It’s easy to see how Holy Grail opened the floodgates for Gilliam.
Terry Gilliam didn’t start out as a director or screenwriter, but an environment as loose as the set of Monty Python may have been the ideal place to learn. Originally an animator, Gilliam took on the role of director for Monty Python and the Holy Grail (fellow Python Terry Jones co-directed), and he had plenty of opportunities to elaborate on his blend of animation and live action that he’d been creating for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and to gain experience behind the camera on a project that prized creativity and imagination above all else. Even on a film where he shared directing credit, it’s easy to see how Holy Grail opened the floodgates for Gilliam to later pursue directing and create the likes of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Noticeable Gilliam influences on the film aren’t numerous, given that it was such a group effort. As on “Flying Circus,” Gilliam’s animations in Holy Grail are largely transitional (the biggest exceptions being Gilliam’s depiction of God and the legendary Black Beast), but no less humorous. One thing that Gilliam himself points to as a sign of his inexperience is his tendency (a habit from the series, frequently directed by Ian MacNaughton) to shoot wide scenes, including every member in the shot. This more theatrical framing approach had the look of television comedy. That wasn’t ideal when the Pythons desperately wanted a stand-alone film, not another collection of sketches like their first feature, And Now for Something Completely Different.
But a huge aspect of Holy Grail’s charm is its amateur style. At its heart, the group’s comedy relied on uncomplicated scenes that allowed their wit to shine through. There’s plenty of that in the film (the witch burning, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch) as well as classic sight gags, but there is also humor within the mechanics of individual scenes. The Black Knight’s brutality and absurdity is perfectly captured in the editing, first intercutting a bloody duel with languid shots of Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his coconut handler, Patsy (Gilliam), riding through the forest and then concluding the duel with rapid cutting of its gruesome end. Similarly, when Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) ambushes Prince Herbert’s (Jones) wedding party, the shot of him running towards the castle repeats, intercut with shots of the lazy guards, giving the impression that he will never reach the castle. Until he suddenly does. And that’s not to mention the creative decisions made due to budget restrictions, such as the cardboard cutout castles King Arthur and his knights travel arduously to reach. One thing’s for sure, Holy Grail prepared Gilliam for creativity mandated by budgets, whether small from the beginning (Time Bandits) or unexpectedly overblown (Brazil).
As a Monty Python project, no lone member can claim excessive credit for the end result. The entire six-man troupe wrote sketches and drafts of the script. And for Gilliam, he fairly evenly shared directing duties with Jones, the two alternating in fraught moments and when Gilliam’s outsider role in the group proved a hindrance in getting the right performances and shots out of the rest. That said, Gilliam has plenty to lay claim to and received firsthand knowledge of how to direct Python-style sketches, and also how that doesn’t always translate well to the look and atmosphere of a film. Even though Gilliam had no directorial experience, that certainly didn’t harm the final cut; the absurdity of the material ensures the film’s irrefutable place among comedy classics. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is brilliant, but it might have been infinitely better were it actually directed by 40 specially-trained Ecuadorian mountain llamas. We’ll never truly know.