“On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. ‘Tis a silly place.”
What Monty Python and The Holy Grail Means to Us
When I was a kid PBS was the only place to get British television. If you could stay up late you could see Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and – most importantly for me – Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Monty Python’s absurdist humor was like nothing else I’d seen, and I remember just losing it as skits like the Fish Slapping Dance, the Lumberjack Song and The Ministry of Silly Walks. I felt like no one else was watching it, though. I had no friends that I could share it with – try describing the Parrot Sketch to anyone who hasn’t seen it. They look at you like you’re mad.
In college all that changed. I somehow never got around to seeing any Python film until then and when I finally did it was the glorious insanity that is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I saw it with a bunch of friends and we, of course, all ended up quoting it incessantly. And, wonder of wonders, there were a ton of other people who would do the same. I know it’s one of the most quoted and famous Python films, but at the time it was like a revelation. People knew Python! People loved Python! People I didn’t know would hear me make a Python quote and quickly ask me what my favorite color was, or count to five (three sir!) three, or say “Ni” to me like barbarians. It was astounding how something that had made me feel like an outsider as a kid could make me feel so much like a part of something. Holy Grail is still my favorite Python film (though I do love them all).
A few years ago, I discovered that my Dad is a huge Python fan as well, and has been since those same days watching PBS. I wish I’d known that – and that he’d known I was as well. We didn’t always have a lot in common and I think it would have made some of those lonely days a bit better. It’s good we know now, though. And I think it might be time to stop in for a visit and see if he’s up for watching The Holy Grail again.
– Bob Cram
We were the nerds, OK? The “smart” kids. The ones in the advanced classes. We were awkward. We liked weird things like reading books for fun. We had lightsaber fights in my parent’s front yard even though we were juniors in high school and far too old for those sorts of shenanigans. That was my high school crew. The friends who had my back no matter what. This was the band of merry misfits with whom I first watched Monty Python and The Holy Grail in the late ‘90s, and it immediately became ours. The absurdist humor was just our style of smart, strange and ridiculous. We watched it repeatedly and quoted it incessantly. It was our collective canon.
This month marks 48 years since Monty Python and The Holy Grail was released. It hit theaters on April 3, 1975, in England and April 27, 1975, in the U.S., where it was a fairly smashing success.
The Python crew, which consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, got its start with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This British sketch comedy series aired from 1969 to 1974 and featured a combination of live action and animated skits. They also released two more films — Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983).
Still, The Holy Grail is arguably their most well-known work. It endured for 20 years to become a beacon of humor to my ragtag bunch of small town Texas high schoolers in the ‘90s. And though they may not know it, subsequent generations have heard references to it in all realms of pop culture — from NCIS and The Simpsons to Finding Nemo and the Fallout video game series.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Monty Python and The Holy Grail is a satirical take on the legend of King Arthur. And you know this because the first scene of the movie features Graham Chapman stoically galloping out of the fog (on his own 2 feet), followed by his loyal squire Patsy (who is banging two halves of coconut together to produce the necessary galloping sounds), and declares:
“It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon from the castle of Camelot. King of the Britons. Defeater of the Saxons. Sovereign of all England.”
To which the guard replies:
“Pull the other one!”
The conversation then devolves into a spirited argument about how Patsy’s horse-hoof-sound-making coconuts came to be in England and the airspeed velocity of swallows.
And thus with its opening scene, Monty Python and The Holy Grail demonstrates decisively that while King Arthur is the driver and his legend is the vehicle, the road we are on does not go to Camelot — in fact, it’s less of a road and more of an ill-defined dirt path that meanders through a thick forest and disappears at random intervals, definitely crosses the paths of a pack of wolves, three bears, and one very angry moose, then dead ends in a cliff that you will absolutely fall off.
Help! I’m Being Repressed!
