Monty Python
& the Holy Grail

directed by Terry Gilliam
& Terry Jones
(Columbia Pictures, 1975)

When the Monty Python crew decided to make a major screen epic, they set their sights high -- on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, easily the most enduring of Britain's legends.

But you can never expect reverence from the Python gang; they skewer the legend with ease, leaving viewers howling with laughter.

The late, great Graham Chapman (who died of throat cancer in 1989) is Arthur, and a mighty Arthur he is. In his only real battle in the film, he defeats the mighty Black Knight (John Cleese, in one of many roles) with ease, leaving his foe limbless in one of the movie's most memorable and frequently quoted scenes. As Arthur, Chapman manages to look regal even as his trusty sidekick Patsy (Terry Gilliam) uses coconut shells to provide the sound effects for his nonexistent horse.

In an animated conversation with God, as rendered by Gilliam, Arthur is given the quest for the Holy Grail. He and his knights set out to find it, each finding instead a series of hilarious misadventures.

There is, for instance, Sir Galahad's enticing encounter with Carol Cleveland and the sex-starved, spank-happy maidens of Castle Anthrax. Michael Palin, also filling one of several roles, is perfect as the chaste but temptable knight.

Cleese returns as Sir Launcelot to rescue a helpless maiden (or not) from Swamp Castle, where no man, minstrel or bridesmaid can stand against his idiomatic onslaught. Palin is again wonderful as the opportunistic king of Swamp Castle.

And who can forget Sir Robin (Eric Idle) and his less-than-heroic encounter with the three-headed knight? Certainly Robin's minstrels won't forget.

Arthur and Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones) confound the Knights Who Say "Ni" in another memorable scene involving shrubbery and a lethal personal pronoun. And the witch trial, in which Connie Booth is accused of turning Cleese into a newt, is a classic of comic logic.

There are other exquisite, gut-busting scenes, including the rude French knight (Cleese), the bloodthirsty rabbit (with Idle and Palin as the monastic guardians of Arthur's Holy Hand Grenade) and the crazed bridge keeper (Gilliam).

This film is a model of modern comedy. It's silly, yes, but it's impossible not to laugh no matter how many times you watch it. Even the opening credits, involving a sister-biting Swedish moose, are a treat. Keep this one on your shelf and watch it whenever you need a good belly laugh.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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