The genius comedians behind Monty Python coming into showbusiness through the Oxbridge route, their work was influenced by a passion for history and culture, as well as satire and surrealist antics.
The team’s crowning achievement on the historical front is Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Made in 1975 on a low budget, it gave Arthurian England a shakeup with coconut halves instead of horse’s hooves and a cast of eye-popping characters.
Perhaps the most memorable scene from the movie involves King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his servant Patsy (Terry Gilliam) encountering the Black Knight (John Cleese) whilst trying to cross a stream.
The Knight is determined to prevent them from crossing. In doing his somewhat inept duty, he winds up losing his limbs during a brutal swordfight. An increasingly surprised Arthur realizes he is facing an opponent who won’t give up.
According to the DVD audio commentary by Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle, the sequence originated in a story told to Cleese when he was attending an English class during his school days. Two Roman wrestlers were engaged in a particularly intense match and had been fighting for so long that the two combatants were doing little more than leaning into one another. It was only when one wrestler finally tapped out and pulled away from his opponent that he and the crowd realized the other man was, in fact, dead and had effectively won the match posthumously. The moral of the tale, according to Cleese’s teacher, was “if you never give up, you can’t possibly lose” – a statement that Cleese reflected, always struck him as being “philosophically unsound”.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a prevailing oddball comedy that continues to be viewed as a cult classic. The Holy Grail is a unique odyssey by the medieval time with surrealist humor and remarkable characters, scenes, and lines. At the edge of absurd and silliness, Monty Python and The Holy Grail make the audience laugh in 1975 and today still.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was written and performed by the Monty Python comedy group (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin), directed by Gilliam and Jones. It was conceived during the hiatus between the third and fourth series of their BBC television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
While the group’s first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was a compilation of sketches from the first two television series, Holy Grail was a new story that parodies the legend of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.
The film’s initial budget of approximately £200,000 was raised by convincing 10 separate investors to contribute £20,000 apiece. Three of those investors were the rock bands Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis, who were persuaded to help fund the film by Tony Stratton-Smith, head of Charisma Records (the record label that released Python’s early comedy albums).
According to Terry Gilliam, the Pythons turned to rock stars like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Elton John for finance as the studios refused to fund the film and rock stars saw it as “a good tax write-off” due to UK income tax being “as high as 90%” at the time.
The film was mostly shot on location in Scotland, particularly around Doune Castle, Glen Coe, and the privately-owned Castle Stalker. Originally the knight characters were going to ride real horses, but after it became clear that the film’s small budget precluded real horses (except for a lone horse appearing in a couple of scenes), the Pythons decided their characters would mime horse-riding while their porters trotted behind them banging coconut shells together.
Although contemporary reviews were mixed. The film’s reputation grew over time. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Holy Grail the fifth-greatest comedy film of all time. The next Python film, Life of Brian, was ranked first.
An article from The Atlantic in 2015, written 40 years after Holy Grail’s release, calls it “the gold standard for subversive comedy” and writes that “Matt Groening called it a great influence on The Simpsons; every subsequent film that broke the fourth wall felt in its debt.”