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 concerning the Arthurian legend, written and performed by the Monty Python comedy group of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, and directed by Gilliam and Jones.[n 1] It was conceived during the hiatus between the third and fourth series of their BBC television series Monty Python's Flying Circus.
In contrast to the group's first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, a compilation of sketches from the first two television series, Holy Grail draws on new material, parodying 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 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, he recruits Sir Bedevere the Wise, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, and Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film, along with their squires and Robin's troubadours. Arthur leads the men 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) speaks to them and gives Arthur the task of finding the Holy Grail.
Searching the land for clues to the Grail's location, Arthur and his men come to a castle occupied by rude French soldiers who claim to have the Grail and insult the Englishmen. After being driven back by a shower of barnyard animals, Bedevere comes up with a plan to sneak in using a Trojan Rabbit, but they mishandle its execution when they forget to hide inside it, and are forced to flee when the Rabbit is catapulted back at them. Arthur decides that the knights should go their separate ways to search for clues to the Grail's whereabouts. A modern-day historian filming a documentary describing the Arthurian legends is abruptly killed by a knight on horseback, triggering a police investigation.
On the knights' travels, Arthur and Bedevere 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 160 nubile young women, but to his chagrin is "rescued" by Lancelot. Lancelot, after receiving an arrow-shot note from Swamp Castle believed to be from a lady being forced to marry against her will, rushes to the castle and slaughters nearly the entire wedding party, only to discover that the note was sent by an effeminate prince whose father had arranged the marriage.
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. Sir Bors fatally underestimates its lethal prowess. The Rabbit then kills Sirs 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 the Castle of Aarrgh (the name being based on Joseph's utterance, having died whilst carving the inscription). After barely escaping a giant animated monster that devours Brother Maynard (only due to the animator having a heart attack, which ends the beast's existence), they arrive at the Gorge of Eternal Peril. As they approach the Bridge of Death, the man from Scene 24 challenges them to correctly answer three questions in order to pass - or be cast into the Gorge. Lancelot goes first and answers all three correctly, and crosses over. Robin is surprised by a sudden hard question, and Galahad misses the answer to an easy question, and both are thrown off the bridge. During Arthur's turn, he responds to the bridge-keeper's last question with a clarifying question which stumps the bridge-keeper. After the man from Scene 24 is thrown into the gorge, Arthur and Bedevere cross.
When Arthur and Bedevere reach the bridge's end, they cannot find Lancelot, unaware he has been arrested by the police investigating the historian's death. Arthur and Bedevere eventually reach the Castle of Aarrgh, only to find it occupied by the same French soldiers who taunted them before. After being driven to retreat by showers of manure, they amass a large army of knights and prepare to assault the castle. Just as they are charging in to attack, a large force of police shows up, arrests Arthur and Bedevere for the historian's death and shuts down the film's production. The movie ends with one of the officers breaking the camera.
|Actor||Main role||Other roles (in order of appearance)|
|Graham Chapman||Arthur, King of the Britons||Voice of God / Middle Head of Three-Headed Knight / Hiccuping Guard at Swamp Castle|
|John Cleese||Sir Lancelot the Brave||Swallow-Savvy Guard #2 / Man with "Dead" Body / Black Knight / Witch-Hunting Villager #3 / Singing Camelot Knight #4 / French Taunter / Tim the Enchanter|
|Terry Gilliam||Patsy, Arthur's Servant||Green Knight / Singing Camelot Knight #3 / Gorilla Hand / Old Man in Scene 24 (Soothsaying Bridgekeeper) / Sir Bors / Weak-Hearted Animator (Himself)|
|Eric Idle||Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot||Dead Collector / Witch-Hunting Villager #1 / Singing Camelot Knight #2 / Confused Guard at Swamp Castle / Concorde (Lancelot's squire) / Roger the Shrubber / Brother Maynard|
|Terry Jones||Sir Bedevere the Wise||Dennis' Mother / French Knight / Left Head of Three-Headed Knight / Voice of Cartoon Scribe / Prince Herbert|
|Michael Palin||Sir Galahad the Pure||Swallow-Savvy Guard #1 / Dennis / Witch-Hunting Villager #2 / Narrator / Singing Camelot Knight #5 / French Knight / Right Head of Three-Headed Knight / Leader of the Knights Who Say Ni / King of Swamp Castle / Guest at Swamp Castle / Monk (Maynard's Assistant)|
|Connie Booth||Miss Islington, the Witch|
|Carol Cleveland||Zoot||Dingo (Zoot's Identical Twin Sister)|
|Neil Innes||Leader of Robin's Minstrels||Leader of Chanting Monks / Witch-Hunting Villager #4 / Singing Camelot Knight #1 / Page Crushed by Wooden Rabbit / French Knight|
|Bee Duffell||Old Crone|
|John Young||Frank, the Historian||"Dead" Body|
|Rita Davies||Frank's Wife|
|Avril Stewart||Dr. Piglet|
|Sally Kinghorn||Dr. Winston|
|Mark Zycon||Sir Robin (stand-in)||Prisoner in Camelot Dungeon|
|Sandy Johnson||Knight Who Says Ni||Witch-Hunting Villager / Musician at Swamp Castle / Monk / Knight in Final Battle|
|Julian Doyle||Police Sergeant who stops the film|
|Richard Burton||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, it was revealed that Chapman was suffering from acrophobia, trembling, and bouts of forgetfulness during filming. These were the results of Chapman's long-standing alcohol addiction, and he decided from that moment on to remain "on an even keel" while the production continued. Nearly three years after Holy Grail, Chapman vowed to quit drinking altogether (which he successfully achieved in December 1977).
