Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Lowery’s The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain, has been postponed. But there are plenty of other interesting takes on the Arthurian legends available to stream from home today.
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin had already made one movie together before they found themselves in Ren faire gear, clomping coconuts together in the middle of Scotland. In 1970, the sextet rolled a dead parrot, a flock of upper class twits, and other re-staged highlights of their pioneering sketch show’s first two seasons into the theatrical greatest-hits package And Now For Something Completely Different. Intended to introduce Monty Python to Americans—who hadn’t yet had Flying Circus beamed into their living rooms—the film flopped, its Stateside box-office failure compounded by creative clashes with the film’s major financier, Victor Lownes, who made his living at Playboy but apparently couldn’t stomach Ken Shabby.
It was a valuable lesson for the Pythons. The next time they made a film, they’d go it on their own, financially speaking. (With a little help from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the theatrical producer who’d put Chapman and Cleese on the West End during their Cambridge days.) They’d also seek to address a phenomenon Cleese observed during early screenings of And Now For Something Completely Different: No matter what order the sketches were placed in, the laughter stalled about 50 minutes in, only to come roaring back at the end. As he says in the oral history Monty Python Speaks!:
[I]n order to get people to go with you past the fifty-minute mark they have to want to know what’s going to happen next. In other words, you have to have characters that they care about and a story they can enjoy and believe in.
Their follow-up, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, hangs its crown on characters people had cared about and stories they’d believed in for centuries: King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table. Its Arthur (Chapman) is a fair and forthright leader, regaling subjects with the tale of how he acquired Excalibur and acting on instructions from God himself. The knights under his command, meanwhile, are prone to frantic song-and-dance routines, susceptible to all manner of attack from rabbits, and suspects in the horseback killing of a famous historian (identified by chyron as “A Famous Historian”). But no one in Arthur’s party could be the murderer, because, again: the coconuts.
Holy Grail is as much a feature-length iteration of Flying Circus as its predecessor. Detours to the Castles Swamp and Anthrax and an encounter with the impetuously persistent Black Knight are sketches in all but name, the first two forming their games (to use a more contemporary comedy-theory term) around the bravery and chastity respectively associated with Lancelot (Cleese) and Galahad (Palin). Each member of the troupe turns up in multiple parts; Chapman, a virtuoso of stiff-upper-lip and stick-up-ass authority figures, would seem a cinch for Arthur, but he largely wound up with the role because everyone else wanted to get lost in the wigs, false facial hair, and grubby wardrobe of 10th-century eccentrics like Tim The Enchanter, Roger The Shrubber, and Dennis The Constitutional Peasant. The quest for the grail is the barest of threads, but it’s just enough to tie the movie’s disparate parts together—an ideal model for future sketch-to-film triumphs. (See also: Wet Hot American Summer or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.)
Monty Python And The Holy Grail never wastes a joke-telling opportunity. The opening credits are a rolling snowball of jokes. The songs by Python associate (and future Rutle) Neil Innes are whirligigs of funny rhymes and piercing insults. “Camelot Song” is matched to slapstick choreography—and one key cutaway—mounted in the difficultly lit interior of a castle that had to serve as multiple castles due to uncooperative Scottish officials. As part of the independent spirit of the enterprise, Jones and Gilliam stepped up to direct, essentially learning on the job while sharing a vision that sets the postmodern absurdity of Arthur and his knights against a backdrop of moody fantasy and barbaric history. Like the best Python products, Holy Grail speaks in a single voice, but the Terrys’ individual directorial signatures remain evident: Jones’ focus on performance (the Pythons are all in peak form here) and coverage with an eye toward putting the funniest version together in the edit; Gilliam’s animation-bred control-freak tendencies colliding with his flair for visual clutter and chaos.
On top of sustaining the film’s uniquely hilarious rhythms and giving their troupe mates (and themselves) every chance to shine, Jones and Gilliam succeed in making medieval times look like an absolute ordeal: plague-ridden bodies piled up on wheelbarrows, peasants eagerly scrounging around for “lovely filth,” French knights taunting from on high. The unspoken punchline throughout is that no one, not even the divinely chosen leader of the Britons, is free from daily life’s agonies and inconveniences. It’s a quintessentially Pythonesque stance, taking the piss out of the very Matter of Britain—coming from a scholar of the stuff no less. Camelot, it’s said, is a silly place, but Monty Python’s cinematic ambitions would’ve gone unrealized without it.