Saturday, 11 June 2016

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (UK, 1975)



This was the second movie from the thoroughly, mostly, British Python team (their first being 'And Now for Something Completely Different'). This was the first movie by the group to venture away from their sketch routine and actually create new material along with an actual plot, the plot of course being a parody or spoof of the age old British Arthurian legend (King Arthur and his knights of the round table).

The plot simply revolves around King Arthur travelling the length and breath of Olde England to find knights that will join him at his court in Camelot, and the round table...if they are just and good enough. In the midst of this minor mission Arthur is called upon by God in the heavens, he instructs them to seek out the Holy Grail. So that is exactly what Arthur and his new band of merry men do, they go out and face much peril in trying to locate the one true Grail. Naturally this entails separate dangers for each of the brave knights as they eventually head off in different directions to discover the fabled treasure, but sure enough, within time, they all team up again to possibly face their greatest challenge thus far.

I must have first seen this film back in my younger years (easily under the age of 10) as my dad is a big Python fan, relishing every word of that absurd, surreal humour. From that day to this I have always pretty much had the same feeling about this film, and that's a very mixed feeling. The main thing I absolutely adore about this film (as with other Python movies) is the atmosphere. Obviously the fact the film was made before I was even born (1978) does add much of this atmosphere simply because the films visuals are a bit dirty, grubby and lacking panache due to the whole production being low on budget, it being 1975, and completely British. For some reason British films have this visual vibe about them which you can easily pick up, you can tell its been shot or made in the UK. But the other factor I've always loved about this film is the dark, foreboding, mythical...almost supernatural element the whole thing has, much like the 1977 Python-esque movie 'Jabberwocky'.
























I love the films constant bleak visuals, the heavy swirling mist, the typically gloomy British weather and the little bits of gallows humour sprinkled throughout the landscapes. As already mentioned the low budget has helped, as the old story goes, when there is little cash around the director and his crew must be more inventive and creative in their work. This is very true here with little to no special effects utilised accept for basic props, costumes and sets of course, yet still the films atmosphere is terrific. The stereotypically bad British weather has also helped production greatly by adding some really authentic pissing rain, dark brooding clouds, thunder and on occasion some brilliant sunshine, but not much. One glorious example being a beautiful shot following Arthur and his faithful squire Patsy through the woods before meeting the Black Knight. This little segment was obviously deliberately filmed at a (possibly lucky) moment to capture the pure ethereal beauty of the woodland landscape. The shafts of light breaking through the dense trees really highlighting a typical fantasy trait of the genre and really exposing the good eye of director Gilliam with his composition.  Other sequences in the film have taken advantage of historical locations around the UK and merely added window dressing to the site to add that mucky, olde medieval, English touch (an overly exaggerated, Python-esque, medieval English touch I might add).

The thing is these touches generally work wonders for the atmosphere and visuals. The window dressings might only be some dated clunky wooden furniture, or raggy flags, or wall mounted weapons, or hay and mud, or yet more swirling mist...but they really do the job effectively when simply added to a real historical ruin or building. Even though everything the Python team does is clearly exaggerated, it often still looks relatively realistic down to its usually well worn, overly dirty, slightly battered visage. This is all really apparent in this movie because we all know this medieval knight clutter is rubber and plastic, but it still looks kinda real and ancient.
























So lovely hokey-esque visuals aside what about the rest of it? Well clearly its all about the humour, the now well trodden Python humour. As a kid I never really understood it, I merely enjoyed the fantasy adventure side of it. As an adult I now get it, but shock horror! I don't actually think its that funny (ducks for cover!). Yes that's right, I don't think this film is actually overly funny. Its not that the jokes and visual slapstick has dated badly, because it hasn't really, its just that its not really hilariously funny. Its certainly amusing in many places with loads of great gross-out moments (which I really enjoy), but the humour is...slightly low-key for me, its funny but more amusingly witty if anything, you gotta listen to what they say. There is of course plenty of ridiculous farcical slapstick, much of it being over the top gore, which isn't so much funny but just down right fun to watch because its so overly violent and unbelievable...in a daft way. The perfect example of course being Arthur fighting the Black Knight and reducing him to a mere torso, arms and legs all hacked off. Now while the verbal we hear is utterly classic and has gone down in cinematic history, I don't find it specifically funny. I love the scene, love the stupid gore and the whole atmosphere/visuals side of it, but its not laugh out loud funny in my opinion. This is my stance with this film, I do enjoy it immensely but mainly for the outlandish fantasy element.

