Thirty-one years have passed since Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s creation. Thirty-one years plus two more Python films, Terry Gilliam’s launch as a director, John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle’s break-outs as actors, Graham Chapman’s death, several awards—including three Tonys for Idle’s Spamalot—and, every one or two years, a Python DVD release bursting with lost material, production extras, and carefree interviews with the ever witty and playful members of the Python cast. In 2006, with another re-release of their first movie—at least, their first movie not based directly on their television show—the Pythons have become legend. In 1975, they were a ragtag troupe surviving on a scarcely-aired BBC series while pulling together a film production so bare-boned they could not afford horses; thank a cartoon caricature of God for that. To look at Python now is to look through a glass as warped as its sense of humor.
There is, as well, a certain group of twentysomethings prepared to deny as uncool a label to which I will freely admit. I am a Monty Python fan, and I have been since I was shown scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail during a unit on the Middle Ages in a world history class as a freshman in high school. I remember sitting in the far corner of the room, a gangly, near-sighted kid, looking over heads as Mrs. Wilson showed Arthur’s battle with the Black Knight or the Witch Trial and used it as a lesson on chivalry and medieval logic. Going forth as schoolchildren do, I once knew Holy Grail‘s Coconut Sketch front to back, reciting it with Dennis’s anarcho-syndicalist commune speech. I once even had a very serviceable “Ni!” within my vocal grasp.
What struck me, sitting in that cramped classroom in an uncomfortable desk chair, focusing on Holy Grail while Mrs. Wilson went on about the feudal system, is still true. Holy Grail is brilliant. Admittedly, a grand statement, since the film is, for the most part, plotless. Yet, going back to Flying Circus, the members of Python cast were always masters of blending the absurd and the gratuitous with the wickedly smart; they introduced the Minister of Silly Walks, sang of transvestite lumberjacks, and commentated on both a bike race between famous painters and a soccer match between Greek and German philosophers. In Holy Grail, they put their talents to work on a larger scale, mixing wonderful satires on the Medieval legend and lifestyle with tremendous comic timing and blatant dirty jokes. Funny is, after all, well…funny.
The film’s longevity must have more to do with the film’s simpler points, however, intelligence going only so far in carrying a film over a quarter of century as well as an ocean. Holy Grail is wonderfully amateurish, directors Gilliam and Terry Jones very much learning on the job: the image is constantly under lit and grainy, the nearly constant wisps of smoke crossing the frame owe a debt to Ingmar Bergman, acknowledged by the faux-Swedish subtitles in the beginning of the Python’s film. In typical Monty Python style, the actors appear in several roles. And when the story works its way into several dead ends, the Pythons are happy to come up with some sudden, disconnected transitions: a famous historian (suddenly murdered) and Gilliam’s visionary animations (suddenly something completely different).
A wonderful charm filters through these almost collegiate efforts, as if these underfunded Brits, in doing their best, did it better. The result is a singular work, accessible and inviting on a level their later films did not achieve and colored with their youth, energy, determination, fearlessness, and—with no studio or censor board constantly peering over their shoulders—freedom, of the kind that makes nerdy, glasses-wearing schoolboys (and some others) wish to remember. Take any one of those elements out of the Python formula and Holy Grail would have suffered. I—and thousands like me—would never have been introduced to them, high school or no.