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Film Dunce: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Film Dunce: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

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Some people pop their knuckles, chain smoke cigarettes or cough in your direction. Others bite their fingernails or smack their lips. I work with a guy who’s constantly whistling, but he can’t whistle a goddamn tune, so all that ever blows out of his mouth is a melody-devoid, tea kettle-like hum that makes me want to zap my nuts on an electric dog fence. My point is, we all have our annoying habits, ticks and eccentricities that make me think that Sartre was on target when he said that hell is other people.

My irritating habit is that I quote things. Obsessively, with no control and often without relevance to the conversation (“Marcus, can you pass the butter?” “This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules}”), I evoke, borrow and downright steal the words of others: characters from movies or books; songs that only about six people in the world have ever heard; the mostly deranged rants and raves of the half-crazed hobo I encountered the previous morning. All are fair game in the world of parroted banter; which is why my girlfriend was surprised to discover, several years ago while we were perusing the shelves at our local Blockbuster, that I’d never seen arguably the most quoted movie ever: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After all, this film is aped so frequently that even if you’ve never actually seen it, you’ve probably heard it – in bars, coffeehouses and various gathering places nationwide, where dudes who look like they played a bit too much Dungeons and Dragons in their youth engage in lousy British-accented dialogues that unmistakably reek of the Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones cult favorite.

The premise of the noble Knights of the Round Table seeking the Holy Grail is certainly a familiar one, though Gilliam and Jones take a far from traditional approach in this movie, portraying Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his supposedly dignified knights as a bunch of bloody toe rags and “empty-headed animal food trough wipers” whose quest is thwarted by the most preposterous of obstacles: a castle guard too hung up on a swallow’s inability to carry a coconut to bother fetching his master for the King; a Black Knight who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge defeat even after Arthur has severed both of his arms and legs (“‘Tis but a scratch!”); an anarcho-syndicalist peasant who out-reasons the frustrated King; and a group of woodland knights who demand shrubbery in exchange for safe passage. The brave knights, meanwhile, show their true and often side-splitting faces under the most peculiar of circumstances. Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle) flees from a three-headed giant in the Forest of Ewing; Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin) nearly succumbs to the vixens at Castle Anthrax who tempt him with spanking and oral sex; and the only accomplishment Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese) achieves is slaughtering an innocent wedding party. Witch hunters, Black Plague dead body collectors and God (“It’s just like those miserable psalms, always so depressing. Now knock it off!”) make quirky cameos as well, adding an extra splash of color and dark humor to an already lively experience.

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The dialogue is smart and funny, a rare mixture that’s both banal and clever. The debate between Arthur and the castle guard about swallows and coconuts is pure gold, while the King’s encounter with the Black Knight is one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve seen in a movie, period. The humor throughout the film is a healthy mixture of dry, slapstick, sophomoric and macabre, and the directors take a wonderfully creative approach to dealing with their low-budget limitations. Rather than try to hide the film’s lousy production values, Gilliam and Jones cleverly embrace them and turn them into acts of hilarity; Arthur and Patsy banging coconuts together to mimic the patting of a horse’s feet is humor at its most base yet effective. Some of the bit players – the taunting Frenchman, Tim the Enchanter and the “Knights who say ‘Ni’,” among others – rank among the most memorable characters in cult cinema history. Even some of the songs (“When danger reared its ugly head/ He bravely turned his tail and fled”) are filled with droll one-liners that merit laughs from both the legions of Monty Python devotees and film dunces like me.

The only problem is that this medieval spoof is just so damn silly that it’s hard to maintain the viewer’s interest for the full 87 minutes. Individuals break from character a bit too often; it may have been somewhat unique and witty in 1975 for characters to abandon their on-screen personas to critique a scene or offer some off-color commentary, but this practice eventually grows tiresome. Suspension of disbelief is so impossible in this movie that it’s hard to get even remotely emotionally vested in the characters, and it’s difficult not to fight the feeling that you’re watching an elaborate inside joke at times. Whereas the 30-40 minute “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch comedy series that inspired the movie may have been the perfect dose of playful banter, Holy Grail could use a bit of a slimming down; even the characters concede that Sir Galahad’s exploits with the comely vixens at Castle Anthrax is overrun with “a string of pussy jokes” and lame innuendo.

Still, there are plenty of sharp wisecracks and off-the-wall insults (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”) to make this movie worthy of multiple viewings, even if its various parts are stronger than the whole. And if you don’t agree, then away with you, you silly sons of a window dresser.

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