their souls leave their bodies, and they follow the Grim Reaper to Heaven.
- The dinner guests arrive in Heaven, a bright Las Vegas-style hotel where every day is Christmas. In a large auditorium filled with characters from throughout the film, a cheesy lounge singer resembling Tony Bennett (Chapman) performs "Christmas in Heaven" in front of an elaborate dance number.
- The End of the Film
The hostess from "The Middle of the Film" is handed an envelope containing the meaning of life, and casually reads it out: "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations" before introducing the ending credits.
- Graham Chapman as Chairman (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 1 / Obstetrician / Harry Blackitt / Wymer / Hordern / General / Coles / Narrator No. 2 / Dr Livingstone / Transvestite / Eric / Guest No. 1 / Arthur Jarrett / Geoffrey / Tony Bennett lounge singer
- John Cleese as Fish No. 2 / Dr Spencer / Humphrey Williams / Sturridge / Ainsworth / Waiter / Eric's assistant / Maître D' / Grim Reaper
- Terry Gilliam as Window Washer (in Crimson) / Fish No. 4 / Walters / Middle of the Film announcer / M'Lady Joeline / Mr Brown / Howard Katzenberg
- Eric Idle as Gunther (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 3 / "Meaning of Life" singer / Mr Moore / Mrs Blackitt / Watson / Blackitt / Atkinson / Perkins / Soldier Victim No. 3 / Man in Front End of Tiger Suit / Mrs Hendy / Man in pink / Noël Coward / Gaston / Angela
- Terry Jones as Bert (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 6 / Mum / Priest / (Capt.) Biggs / Sergeant / Man with bendy arms / Mrs. Brown / Mr Creosote / Maria / Leaf father (voice) / Fiona Portland-Smythe
- Michael Palin as Window Washer (in Crimson) / Harry (also in Crimson) / Fish No. 5 / Mr Piecrust / Dad / Narrator No. 1 / Chaplain / Carter / Spadger / Regimental Seargeant Major / Pakenham-Walsh / Man in Rear End of Tiger Suit / Female TV presenter / Mr Marvin Hendy / Governor / Leaf son (voice) / Debbie Katzenberg
- Carol Cleveland as Beefeater waitress / Wife of Guest No. 1 / Leaf mother (voice) / Leaf daughter (voice) / Heaven receptionist
- Patricia Quinn as Helen Williams
- Judy Loe as Nurse
- Simon Jones as Chadwick / Jeremy Portland-Smyth
- Matt Frewer as one of the yuppies in Crimson
- Jane Leeves as "Christmas in Heaven" dancer
According to Palin, "the writing process was quite cumbersome. An awful lot of material didn't get used. Holy Grail had a structure, a loose one: the search for the grail. Same with Life of Brian. With this, it wasn't so clear. In the end, we just said: 'Well, what the heck. We have got lots of good material, let's give it the loosest structure, which will be the meaning of life.'"
After the film's title was chosen, Douglas Adams called Jones to tell him he had just finished a new book, to be called The Meaning of Liff; Jones was initially concerned about the similarity in titles, which led to the scene in the title sequence of a tombstone which, when hit by a flash of lightning, changes from "The Meaning of Liff" to "The Meaning of Life".
The film was produced on a budget of less than US$10 million, which was still bigger than that of the earlier films. This allowed for large-scale choreography and crowd sequences, a more lavishly produced soundtrack that included new original songs, much more time could be spent on each sketch, especially The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Palin later said that the larger budget, and not making the film for the BBC (i.e., television), allowed the film to be more daring and dark.
The idea for the hospital sketch came from Chapman, himself a physician, who had noticed that hospitals were changing, with "lots and lots of machinery". According to Palin, the organ transplant scene harked back to Python's love of bureaucracy, and sketches with lots of people coming round from the council with different bits of paper.
The original tagline read "It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up" (the length of The Meaning of Life proper is 90 minutes, but becomes 107 minutes as released with the "Short Subject Presentation", The Crimson Permanent Assurance). In the 2003 DVD release of the film, the tagline is altered to read "It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 1 hour and 48 minutes to screw it up".
Censorship and ratings
Ireland banned the film on its original release as it had previously done with Monty Python's Life of Brian, but later rated it 15 when it was released on video. In the United Kingdom the film was rated 18 when released in the cinema and on its first release on video, but was re-rated 15 in 2000. In the United States the film is rated R.
The film opened in North America on 31 March 1983. At 257 theatres, it ranked number six in the domestic box office, grossing US$1,987,853 ($7,734 per screen) in its opening weekend. It played at 554 theatres at its widest point, and its total North American gross was $14,929,552.
The DVD also features a director's cut, which adds three deleted scenes (totaling nine minutes) back into the film, making it 116 minutes. The first is The Adventures of Martin Luther, inserted after the scene with the Protestant couple talking about condoms. The second is a promotional video about the British army, which comes between the marching around the square scene and the Zulu army scene. The third and last is an extension of the American characters that Idle and Palin do; they are shown their room and talk about tampons.
- "MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (18)". United International Pictures. British Board of Film Classification. 26 April 1983. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
- Michael, Chris (30 September 2013). "How we made Monty Python's The Meaning of Life". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-10-01.
- "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
- Boston.com Staff (27 December 2010). "Top 20 cult films, according to our readers". boston.com (The Boston Globe). Retrieved 1 February 2016.
- Ess, Ramsey (September 20, 2013). "Dick Cavett’s Semi-Serious Talk with Graham Chapman". Splitsider. The Awl. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
- "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
- "Festival de Cannes: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 16 June 2009.
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- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life at the Internet Movie Database
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life at Box Office Mojo
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life at Rotten Tomatoes