Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Directors: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
Screenplay: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, & Michael Palin
Stars: Graham Chapman (King Arthur / Voice of God / Middle Head / Hiccoughing Guard), John Cleese (Second Swallow-Savvy Guard / The Black Knight / Peasant 3 / Sir Lancelot the Brave / Taunting French Guard / Tim the Enchanter), Eric Idle (Dead Collector / Peasant 1 / Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot / First Swamp Castle Guard / Concorde / Roger the Shrubber / Brother Maynard), Terry Gilliam (Patsy / Green Knight / Bridgekeeper / Sir Bors / Animator / Gorrilla Hand), Terry Jones (Dennis’s Mother / Sir Bedevere / Left Head / Prince Herbert / Cartoon Scribe), Michael Palin (First Swallow-Savvy Guard / Dennis / Peasant 2 / Right Head / Sir Galahad the Pure / Narrator / King of Swamp Castle / Brother Maynard’s Brother / Leader of The Knights Who Say NI!), Connie Booth (The Witch), Carol Cleveland (Zoot and Dingo)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1974
Country: U.K.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail Blu-Ray
Monty Python and the Holy GrailIn the three and a half decades since its theatrical debut, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become a cult favorite, one of the select cinematic experiences that actually gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. The film’s unevenness smoothes out in direct proportion to the viewer’s familiarity with it until each part feels like an organic stroke of genius. This usually means one of two things: either the film takes some getting used to before it can be found funny, or it is so dense with comedy that each viewing reveals more and more jokes that were missed the first time around. Monty Python and the Holy Grail holds true on both counts.

For those who have never seen the Pythons before (which included most Americans in the mid-1970s), their anarchic, surreal brand of comedy, which abounds in absurd visual gags, comical wordplay, and carnivalesque inversions of social hierarchies and taste, might take some getting use to. The six original members of the comedy troupe (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Eric Idle) initially cut their teeth on stage and radio before delving into television, where they created Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired on the BBC from 1969 to 1974 and effectively revolutionized screen comedy. For the Pythons, nothing was sacred, least of all their noble British heritage. As a matter of fact, a great deal of their humor comes from mocking British stereotypes, history, and cultural norms (of course, they don’t hold back on making fun of the French, or Americans, or Asians ...).

The Pythons’ comedy, which found its apex in Holy Grail (the troupe’s second feature film, following their 1971 compilation movie And Now for Something Completely Different), also requires multiple viewings for full appreciation because every scene is so densely packed that one can never take it all in the first time (or even the second or third time). Take, for instance, one of the early scenes where King Arthur (Graham Chapman, valiantly playing the straight man) is riding through a small, dirty, plague-ridden village (are you laughing yet?). Most remember this as the scene where two villagers are pushing a cart loaded with corpses, calling solemnly, “Bring out yer dead! bring out yer dead!” But, look at the scene again, and notice everything that is happening in the background. One of the most obvious is a woman continuously smacking a live cat up against the side of a house. “Why?” you might ask. “Why not?,” the Pythons would answer.

The primary goal of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is to undermine thoroughly and completely Britain’s national legend, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. There are few things in England as sacred as the legend of King Arthur, but the Pythons show it as little respect as they show for everything else. To them, Arthur is an overblown concept ripe for mockery and farce. What the French auteur Robert Bresson deconstructed the same year in Lancelot of the Lake (1974), the Pythons want to simply demolish. During the film’s hour and a half, they manage to ridicule every aspect of the Arthurian legends, right down to his kingship based on the magical sword Excalibur (“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!” a socialist peasant tells him in one of the film’s funniest scenes of political satire). What if brave Sir Robin (Eric Idle) were actually a complete coward? What if they great Sir Launcelot (John Cleese) were actually an overzealous nitwit who kills an entire wedding party before realizing he’s in the wrong place? What if the most threatening creature on screen were a white bunny rabbit?

