No. 1: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” ~~French Soldier 

It’s the eternal question (ignore all the posers skulking about): How do you put into words your love for a movie you have seen more than 100 times — 107, to be precise — in the course of your life? A movie that inspired a frenzied search for collectibles, including (most recently) a bunny stapler with blood-caked teeth and red, beady eyes? A movie that features a ballad so clever that, when sung faultlessly, leads a near-total stranger to propose marriage to a girl he just met? (All are weird-but-true stories involving me, including the marriage one. But he only wanted me for my “Ballad of Brave Sir Robin” singing prowess.)

The answer: You weep, you rail, you tuck your tail and flee, then you set your mind to tackling the dirty work afoot. For you see, it’s a movie reviewer’s duty to sample as much peril as she can.

Yes, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is not an average movie — truth be told, it can’t rightly be called a “movie” in the traditional sense at all — and so it resists the usual full-body review treatment. Gets all wiggly and squirmy and cheeky when words like “plot” and “character development” show up. Indeed, there’s something that tentatively resembles an overarching plot, some business about King “I don’t need no stinkin’ horse, just a pair of coconuts” Arthur (the late Graham Chapman) seeking the Holy Grail. But to get there you have to get through the zany free-for-all that constitutes the opening credits (suggestion: read the subtitles). And after we meet Arthur and his coconut-clapping serf, things dissolve into chaos. Beautiful, hilarious, over-the-top, glorious chaos.

In fact, the great fun of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is watching this chaotic mess of a movie devolve into a mass of skits that range from clever to zany to just plain mad and hysterical. King Arthur drifts in and out of each jaunt on his quest to find the Holy Grail, picking up key players in his entourage along the way: Sir Lancelot (John Cleese), a knight in perpetual pursuit of a damsel to rescue even if he has to slay all the guests at her party to do so; Sir Galahad (Michael Palin), a well-meaning, naive doof who just wants to hit some peril at Castle Anthrax; the cowardly Sir Robin (Eric Idle), who’s got a nasty habit of soiling himself when danger strikes; and Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), a great thinker who’s discovered, among other things, just how sheep’s bladders can be used to prevent natural disasters but isn’t much of a military strategist.

Does that make any sense? Probably not, but it stands as the best nutshelling one can do for a movie created by the Monty Python troupe. Perhaps it’s best to focus on what works in this motley collection of sketches: the total and utter absence of subtlety. Everything in “Holy Grail” is designed to elicit shock, awe and belly laughs. (This is the only reason anyone would create a fearsome toothed monster and call it “The Beast of Auuuugggghhh,” or a furry white rabbit with a taste for human blood.) There’s a refreshing distate for predictability, too, with characters playing four, five or even six parts and seeming unrecognizable each time. Cleese lands the juiciest roles, turning up as a taunting French guard (“Of course I’m French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?”), then the Black Knight, who dismisses total amputation of both arms and legs as “just a flesh wound,” and the sword-happy and delusional Sir Lancelot the Brave, who isn’t so much brave as possessed of an itchy trigger finger. But Chapman gets to play God — literally — and creates the kind of deity who hates the meek. Snivel in his midst and you’ll likely be torn to shreds with vicious rhetoric, or at least endure a stern “knock it out!” when you drop to your knees. It’s this kind of witty derangement, that make “Holy Grail” the kind of movie that rewards multiple — and do I mean multiple — viewings.

So here I arrive, more than 700 words in, and I’ve barely made a dent in what makes this pile of wacky characters, inexplicable storylines and infinitely quotable dialogue so funny and so wonderful. Yet somehow this doesn’t seem like a failure so much as exactly what the crazed minds behind “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” want. It’s the kind of work that inspires intense love or hatred. Watch, be amazed, form your own opinion.

Do it, or I shall taunt you a second time.

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11 Responses

  1. i suppose i have to mention my favorite part, eh? 🙂
    that would be the discussion between king arthur and the peasants collecting filth.
    arthur’s general frustration (“be quiet!!”) is great, as is the initial exchange:
    “well i can’t just call you ‘man’.”
    “you could say ‘dennis’.”
    “i didn’t know you were called dennis.”
    “well you didn’t bother to find out, did you??”

    • Yes, that is the accepted response.

      Good one! One of my favorite exchanges is the one between The Dead Collector and the guy carrying the dead body, and it goes a little somethin’ like this:

      Man with Dead Body: Who’s that then?
      The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
      Man with Dead Body: Why?
      The Dead Collector: He hasn’t got shit all over him.

      So funny, and so insightful at the same time!

  2. My favourites were the encounter with the French Soldier and the one about burning the witch. “Well, she turned me into a newt!” – “I got Better”.

    Having said the I do actually prefer Life of Brian.

    • Another classic line! So many lines, so little time…

      “Life of Brian” is excellent. It’s a tough one to call.

  3. My husband bought me a shirt that says “I fart in your general direction!” I wear it proudly everywhere even though people think I’m a degenerate.

    This is by far one of my favorite comedies of all time, and 100% deserves to be the #1 on any list. You could put it in a Fantasy Films or Science Fiction category. It’s just so timeless and downright funny that it should win all the awards for everything. I’m not surprised you have such extraordinary taste in movies, and such a brilliant sense of humor.

    • Agreed — all awards on everything. But wacky comedies so rarely get the accolades they deserve. This makes me sad.

      (OK, no more “Grail” references today. I’ve OD’d.)

  4. I’m not sure “I fart in your general direction!” works written down it needs to be spoken in a bad fake French accent to have the desired impact.

    • True, true. Without the outrageous French accent, something gets lost.

      But I do love a T-shirt that makes people fancy me a degenerate! Maybe I should order one.

  5. Truly the funniest movie ever made. Well done.

    • No argument here. I’ve found people who don’t agree with that statement are people I just don’t have much in common with.

  6. […] You were expecting something a little “Holy Grail”-ier, perhaps? No offense to the Greatest Movie Ever Made, but there are times when British tomfoolery hits the spot and times when a desert island dweller […]

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