The Magic Christian (film)

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The Magic Christian
The Magic Christian.jpg
Cover of the VHS release
Directed byJoseph McGrath
Produced byDenis O'Dell
Screenplay byTerry Southern
Joseph McGrath
Based onThe Magic Christian
by Terry Southern
StarringPeter Sellers
Ringo Starr
John Cleese
Leonard Frey
Raquel Welch
Laurence Harvey
Spike Milligan
Wilfred Hyde-White
Graham Chapman
Ferdy Mayne
Isabel Jeans
Richard Attenborough
Roman Polanski
Christopher Lee
Yul Brynner
Music byKen Thorne
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth
Edited byKevin Connor
Distributed byCommonwealth United Corporation
Release date
  • 12 December 1969 (1969-12-12) (UK)
  • 11 February 1970 (1970-02-11) (U.S.)
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish

The Magic Christian is a 1969 British satirical black comedy film directed by Joseph McGrath and starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with appearances by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Raquel Welch, Spike Milligan, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski. It was loosely adapted from the 1959 comic novel The Magic Christian by the American author Terry Southern, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with McGrath. The film also features pre-Monty Python appearances of John Cleese (credited) and an uncredited Graham Chapman, who had jointly written an earlier version of the film script.

Songs by Badfinger, including one written by Paul McCartney, were used on the soundtrack. The official soundtrack album had other music as well as dialogue from the film. Badfinger released an album, Magic Christian Music, containing their songs for the film.

The Magic Christian received mostly negative reviews on release with its unrelenting and heavy-handed satire on capitalism, greed and human vanities.

Plot[edit]

Sir Guy Grand (Sellers), an eccentric billionaire, together with his newly adopted heir (formerly a homeless derelict), Youngman Grand (Starr), start playing elaborate practical jokes on people. A big spender, Grand does not mind handing out large sums of money to various people, bribing them to fulfill his whims, or shocking them by bringing down what they hold dear. Their misadventures are designed as a display by Grand to his adoptive charge of the notion that "everyone has their price" — it just depends on the amount one is prepared to pay. They start from rather minor spoofs, like bribing a Shakespearean actor (Laurence Harvey) to strip during a stage performance of Hamlet and persuading a traffic warden (Spike Milligan) to take back a parking ticket and eat it (delighted by the size of the bribe, he eats its plastic cover too) and proceed with increasingly elaborate stunts involving higher social strata and wider audiences. As their conversation reveals, Grand sees his plots as "educational".

At Sotheby's art auction house, it is confided to Grand that an original portrait from the Rembrandt School might fetch £10,000 at auction. To the astonishment of the director, Mr. Dugdale (Cleese), Grand makes a pre-auction bid of £30,000 (£497,400 today) for the painting and, having bought it, proceeds to extirpate the portrait's nose from the canvas with a pair of scissors, as a mortified Dugdale looks on in open-mouthed shock. In a classy restaurant, he makes a loud show of wild gluttony, Grand being the restaurant's most prominent customer. In the annual Boat Race sports event, he bribes the captain (Richard Attenborough) of the Oxford rowing team (one member of which is played by Graham Chapman) to have them purposely ram the Cambridge boat, to win a screamingly unjust victory. In a traditional pheasant hunt, he uses an anti-aircraft gun to down the bird.

Guy and Youngman eventually buy tickets for the luxury liner The Magic Christian, along with the richest stratum of society. Guests seen boarding the ship include Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis (all played by lookalikes). In the beginning everything appears normal, and the ship apparently sets off. Soon, things start going wrong. A solitary drinker at the bar (Roman Polanski) is approached by a transvestite cabaret singer (Yul Brynner), a vampire (Christopher Lee) poses as a waiter, and a cinema film features the unsuccessful transplant of a black person's head onto a white person's body. Passengers begin to notice, through the ship's closed-circuit television, that their captain (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is in a drunken stupor and is carted off by a gorilla. In a crescendo of panic, the guests try to abandon ship. A group of them, shown the way by Youngman Grand, instead reach the machine room. There, the Priestess of the Whip (Raquel Welch), assisted by two topless drummers, commands more than a hundred slave girls. They are naked except for loincloths. Rowing five to an oar, their wrists are manacled and fastened by chains to the ceiling. As passengers finally find an exit, and lords and ladies stumble out in the daylight, it is discovered that the supposed ship was in fact a structure built inside a warehouse, and the passengers had never left London. As they break out, a large painted sign reading "SMASH CAPITALISM" can be seen on the inside wall of the warehouse. During the whole misadventure, the Grands look perfectly composed and cool.

