Monty Python and the Holy Grail
|Monty Python and the Holy Grail|
British theatrical releases banner
|Written by||Monty Python|
|Edited by||John Hackney|
|Box office||$5 million|
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a 1975 British comedy film reflecting the Arthurian legend, written and performed by the Monty Python comedy group (Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin), directed by Gilliam and Jones. It was conceived during the hiatus between the third and fourth series of their BBC television series Monty Python's Flying Circus.
While the group's first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was a compilation of sketches from the first two television series, Holy Grail is a new story that parodies the legend of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail. Thirty years later, Idle used the film as the basis for the musical Spamalot.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail grossed more than any other British film exhibited in the US in 1975. In the US, it was selected as the second-best comedy of all time in the ABC special Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time. In the UK, readers of Total Film magazine in 2000 ranked it the fifth-greatest comedy film of all time; a similar poll of Channel 4 viewers in 2006 placed it sixth.
In AD 932, King Arthur and his squire, Patsy, travel throughout Britain searching for men to join the Knights of the Round Table. Along the way, Arthur debates whether swallows could carry coconuts, recounts receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, defeats the Black Knight and observes an impromptu witch trial. He recruits Sir Bedevere the Wise, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Galahad the Pure and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, along with their squires and Robin's minstrels. Arthur leads the knights to Camelot, but upon further consideration (thanks to a musical number) he decides not to go there because it is "a silly place". As they turn away, God (an image of W. G. Grace) appears and orders Arthur to find the Holy Grail.
Searching for the Grail, Arthur and his knights arrive at a castle occupied by French soldiers who claim to have the Grail and taunt the Englishmen, before driving them back with a barrage of barnyard animals. Bedevere concocts a plan to sneak in using a Trojan Rabbit, but no one hides inside it, and the Englishmen are forced to flee when the rabbit is flung back at them. Arthur decides the knights should go their separate ways to search for the Grail. A modern-day historian filming a documentary on the Arthurian legends is abruptly killed by an unknown knight on horseback, triggering a police investigation.
On the knights' travels, Arthur and Bedevere are given directions by an old man in Scene 24 and then attempt to satisfy the strange requests of the dreaded Knights Who Say "Ni!". Sir Robin avoids a fight with a Three-Headed Knight by running away while the heads are arguing. Sir Galahad is led by a grail-shaped beacon to Castle Anthrax, populated by 150 young women, but is unwillingly "rescued" by Lancelot. Next, Lancelot receives an arrow-shot note from Swamp Castle and believes it to be from a lady being forced to marry against her will. He storms the castle and slaughters several members of the wedding party, only to discover the note was from an effeminate prince being coerced into marriage by his ambitious father.
Arthur and his knights regroup and are joined by three new knights as well as Brother Maynard and his monk brethren. They meet Tim the Enchanter, who directs them to a cave where the location of the Grail is said to be written. The entrance to the cave is guarded by the Rabbit of Caerbannog. Fatally underestimating its lethal prowess, the knights attack the Rabbit, which easily kills Sirs Bors, Gawain and Ector. Arthur uses the "Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch", provided by Brother Maynard, to destroy the creature. Inside the cave, they find an inscription from Joseph of Arimathea, directing them to Castle Aarrgh.
A giant animated cave monster devours Brother Maynard, but Arthur and the knights escape after the animator suffers a fatal heart attack, ending the beast's existence. The protagonists approach the Bridge of Death, where the bridge-keeper challenges them to answer three questions to pass or they will be cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Lancelot goes first, easily answers the elementary questions and crosses. Robin is done in by an unexpectedly difficult question, and Galahad misses the answer to an easy one; both are flung into the gorge. When the bridge keeper asks "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" Arthur asks for clarification ("African or European?"). The bridge keeper cannot answer, and is thrown into the gorge himself.
Upon crossing the bridge, Arthur and Bedevere cannot find Lancelot, unaware he has been arrested by police investigating the historian's death. Arthur and Bedevere reach Castle Aarrgh, only to find it occupied by the same French soldiers who taunted them previously. After being repelled by showers of manure, they summon an army of knights and prepare to assault the castle. Just as the army charges, police arrive and arrest Arthur and Bedevere for the historian's death. The film ends with an officer breaking the camera.
