A Look Back: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

When I was in junior high, we read T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” about the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A few years later, I saw “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a movie which like the book, had ample slapstick, parody and satire about a king and his band of questing knights who ultimately proved to be neither brave, chaste or loyal. The book’s characters are often gullible but steadfast when they believe something to be false. When witnessing the wizard Merlin’s magic, young King Arthur’s guardian explains, “They do it with mirrors,” and when the movie knights gaze in awe at Camelot in the distance, one of their servants stage whispers, “It’s a model.” The book’s characters also are good at coming up with ridiculous explanations on the fly – one explains Robin Hood wears green because he is mourning an aunt who fell out of a tree, which neatly deflects curiosity about him – a line which would not be out of place in “MP and the Holy Grail.”

The movie starts with subtitles that aren’t subtitled properly, followed by the explanation that the people responsible for the subtitles have been sacked. And so forth. When the movie finally begins, we see King Arthur (Graham Chapman) riding across the plains. On second look, he (and the other characters) “ride” like a little kid plays horse – with one arm held in front while galloping on foot – the hoof beats simulated by a servant banging coconuts. It’s not long before we see that the King doesn’t command much respect from his subjects when he encounters several peasants – one of whom boldly points out that he isn’t even on a horse. The King, however, after several false starts, manages to recruit several knights: Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-As-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot, and so on to accompany him on his search for the Holy Grail, as ordered by a disembodied Head of God, who greatly dislikes groveling and isn’t shy about saying so. The crew (Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) sets off and meets various challenges (also played by the crew and others). On the way to their goal, they learn several important lessons. (They also maintain the illusion that they are on horses until the end command to “Dis-mount!”)

1. Being dead is just a state of mind. Characters insist that they aren’t technically dead but are ignored because they soon will be. Or perhaps not, as in the case of a messenger who survives an arrow wound, but can’t quite convince the knight he serves who gallops off on a quest and leaves him behind. Being dead is also an experience shaped by rank – one notes that the deceased must be a king, “because he hasn’t got any shit on him.” Being defeated is also a state of mind – as in the case of the Black Knight who loses all his limbs but insists that he’s going to keep fighting.

2. It’s tough being a woman in the Middle Ages. A group of over-excited villagers drags a woman up to a knight explaining that she’s a witch. Why? She turned one of them into a newt. Or so says a perfectly normal looking man. An absurd discussion of what makes a witch a witch follows, with the villagers having to be poked and prodded into giving the correct replies.

3. Knowing trivia can save your life, but not always in the ways you might expect. At the film’s end, the knights are forced to answer a series of riddles in order to cross the fearsome Bridge of Doom, otherwise they are hurled into a canyon. The wizard doesn’t appear to know the difference between opinions and facts (he asks them what their favorite colors are), but winds up being ejected into the pit himself when he fails to clarify a final question.

4. Sometimes friends’ help is worse than no help. Sir Galahad stumbles upon a castle of eager, nubile young maidens, all of whom are eager to be spanked, but before he can oblige, the other knights rush in and bear him away un-molested. Surprisingly, Sir Galahad is less than grateful.

5. When in major danger, it’s best to retreat. This happens frequently, as the heroes deal with such trauma as a mocking French soldier, a flying cow, an animated dragon and a bloodthirsty rabbit. Which leads them to lesson 6.

6. Sometimes it’s best to bring in the big guns. When none of the knights prove able to tame said rabbit, they decide to fetch the Holy Hand Grenade which does the job nicely. Until characters from the present show up and interfere with their journey. And the credit-less credits finally roll.

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