starring Monty Python
screenplay by Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle & Terry Jones & Michael Palin
directed by Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
by Walter Chaw Comprising Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman, the comedy troupe Monty Python had as their stock in trade the dialogue-dense, mildly absurdist short-form sketch. To that extent, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a series of comedic skits and improvisations bound loosely--very loosely--by the contention that this merry sextet of Britons is attempting to tell the Arthur myth without the aid of budget, plot, or accuracy. All of them are classically educated, and the film seems to be a giant flip of the nose at the pretension of the British literary tradition. In the act of being such, it nearly becomes the best telling of the Grail legend available. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a satire that instructs with its informed irreverence, a piece that knows the rules before it breaks them and has shown itself over the course of 26 years to be almost as immediate and hilarious as it was upon initial release.
I knew a guy (and so did, I suspect, everyone who went to high school in the 1980s) fond of reciting every line of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a constant rotation with choice selections from Better Off Dead and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. One late night after a concert, having been regaled every chance he could get by this Kenny's rendition of "The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin," I well and truly snapped, finding myself kicking the holy hell out of his car with my steel-tipped anti-establishment boots. Lesson being that no matter how hip you are, there's only so much Monty Python you can take. At a brisk 90 minutes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is just shy of that point--but it's getting there.
Arthur, King of the Britons (Chapman), rides through his demesne in 932 A.D., accompanied by his loyal squire (Gilliam). The only thing missing is a horse, its absence ignored by the skipping canter of the armour-clad Arthur and the squire clapping hollow coconuts for hoof-beats. What makes this scenario ridiculous rather than just silly is the conversation that results from this arrangement, when a soldier on a foreign battlement asks where Arthur got the coconut--seeing as how coconuts are tropical. Perhaps, they eventually decide, a pair of migratory swallows carried it to the United Kingdom on a string suspended between them.
Acquiring the services of wise Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), virtuous Sir Galahad (Palin), courageous Sir Lancelot (Cleese), and the not-quite-so-courageous-as-Sir Lancelot Sir Robin (Idle), Arthur and his knights, sent on a holy quest by irritable God to find the Holy Grail, encounter a bellicose black knight, the insufferable French (twice), a three-headed giant, an effete lad in need of rescuing, and a castle full of randy virgins begging for a spanking. Immanently quotable moments include a run-in with the knights who say "ni" and demand an obeisance of shrubbery, an intrigue with a bloodthirsty rabbit solved by a holy hand grenade, and a cursory overview of everything from feudal politics to the Black Plague. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a collection of exuberant, ludicrous vignettes that have themselves become as recognizable and venerable as the events they ostensibly depicted. If a few of the jokes are no longer direct hits, the current theatrical re-release holds new charms: booming Dolby sound and, as advertised, a 25-second restoration (it's actually about 11 seconds of fresh obscenities). These additions help some of us forget that we're listening to the witch-trial scene's umpteenth recitation. Originally published: September 14, 2001.