In general the film is very much a rollercoaster for me. As we move from setup to setup I have always found that, even though its not a compilation of sketches, it still kinda feels like it. I can still sort out each part of the film that I enjoy and all the parts I don't, almost like individual sketches. For example, I liked the fight against the Black Knight, but I didn't really like the Knights that say Ni. I liked how they tried to break into a castle being run by Frenchmen, but I didn't really like the little song and dance routine in Camelot. I liked when they tried to cross the bridge of death, but I didn't like the introduction to Sir Bedevere the Wise. The tale of Sir Lancelot trying to save a princess from a castle (or so he thinks) run by a loud mouth Yorkshireman was good, the rabbit of Caerbannog was not good.
























I must admit I have always been frustrated with the route Gilliam and Jones decided to take this film, let me explain. I realise this is Python and the whole shtick is being surreal and off the wall, which is fine, but I always thought this film could have been a bit better than that. The story is unoriginal and bland sure, it wasn't a major blockbuster type situation OK, but why did they have to break the fourth wall and break the confines of the story. The fact that the films characters are unaware they have a narrator/historian following them is fine, but he gets killed by a knight from within the films world and the real time police of the, then, present day get involved, I still really dislike it. I never liked that angle at all because it always took me out of the adventure, the fact they ended the film following that note, with the police stopping a huge battle charge, was so so disappointing, even to this day. Unfortunately there are many examples throughout this film which I personally think ruin it.

When we follow Sir Galahad the Pure's tale, he's battling through a rain swept wood in the dead of the night, wolves howling, its looks cold and you are given the idea he's being followed. He reaches a lone castle only to discover its run by lots of sexy women, so far so good. Alas eventually the whole sequence derails as the characters break the fourth wall and chat about their scene, we then see snippets of other characters that will appear later in the film! Again I always always hated this because its not really funny and just took me out of the film, plus why would you wanna give away characters and scenes from the rest of the film?! Another example would be the animations which not only clogged up the film and halted its progress, but half weren't even anything to do with the films plot, even worse felt like padding to stretch the films runtime. Now  realise the films budget wouldn't have been particularly big so creating a huge monster for a scene would of been very hard, so I completely understand why they used an animation short to carry on the films plot for that part. Unfortunately again I felt the team went to far by having Gilliam the animator die (within reality or the present day), thus meaning the animated monster no longer existed, thus meaning the films characters escaped the beast and carried on with their quest. Very Python-esque for sure, but very obviously because they didn't know how to get out of the situation they had written themselves into, and very obviously they didn't have the budget to make the sequence real time.

I definitely have a bit of a love hate relationship with this film, as with much of Python material some of it is inspired, whilst some of it just misses the target completely. The entire cast are of course wonderfully manic as you would expect and its hard to really nail down the best performance or who got the best gags, visual or otherwise. But just for the hell of it...for me its probably gotta be Palin followed closely by Cleese. Palin's trademark Yorkshireman/blue collar grunt routine is by far his best and funniest act for me. Where as Cleese is virtually the epitome of the Python movies in the Black Knight sequence and in general is by far the most talented comedian in the team (in my humble opinion). Yes this movie is totally a cult classic and one of the best British comedies out there, I fully acknowledge that. But personally I think still think its a mixed bag, has its ups and downs and is a tad too off the wall for my liking at times. I know to expect that from Python of course and had this been a sketch compilation movie like two of their other flicks, then it wouldn't be an issue for me. I just wish they had stuck a bit more closely to the films plot and not gone off the rails so much at certain times, I really can't stress enough how the final sequence crushes me, it just brings the entire film to a grinding halt, ugh!

7.5/10