- Graham Chapman as Arthur, King of the Britons
- Chapman also provides the voice of God, among other roles
- John Cleese as Sir Lancelot the Brave
- Cleese also plays the Black Knight, French Taunter, and Tim the Enchanter, among other roles
- Terry Gilliam as Patsy, Arthur's Servant
- Gilliam also plays the Soothsaying Bridgekeeper, among other roles, and appears as himself as the Weak-Hearted Animator
- Eric Idle as Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot
- Idle also plays Concorde, Lancelot's squire, Roger the Shrubber, and Brother Maynard, among other roles
- Terry Jones as Sir Bedevere the Wise
- Jones also plays Prince Herbert, among other roles
- Michael Palin as Sir Galahad the Pure
- Palin also plays the Leader of the Knights Who Say Ni, King of Swamp Castle among other roles, and provides the voice of the film's narrator
- Connie Booth as Miss Islington, the Witch
- Carol Cleveland as Zoot and Dingo, identical twin sisters
- Neil Innes as the Leader of Robin's Minstrels, among other roles
- Bee Duffell as the Old Crone
- John Young as Frank the Historian
- Rita Davies as Frank's Wife
- Avril Stewart as Dr. Piglet
- Sally Kinghorn as Dr. Winston
- Mark Zycon as Sir Robin (stand-in)
- Sandy Johnson as a Knight Who Says Ni
- Julian Doyle as Police Sergeant
- Richard Burton as One-Legged Black Knight (stand-in)
Fifteen months before the BBC visited the set in May 1974, the Monty Python troupe assembled the first version of the screenplay. When half of the resulting material was set in the Middle Ages, and half was set in the present day, the group opted to focus on the Middle Ages, revolving on the legend of the Holy Grail. By the fourth or fifth version of their screenplay, the story was complete, and the cast joked the fact that the Grail was never retrieved would be "a big let-down ... a great anti-climax". Graham Chapman said a challenge was incorporating scenes that did not fit the Holy Grail motif.
Neither Terry Gilliam nor Terry Jones had directed a film before, and described it as a learning experience in which they would learn to make a film by making an entire full-length film. The cast humorously described the novice directing style as employing the level of mutual disrespect always found in Monty Python's work.
The film's initial budget of approximately £200,000 was raised by convincing 10 separate investors to contribute £20,000 apiece. Three of those investors were the rock bands Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Genesis, who were persuaded to help fund the film by Tony Stratton-Smith, head of Charisma Records (the record label that released Python's early comedy albums). According to Terry Gilliam, the Pythons turned to rock stars like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Elton John for finance as the studios refused to fund the film and rock stars saw it as "a good tax write-off" due to UK income tax being "as high as 90%" at the time.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was mostly shot on location in Scotland, particularly around Doune Castle, Glen Coe, and the privately owned Castle Stalker. The many castles seen throughout the film were mainly either Doune Castle shot from different angles or hanging miniatures. There are several exceptions to this: the very first exterior shot of a castle at the beginning of the film is Kidwelly Castle in South Wales, and the single exterior shot of the Swamp Castle during "Tale of Sir Lancelot" is Bodiam Castle in East Sussex; all subsequent shots of the exterior and interior of those scenes were filmed at Doune Castle. Production designer Julian Doyle recounted that his crew constructed walls in the forest near Doune. Terry Jones later recalled the crew had selected more castles around Scotland for locations, but during the two weeks prior to principal photography, the Scottish Department of the Environment declined permission for use of the castles in its jurisdiction, for fear of damage.
At the start of "The Tale of Sir Robin", there is a slow camera zoom in on rocky scenery (that in the voice-over is described as "the dark forest of Ewing"). This is actually a still photograph of the gorge at Mount Buffalo National Park in Victoria, Australia. Doyle stated in 2000 during an interview with Hotdog magazine that it was a still image filmed with candles underneath the frame (to give a heat haze). This was a low-cost method of achieving a convincing location effect.
On the DVD audio commentary, Cleese described challenges shooting and editing Castle Anthrax in "The Tale of Sir Galahad", with what he felt the most comedic take being unused because an anachronistic coat was visible in it. Castle Anthrax was also shot in one part of Doune, where costume designer Hazel Pethig advised against nudity, dressing the girls in shifts.
In the scene where the knights were combatting the Rabbit of Caerbannog, a real white rabbit was used, switched with puppets for its killings. It was covered with red liquid to simulate blood, though the rabbit's owner did not want the animal dirty and was kept unaware. The liquid was difficult to remove from the fur. He also stated that he thought that, had they been more experienced in filmmaking, the crew would have just purchased a rabbit instead. Otherwise, the rabbit himself was unharmed. Also, the rabbit-bite effects were done by special puppetry by both Gilliam and SFX technician John Horton.