For a movie that delights in being completely random and totally ridiculous, Monty Python and The Holy Grail offers a surprising amount of insightfulness. It takes many of the more well-known bits of culture and historical events of medieval times (like the plague and a tendency to burn women at the stake) and serves them to us covered in dirt and sprouting warts, before quickly by turning them upside down and mocking them incessantly.
One of the most notable aspects of the film’s portrayal of medieval times is its emphasis on the struggle for power and authority. Throughout the movie, as King Arthur and his knights are clomping along through the countryside, they are met with a constant string of obstacles, from land-hungry lords to rival knights to stubborn peasants. We see a society that is deeply divided and chaotic, with little respect for authority or order.
My favorite depiction of this is the scene in which King Arthur stops to ask a peasant who lives in the castle seen in the distance. The peasant, Dennis, begins to go on extensively (and eloquently) about the “outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society,” then proceeds to mock Arthur’s method of ascension via a sword hurled out of a lake by a watery nymph.
“Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
The movie also pokes fun at some of the conventions and beliefs of medieval society. Many of the characters are deeply superstitious and gullible. A fun example of this is the scene in which a group of peasants bring an accused witch to Sir Bedevere, claiming she turned a man into a newt (“I got better,” the man proclaims quickly). As he mediates the dispute, Bedevere is observed by an impressed King Arthur as he ultimately decides the woman is a witch because she weighs the same as a duck.
Throughout the film, the harshness and violent nature of medieval times is highlighted. Battles and fights are bloody and brutal events, often followed quickly by an absurdly comedic death. One of my favorite examples being King Arthur’s infamous fight with the Black Knight.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Arthur and Patsy are travelling through a forest when the come across the ominous Black Knight guarding a small stream. The Black Knight challenges Arthur to cross the bridge and a fight ensues. Throughout the fight, Arthur attempts to reason with the Black Knight, who refuses to yield despite eventually losing all of his limbs.
What Fourth Wall?
The Holy Grail’s style of absurdist humor means that each scene is more ridiculous than the last, every step so random that you can’t imagine how or why it’s happening. Not the least among the randomness is the continual breaking of the fourth wall. If you’re not familiar, this is a term used to describe a scene in which a character addresses the audience directly, acknowledging the fact that they are in an actor playing in a work of fiction.
In the case of The Holy Grail, I’m not quite sure we can call it “breaking the fourth wall” if the wall seems to be absent before the movie even begins. Let’s not forget that the opening credits pause to proclaim that those responsible for the opening credits have been sacked; then a few moments later again to advise us that the ones who replaced them have been sacked; before finally letting us know that the credits will be finished in a completely different fashion (that largely consists of thanking llamas).
Throughout the movie, the characters frequently address the camera, making jokes about the film-making process and complaining about different aspects of the story. At one point, an entire army of extras from one scene yells at a character in a different scene to “get on with it!”
The use of breaking the fourth wall allows several the filmmakers to do several things: play with the audience’s expectations; comment on the way that historical narratives are constructed; and critique traditional ideas about heroism and chivalry.
Plus, it’s just funny as hell.
With a shoestring budget of about $400,000, supplied largely by British rockstars who were Python fans (thank you Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis!), Monty Python and The Holy Grail has endured for nearly half a century, influencing every generation since and spawning memes, parodies, and tributes.
But to me, how it influenced other popular culture is less important than how it has united the fans who have loved it. My little friend group was not the exception to the rule. For every time we said “Ni!” to each other, there was another group of friends in some other small town saying it, too. Every time I’ve ever referenced the airspeed velocity of a swallow, there has always been someone nearby to ask, “What do you mean, an African swallow or a European swallow?” I’ve been at work, at kid’s birthday parties, at rock concerts, and everywhere in between when I’ve experienced those little connections, those small sparks of understanding. No matter how silly the story, how low the budget, how outrageous the overacting, that is the real legacy of Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
So, what about you? What are your favorite scenes or quotes from Monty Python and The Holy Grail? Got a piece of trivia or insight? Share it in the comments below!