By 1974, Monty Python and the Holy Grail had both taken the United Kingdom by storm, and run its course. The initial burst of manic absurdism that fueled the landmark sketch comedy show had already become redundant and its founders—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and animator Terry Gilliam—were ready to move on to bigger and better things. None of them had the foggiest notion of what it took to make a motion picture, so naturally, they decided to make one, funded in part with funds by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Elton John as a kind of tax write-off. The result was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which has since become not just one of the greatest comedies ever made, but a kind of litmus test for where one’s cinematic and humor tastes lie. You either get Python or you don’t, and you’ve either seen Holy Grail or you haven’t. A more comprehensive cultural X-Y axis has yet to be devised.
The plot involves King Arthur in the Dark Ages as he gathers his knights and heads to claim Camelot for himself. But by the time he gets there, he decides the place is too silly to live at. Then God intervenes by way of one of Gilliam’s trademark animated sequences and bids the king and his knights to go find the Holy Grail. After an early misadventure, the group splits up to find the Grail more rapidly, and they all just end up having more misadventures, each a bit more ridiculous than the last. The whole thing is a carnival of the ridiculous, involving a Black Knight immune to pain, a castle full of sneering French knights, discussion about political power and drowning witches, pop quizzes about the flight speed of swallows, murdered historians, killer rabbits, animated monsters, bridges of death, and ultimately, police intervention.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, like the show from whence it came, revels in a complex mix of the silly and sublime that confronts the audience with such straight-faced wackiness, it practically dares its audience not to laugh. Its episodic nature means the movie kind of plays out like an uber-sketch, all tied together by the troupe’s riff on Britain’s most hallowed heroes of legend, as well as the Dark Age’s grim quality of life. The result is a movie that is perhaps is not much greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts of which it is made are all so memorable, anybody who complains gets loaded into a catapult and fired over a castle wall.
Each of the scenes is a separate dig at some convention that in another context would have been considered too time-honored to parody, from the authority of Arthur himself to the duels of honor that drove chivalric tradition, to singlehanded rescues of damsels. These hapless, clueless, luckless knights deconstruct the violent mythmaking on which we base entire heroic traditions, belief systems and national identities These are really just silly stories somebody told a long time ago, and they weren’t worth taking seriously then, and they aren’t worth taking seriously now.
The movie makes its case with such a dense barrage of memorable scenes that one could get a pretty good cinematic Rorschach test of its audience members by asking them which three are their favorite. But there are a few that likely stand out in everyone’s mind. One is a duel between Arthur and the Black Knight that results in Arthur swiftly removing every one of the Black Knight’s arms and legs with relative ease, but the Black Knight is so dedicated to his task of obstructing a road and challenging those who would pass that he’s not just heedless of the possibility of defeat, he can’t even recognize when he’s been turned into a quadruple amputee. All Arthur can do is walk off in frustration to a guy who never quits the field, but has very little to show for it.
Then there is a run-in with the Knights who say Ni, a group of woodland guardians who bend passersby to their will by saying “ni,” as if it’s nails across a chalkboard. They force Arthur to get them a shrubbery as a token of goodwill, but it soon becomes apparent that these knights are just woodland grifters looking for free landscaping and who get off on throwing stupid tasks at people, like lumberjacking with a fish. When Arthur leaves these nitwits behind, he practically drags his boots across the entire questing archetype from which a million tales have been told, revealing it as the nonsensical set of rules it really is.
And then there is the legendary showdown with the killer bunny rabbit guarding the Grail itself. The rodent is easily dismissed until it launches at the knights, decapitating one and tearing out throats with such invincible fury that the knights must resort to explosives to destroy it. There is no valor born of violence in this world, just accidental bloodshed, or a display of firepower that destroys personal glory better than anything.
These all build to a moment of truth at the movie’s non-ending when a modern historian shooting a documentary about the Middle Ages is killed out of the blue by one of Arthur’s knights in a bit of classic Pythonian interlude. But as the movies progresses, the police investigate. Just before the movie’s big, climactic battle scene, the cops show up and arrest everybody, denying us any sort of narrative satisfaction. Perhaps we don’t really deserve one. What were we thinking, the Pythons seem to say. Don’t we know it’s illegal to kill people? As the credits roll, and our laughter subsides, we’re left to realize, yeah, maybe murder isn’t worth glorifying, after all. Turns out, for as much as Python fans pride themselves on their intelligence, the most ridiculous people in the room are still the ones making the most sense. They just have a funny way of showing it.