Toward the end of the film, Guy fills up a huge vat with urine, blood and animal excrement and adds to it thousands of bank notes. Attracting a crowd of onlookers by announcing "Free money!", Grand successfully entices the city's workers to recover the cash. The sequence concludes with many members of the crowd submerging themselves, in order to retrieve money that had sunk beneath the surface, as the song "Something in the Air" by Thunderclap Newman is heard by the film's audience.

The film ends with both Guy and Youngman, having returned to the park where the film opened, bribing the park warden to allow them to sleep there, stating that this was a more direct method of achieving their (mostly unstated) ends.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Writing[edit]

Although Joseph McGrath, co-wrote the adaptation with the American author Terry Southern, who wrote the original 1959 comic novel The Magic Christian, the screenplay differs considerably in content from the novel such as moving the story from America to London in the Swinging Sixties. Likewise the Youngman character was not in the original book but was created for the film, with many of Sir Guy's early exploits in the novel adapted as Youngman's in the film.

Casting[edit]

Peter Sellers, who was cast as Sir Guy Grand, was known to have liked the book because it was how Terry Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to co-write Dr. Strangelove in 1964. After Sellers sent Kubrick a copy of The Magic Christian, he decided to make the film as a black comedy/satire, rather than a straightforward thriller.[1] The role of the orphan was played by Ringo Starr; it was written with John Lennon in mind. Starr and Sellers became good friends during the shoot.[2] The film also features a host of British and American actors with brief roles in the film, many playing against type.

Filming[edit]

The British actor and dancer Lionel Blair was responsible for the film's choreography.

The scene involving the vat containing animal blood, urine and excrement was filmed at London's South Bank on a stretch of waste ground on which the National Theatre was later built. It was originally planned to film this climactic scene at the Statue of Liberty in New York, and (remarkably) the U.S. National Park Service agreed to a request to permit this. Sellers, Southern and McGrath travelled to New York on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (at a reported cost of US $10,000 [$69,700 today] per person but the studio refused to pay for the shoot, and it had to be relocated to London.[3]

Soundtrack[edit]

The film features the song "Come and Get It" written and produced by Paul McCartney and performed by Badfinger, a Welsh rock band promoted by Apple Records. The lyrics refer to Grand's schemes of bribing people to act according to his whims ("If you want it, here it is, come and get it").[4]

"Something in the Air" by Thunderclap Newman is used in the film.

Reception[edit]

Most mainstream critics have been quite negative about the film, especially for its extensive use of black humour. Darrel Baxton, in his review for The Spinning Image, refers to the film as of "the school of savage sub-Bunuelian satire".[5]

Christopher Null on filmcritic.com states that "it is way too over-the-top to make any profound statement".[6]

Reviewing the film in the present day for We Are Cult, James Gent writes:

[On] its own merits The Magic Christian is a real curio of its time, with enough celebrity cameos and ‘60s British Cinema, Beatles and Python connections to appeal to a cross-section of fandoms for cultural and historical interest alone. And it’s good fun: Daft, silly, flawed, patchy, but rarely dull, with Sellers and Starr carrying the film with their infectious personalities alone – for better or worse, a shining example of “They don’t make them like that any more” and “Drugs in the sixties must have been REALLY good!”[7]

In popular culture[edit]

DVD/Blu-ray[edit]

The Magic Christian was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films on 28 May 2013.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Terry Southern. "Notes from The War Room". Grand Street. No. 49.
  2. ^ Bonner, Michael (7 July 2017). "Ringo Starr on The Beatles, Peter Sellers, Frank Zappa and more…". Uncut.
  3. ^ Hill, Lee (2001). A Grand Guy: The Life and Art of Terry Southern. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  4. ^ McCartney: Songwriter ISBN 0-491-03325-7 p. 98
  5. ^ "The Magic Christian". The Spinning Image. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  6. ^ filmcritic.com Archived 15 January 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Gent, James. "The Magic Christian on DVD reviewed". WeAreCult.rocks. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
  8. ^ Thill, Scott (2 November 2010). "Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc. Births Comics' First Zen Billionaire". Wired. Retrieved 1 January 2013.

External links[edit]