A satire of religion and nobility produced by a cross-dressing English comedy troupe, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is as ridiculous as it reads on paper, a free-form foray into the surreal and sacrilegious that operates on the steam of its own irreverence. Everything on screen is a deconstruction, spoofing the authority of religion, politics and the artistic elite to create a film as incensed by structure as it is by the powers that be, liberating in its disregard for the confines of society and logic.
Even the opening credit sequence is drenched in sarcasm, but don’t confuse flippancy for lack of passion, especially when the Python team crams more jokes into the open seconds than most films have in their first reel. Capturing the sturm und drang of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal through pounding drum and icey keys, the stark black and white scrolling credits even boast counterfeit Scandinavian subtitles, replete with English words bastardized by a “slashed O” and rampant misspelling.
Not content to simply smirk at the austerity of art cinema, the pranksters slowly morph the titles into a tourism advertisement for Sweden, “sacking” their translator in favor of whooping mariachi music and a jarring array of strobing lights. These interruptions occur incessantly, creating disorder through disjointed animated sequences, clips of a historical documentary gone haywire and a flashy intermission in the final reel. The objective is to remove meaning from space and time and the only way to laugh at the joke is to disregard your predilection for plot and coherence.
That isn’t hard to accomplish when dialogue and narrative are nothing more than a platform for absurdist humor. Following King Arthur and his motley crew of knights, the storyline progresses from assembling the team to searching for the holy grail, diverting along the way to debate the carrying capacity of an African swallow and the preeminent method for detecting a witch. The best gags deal with incongruity, whether it be the ferocious fangs of a bunny rabbit or a group of mud farmers who chat about “imperialist dogma” like first-year political science majors, rubbing King Arthur’s repressive behavior in his unsullied face.
The production design is appropriately mucky, benefiting from the Scottish Highlands’ rainfall and lush greenery, captured through natural photography and faint clouds of artificial fog. Interspersed bits of animation are painted onto the landscape, carrying the delightfully blasphemous stop-motion work of director Terry Gilliam, who emulates period art in an effort to pervert the sacrosanct. His most memorable mortal sins consist of cherubs farting out a song of praise, a nun marvelling at an exposed backside and an impatient God chastising the miserable hymns of his groveling, insufferable acolytes.
Reluctant to settle for a mere merger of cartoon and comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail churns through a myriad of styles, lampooning the musical, fairy tale, police procedural, porno and documentary, rarely settling to catch its breath and shouting “Get on with it!” when the pace threatens to flag. Adjusting to the rapidity of the jokes and contrarian attitude does require some compromise, but embracing the recklessness and structural complexity can lead to ample laughter and aesthetic admiration.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (EMI Films, 1975)
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin
Photographed by Terry Bedford