As chronicled in The Life of Python, The First 20 Years of Monty Python, and The Pythons' Autobiography, Chapman suffered from acrophobia, trembling and bouts of forgetfulness during filming due to his alcoholism, prompting him to refrain from drinking while the production continued in order to remain "on an even keel". Nearly three years later, in December 1977, Chapman achieved sobriety.
Originally the knight characters were going to ride real horses, but after it became clear that the film's small budget precluded real horses (except for a lone horse appearing in a couple of scenes), the Pythons decided their characters would mime horse-riding while their porters trotted behind them banging coconut shells together. The joke was derived from the old-fashioned sound effect used by radio shows to convey the sound of hooves clattering. This was later referred to in the German release of the film, which translated the title as Die Ritter der Kokosnuß (The Knights of the Coconut).
The opening credits of the film feature pseudo-Swedish subtitles, which soon turn into an appeal to visit Sweden and see the country's moose. The subtitles are soon stopped, but moose references continue throughout the actual credits until the credits are stopped again and restarted in a different visual style and with references to llamas, animals often mentioned in Flying Circus. The subtitles were written by Michael Palin as a way to "entertain the 'captive' audience" at the beginning of the film.
In addition to several songs written by Python regular Neil Innes, several pieces of music were licensed from De Wolfe Music Library. These include:
- "Wide Horizon", composed by Pierre Arvay. Used during the opening titles.
- "Ice Floe 9", composed by Pierre Arvay. Used during the opening titles.
- "Countrywide", composed by Anthony Mawer. Used during the beginning titles after the first titlers are sacked.
- "Homeward Bound", composed by Jack Trombey. Used as King Arthur's heroic theme.
- "Crossed Swords", composed by Dudley Matthew. Played during King Arthur's battle with the Black Knight.
- "The Flying Messenger", composed by Oliver Armstrong. Played during Sir Lancelot's misguided storming of Swamp Castle.
- "The Promised Land", composed by Stanley Black. Used in the scene where Arthur approaches the castle on the island.
- "Starlet in the Starlight", composed by Kenneth Essex. Briefly used for Prince Herbert's attempt to express himself in song.
- "Love Theme", composed by Peter Knight. Also used briefly for Prince Herbert.
- "Revolt", composed by Eric Towren. Used as the army charges on Castle Aaargh.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail had its theatrical debut in the United Kingdom in 3 April 1975, followed by a United States release on 27 April 1975. It was re-released on 14 October 2015 in the United Kingdom.
The film had its television premiere 25 February 1977 on the CBS Late Movie. Reportedly, the Pythons were displeased to discover a number of edits were done by the network to reduce use of profanity and the showing of blood. The troupe pulled back the rights and thereafter had it broadcast in the United States only on PBS and later other channels such as Comedy Central and IFC, where it runs uncut.
In Region 1, The Criterion Collection released a LaserDisc version of the film featuring audio commentary from directors Jones and Gilliam. In 2001, Columbia Tristar published a two-disc, special-edition DVD. Disc one included two commentary tracks featuring Idle, Palin and Cleese in the first, and Jones and Gilliam in the second, and "Subtitles for People Who Don't Like the Film", consisting of lines taken from William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2. Disc two includes Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Lego (also known as Lego Knights or It's Only a Model), a "brickfilm" version of the "Camelot Song" as sung by Lego minifigures. It was created by Spite Your Face Productions on commission from the Lego Group and Python Pictures. The project was conceived by the original film's respective producer and co-director, John Goldstone and Terry Gilliam. Disc two also includes two scenes from the film's Japanese dub, literally translated back into English through subtitles. "The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations", hosted by Palin and Jones, shows places in Scotland used for the setting titled as "England 932 A.D." (as well as the two Pythons purchasing a copy of their own script as a guide). Also included is a who's who page, advertising galleries and sing-alongs.
