When this movie was released, Monty Python had been doing sketch comedy on British television since the mid 1960s. The troupe launched its own show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in 1969 and, unexpectedly, found an audience in the US starting in 1972.
The only thing for it was to make a film. So the five-some put this movie together on a very limited budget and shot it in very damp Scotland in 1974. In 1975, it hit the theaters and did very well. It still is popular with fans of silly, collegiate-informed comedy with historical antecedents.
(Some call Monty Python humor “surreal,” but those folks almost certainly missed the Rene Magritte exhibition I saw in San Francisco two years ago. We are imprecise in our language, alas.)
The story in the film — King Arthur of Camelot gathering knights to seek the Holy Grail, as he has been directed by a deliberately cartoon Lord — is just a skeleton on which to hang humor about the muddy misery, superstitions and knightly battles of a millennium ago, plus contrasts between English and French points of view.
The grail quest sends Arthur to various castles in search of “the finest and bravest knights in the land to join my court at Camelot.”
At one castle, a peasant tells him, “No one lives there (in the castle.) We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.”
When one of Arthur’s knights pulls up at Castle Anthrax, he encounters dozens of unhappily chaste young women “between the ages of sixteen and nineteen and one-half,” and is dragged out unwillingly by others of Team Camelot.
Some of the scenes are funnier than others. I don’t want to give away the plot, but, obviously it was not devised to show us King Arthur finding the Holy Grail. Rather, it takes itself less seriously and butts up against the 20th century. It is, as I have said, collegiate humor of the sort that might be expected from 1960s baccalaureates of Oxford and Cambridge.
I hadn’t seen this movie before, but about 15 years ago I did see its Broadway musical version, Spamalot, which was more tightly scripted but, if anything, even more silly. Spamalot won three Tonys that year — best director (Mike Nichols, duh,) best musical (?) and best featured actress, (also ?) — basically, for selling many, many tickets. It also was popular in London’s West End, and regional companies drew enthusiastic audiences for years in other American cities.
The source material in this movie is pretty good good. True, the intro and finale are jerky. True, some scenes are better as others. But there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, and it is available free on Netflix and for not much more elsewhere.
In this moment, what more can be asked?
The original subject of MovieMonday was intended to be Spinal Tap, the 1984 mockumentary about a heavy metal rock group whose fortunes are on a downhill slide.
Though it was made nine years later than Grail, Tap hasn’t aged nearly as well. It makes fun of the already-fading hard rock phenomenon — neon spandex, grandiose but content-free staging, and not-too-smart band members. And while the Monty Python story does not pretend to invest itself in character development, Tap invents characters and conflicts that, worse, are there only for show.