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 that 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.
Reaction and legacy
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 "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 spawned a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical smash hit spinoff, 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.
- Though the opening credits comedically identify the directors as "40 Specially Trained Ecuadorian Mountain Llamas, 6 Venezuelan Red Llamas, 142 Mexican Whooping Llamas, 14 North Chilean Guanacos (Closely Related to the Llama), Reg Llama of Brixton, 76000 Battery Llamas From 'Llama-Fresh' Farms Ltd. Near Paraguay, and Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones".
- Palin 2006, p. 225.
- "Monty Python and the Holy Grail (12A)". British Board of Film Classification. 28 August 2015. Retrieved 24 September 2016.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information. The Numbers. Retrieved on 3 August 2014.
- Hutchinson, Sean (16 June 2015). "15 Facts about Monty Python and the Holy Grail". Mental Floss. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
- "Life of Brian tops comedy poll". BBC News. Retrieved 18 January 2014
- "50 Greatest Comedy Films". London: Channel 4. 2006. Archived from the original on 15 April 2006. Retrieved 25 August 2019.
- Palin 2006, p. 174.
- Monty Python troupe (2001). "BBC Film Night: Monty Python & the Holy Grail Location Report". Monty Python and the Holy Grail (DVD). Columbia Tristar.
- Chapman, Graham (2001). "BBC Film Night: Monty Python & the Holy Grail Location Report". Monty Python and the Holy Grail (DVD). Columbia Tristar.
- Gilliam, Terry; Jones, Terry (2001). "BBC Film Night: Monty Python & the Holy Grail Location Report". Monty Python and the Holy Grail (DVD). Columbia Tristar.
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- O'Neill, Phelim (9 March 2002). "Snake Charmer-Monty Python And The Holy Grail was Terry Gilliam's first film as a director. Here he remembers how he taught the nation to laugh at castles". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 February 2018.
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.
- "Monty Python and the Holy Grail filming locations". Ukonscreen.com. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- Li 2011.
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- "Bodiam Castle, East Sussex". London: Guardian News and Media Limited. 5 June 2007. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
- Doyle, Julian (2001). "The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations". Monty Python and the Holy Grail (DVD). Columbia Tristar.
- "Never have so few suffered for the enjoyment of so many: the making of Monty Python And The Holy Grail". Hotdog. October 2000. via Angelfire.com (convenience link).
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- "Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About Monty Python and the Holy Grail That Might Make You Say "Ni!"". pajiba.com. Retrieved 25 February 2016.
- "Countrywide". Dewolfemusic.co.uk. Archived from the original on 3 October 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- "Crossed Swords". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 1 March 2013.
- "Flying Messenger". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- "The Promised Land". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- "Starlet In The Starlight". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- "Love Theme". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
- "Revolt". Dewolfe.co.uk. Retrieved 1 March 2013.
- Palin 2006, p. 231.
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- Siskel, Gene (June 9, 1975). "Now comes King Arthur to cut 'em off at the pass". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 22.
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- Wright, Megh (2018). "Comedy’s Holy Grail, Lost Monty Python Scenes, Found in Michael Palin's Archive", 1 August 2018, Vulture, the culture and entertainment website for New York magazine. Retrieved 15 September 2019.
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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 Online. 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. ...
- Wilkinson, Peter (25 November 2013). "Monty Python reunion show sells out in 43 seconds". CNN. Retrieved 20 August 2019.
- "Watch Mick Jagger Dryly Accuse Monty Python of Being 'Wrinkly Old Men'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
- 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
- Li, Martin (2011). "Scotland on Film". Glasgow & the River Clyde. Hunter Publishing, Inc. ISBN 158843785X.
- McCall, Douglas (2013). Monty Python: A Chronology, 1969–2012 (2 ed.). McFarland. ISBN 9780786478118 – via Google Books.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Book), Eyre Methuen, 1977, ISBN 0 413 38520 5. Contains screenplay, photographs, and other material.
- Palin, Michael (2006). Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
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