A limited-edition DVD release additionally included a copy of the screenplay, a limited-edition film cell/senitype, and limited-edition art cards; however, a few of the bonus features from the 'Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition' were omitted. A 35th-anniversary edition on Blu-ray was released in the US on 6 March 2012. Special features include "The Holy Book of Days," a second-screen experience that can be downloaded as an app on an iOS device and played with the Blu-ray to enhance its viewing, lost animation sequences with a new intro from animator Terry Gilliam, outtakes and extended scenes with Python member and the movie's co-director Terry Jones.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote in a favourable review that the film had "some low spots," but had gags which were "nonstop, occasionally inspired and should not be divulged, though it's not giving away too much to say that I particularly liked a sequence in which the knights, to gain access to an enemy castle, come up with the idea of building a Trojan rabbit." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was also positive, writing that the film, "like Mad comics, is not certain to please every taste. But its youthful exuberance and its rousing zaniness are hard not to like. As a matter of fact, the sense of fun is dangerously contagious." Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker called the film "often recklessly funny and sometimes a matter of comic genius."
Other reviews were less enthusiastic. Variety wrote that the storyline was "basically an excuse for set pieces, some amusing, others overdone." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars, writing that he felt "it contained about 10 very funny moments and 70 minutes of silence. Too many of the jokes took too long to set up, a trait shared by both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. I guess I prefer Monty Python in chunks, in its original, television revue format." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the film "a fitfully amusing spoof of the Arthurian legends" but "rather poky" in tempo, citing the running gag of Swedish subtitles in the opening credits as an example of how the Pythons "don't know when to let go of any shtik". Geoff Brown of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote in a mixed review that "the team's visual buffooneries and verbal rigamaroles (some good, some bad, but mostly indifferent) are piled on top of each other with no attention to judicious timing or structure, and a form which began as a jaunty assault on the well-made revue sketch and an ingenious misuse of television's fragmented style of presentation, threatens to become as unyielding and unfruitful as the conventions it originally attacked."
The film's reputation grew over time. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Holy Grail the fifth-greatest comedy film of all time. The next Python film, Life of Brian, was ranked first. A 2006 poll of Channel 4 viewers on the 50 Greatest Comedy Films saw Holy Grail placed in sixth place (with Life of Brian again topping the list). In 2011, an ABC prime-time special, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time, counted down the best films chosen by fans based on results of a poll conducted by ABC and People. Holy Grail was selected as the second best comedy after Airplane!. In 2016, Empire magazine ranked Holy Grail 18th in their list of the 100 best British films (Life of Brian was ranked 2nd), with their entry stating, "Elvis ordered a print of this comedy classic and watched it five times. If it's good enough for the King, it's good enough for you."
In a 2017 interview at Indiana University in Bloomington, John Cleese expressed disappointment with the film's conclusion. "'The ending annoys me the most'", he said after a screening of the film on the Indiana campus, adding that "'It ends the way it does because we couldn't think of any other way'". However, scripts for the film and notebooks that are among Michael Palin's private archive, which he donated to the British Library in 2017, do document at least one alternate ending that the troupe considered: "a battle between the knights of Camelot, the French, and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog". Due to the film's small production budget, that idea or a "much pricier option" was discarded by the Pythons in favour of the ending with "King Arthur getting arrested", which Palin deemed "'cheaper'" and "'funnier'".
In 2005, the film was adapted as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Spamalot. Written primarily by Idle, the show has more of an overarching plot and leaves out certain portions of the movie due to difficulties in rendering certain effects on stage. Nonetheless, many of the jokes from the film are present in the show.
In 2013, the Pythons lost a legal case to Mark Forstater, the film's producer, over royalties for the derivative work, Spamalot. They owed a combined £800,000 in legal fees and back royalties to Forstater. To help cover the cost of these royalties and fees, the group arranged and performed in a stage show, Monty Python Live (Mostly), held at the O2 Arena in London in July 2014.
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There was no studio interference because there was no studio; none of them would give us any money. This was at the time income tax was running as high as 90%, so we turned to rock stars for finance. Elton John, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, they all had money, they knew our work and we seemed a good tax write-off. Except, of course we weren't. It was like The Producers.
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Last July, the Pythons lost a royalties case to Mark Forstater, who produced 1975 film Monty Python And The Holy Grail. ...
- "Monty Python sued over Spamalot royalties". BBC News. 30 November 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
Mr Forstater claimed he was entitled to one-seventh of this figure, the same share enjoyed by each of the other Pythons – but was told he was only entitled to one-fourteenth, and has been paid accordingly since 2005. ...
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- Larsen, Darl. A Book About the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail: All the References From African Swallows to Zoot. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. ISBN 9781442245532
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- 2012 interview with Carol Cleveland, covering Holy Grail and the TV series
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