WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: King Arthur travels through his kingdom with trusty steed Patsy, gathering together knights to join his God-given quest for the Holy Grail. However, it’s a quest that will lead all the knights into danger in a number of very silly ways, and into conflict with an extremely vexing Frenchman.
By the end of third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it was clear to more than just John Cleese that the sketch show – however groundbreaking it was – had more or less run its course; though six episodes of a fourth series were made, Cleese didn’t appear and the shows were not very good. The idea of a film, however, was altogether more tempting, so long as it was a ‘proper’ one. And what could be more proper than the Arthurian legend and the quest for the Holy Grail?
Arthur (Graham Chapman), King of the Britons, is looking for knights to join his Round Table at Camelot, but initially finds only an argumentative populace more interested in the fact that his steed is merely a man (Terry Gilliam) banging coconut shells together.
Eventually, Arthur finds followers in pseudo-scientist Bedevere (Terry Jones), brave action man Lancelot (Cleese), rather less brave Robin (Eric Idle) and pure-hearted Galahad (Michael Palin); he also finds a purpose, as a vision of God commands him to look for the Holy Grail. Arthur and the knights decide to give Camelot a miss and are taunted mercilessly by a French soldier (Cleese again) in the first castle they come across, so they split up and hunt for the grail individually, meeting up with such perils as a castleful of beautiful women, an effete prince in search of a hero, and some very tall, extremely silly knights in the woods. But just as they defeat their furriest foe and seem about to succeed in their mission, a bit of modern life threatens to get in the way.
From the insanely overwrought music and utterly daft faux-Swedish subtitles that introduce Holy Grail, it’s plain that Python fans have nothing to fear from the team’s decision to focus on a single subject. The trademark clever silliness is intact from the first discussion about whether swallows can carry coconuts, and there are plenty of very funny jokes and quotable lines which provide regular chuckles: ’It’s just a flesh wound’, ’Huge…tracts of land’, ’Ni!’, and I particularly like Neil Innes’ minstrel who hounds Robin every time he runs away (there’s another quote!) from battle.
And although it’s still unmistakably written in sketch form – the ‘Bring out your dead’ sketch leads on to the ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ sketch, which leads on to the ’Black Knight’ sketch and so on – this hardly matters when the dialogue is as good as it is. Holy Grail even manages to turn its cheapness to its advantage, looking authentically grimy, its jokes unencumbered by anything which might cost much money (can‘t afford horses? Write the gag into the script!). For the first hour at least, you won’t have much time to notice any flaws because you’ll be laughing at the Camelot song, Tim the Enchanter, ’Your father smelt of elderberries’ and such like.
However, you can’t help but notice bits and pieces which emphasise the fact that this is the Pythons’ first go at a feature film. They can’t let go of Gilliam’s animation, none of which fits very well (a title sequence about twenty minutes in proves particularly underwhelming); the film is clearly assembled in bits, leading to jarring turns and confused plotting, most notably in the seeming afterthought of ‘Scene 24’; and they really struggle to bring the film to a meaningful conclusion, the murdered history professor proving to be an unsatisfactory and awkward device (in fact, after a rollicking good opening, the film’s laughs slowly but surely dry up as it tries to cobble a story together).
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film with a decent smattering of inspired lunacy, which is always to be welcomed. But you’d have to be a self-deluding fanboy to watch it and claim that it‘s the best-looking or most focused comedy there has ever been. Luckily for us, by the time the Pythons came back to film, they had allied story and script together to devastating effect – and found financial favour from a Beatle – for The Life of Brian.