The film as a whole is genuinely uneven; it really more a collection of funny skits stitched together with bits of lunatic cut-out animation by co-director Terry Gilliam than any kind of coherent narrative. However, few films can lay claim to such a high proportion of hilarious sequences, including the Knights Who Say “Ni!,” the Castle Anthrax filled with busty, sexually starved women between the ages of 16 and 19, the resilient Black Knight, the insulting French guard, Sir Robin’s terribly honest minstrel, the Swedish subtitles, the Holy Hand Grenade, the “logic” used to determine a woman is a witch according to her weighing the same as a duck, and the question of whether an African or European swallow could carry a coconut. A crucial component of the film’s humor is the manner in which the absurdity of the characters and situations contrasts with the gritty realism of the mise en scène; shot entirely on misty locations throughout Scotland, often in actual medieval castles, the film has a sense of cold, damp, muddiness that you can feel in your bones, even while you’re rolling on the floor laughing. This contrast also extends to the film’s violence, which is both gruesomely realistic and utterly preposterous (the Pythons have a special affinity for the humorous aspects of spurting arteries).

Of course, all of this sounds ridiculous on paper to someone who has never seen the movie. Well, then again, I guess it’s just as ridiculous on film, but in the deranged world of Monty Python, it has a logic all its own.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai
  • “The Holy Book of Days” Second Screen Experience
  • Lost animations with optional commentary by Terry Gilliam
  • Outtakes & extended scenes with introduction by Terry Jones
  • Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
  • Audio commentary by John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin
  • Quest for the Holy Grail Locations documentary
  • “Lego Knights: The Knights of the Round Table in Lego” short
  • Special Japanese version
  • “How To Use Your Coconuts” short
  • 1974 BBC Film Night episode
  • Sing-a-longs
  • Cast directory photo gallery
  • DistributorSony Picture Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 6, 2012

    Despite having already purchased the film numerous times over the yeas, longtime fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (you know who you are!) will certainly want to add this Blu-Ray to their collection as it substantially improves on both the image and sound quality. Holy Grail has always been a fairly rough-looking movie comprised of dull color schemes, heavy grain, and lots of mist. In previous home video incarnations, even the restored 2001 DVD, this resulted in a somewhat muddy looking image that lacked in clarity. The new 1080p high-definition image on this Blu-Ray doesn’t have the film looking like the latest CGI blockbuster, but it does bring a new level of sharpness and detail without losing the all-important graininess. Some shots are softer than others, but overall the image looks better than I have ever seen it (or, frankly, thought it could look). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack also benefits from lossless encoding, which results in a slightly cleaner, crisper sound. Its dynamic range is inherently limited by the fact that it is remixed from a monaural track, but the musical score and sound effects are nicely extended into the surround speakers while ambient hiss and aural artifacts are largely minimized.
    While the improved image and sound quality of Monty Python and the Holy Grail are enough to make it worth another purchase, there are some new supplements included, as well. “The Holy Book of Days” Second Screen Experience allows the viewer to explore the film’s 28-day shooting schedule via archival materials including outtakes, rehearsals, songs, sound effects, scripts, and stills, as well as Michael Palin’s day-by-day diary of the filming, Terry Gilliam’s storyboards, the original continuity sheets, and 360-degree views of props from the movie. This supplement requires the purchase of a separate app for $4.99, although that cost can be offset by a limited-time $5 mail-in rebate. The other new supplements on the disc were discovered in the archives during the film’s restoration. First, we have roughly nine minutes of “lost animations,” which have been edited together with new sound effects and can also be watched with an amusingly rambling optional commentary by Terry Gilliam. After that you can watch about 15 minutes of outtakes and extended bits from the Three-Headed Knight scene, the Constitutional Peasants scene, the “Get on with it!” scene, the Black Knight scene, the Old Crone scene, the wedding slaughter, and some random other fragments following an introduction by Terry Jones.

    The rest of the supplements have been ported over from the 2001 Special Edition DVD. These include two audio commentaries, one with co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones and one with stars John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin; Quest for the Holy Grail Locations, a fascinating 47-minute documentary in which Terry Jones and Michael Palin revisit three of the main locations used for the film; “Lego Knights,” a two-minute animated short that recreates the “Knights of the Round Table” musical sequence with Legos; two sequences from the film dubbed in Japanese and then re-translated back into English subtitles (this supplement dates back to the Criterion Collection laser disc); “How to Use Your Coconuts,” a silly 2001 short film starring Michael Palin as a man explaining how to use coconut shells to make equine sounds; a 1974 episode of BBC Film Night featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the Pythons on location; three sing-a-longs; a cast directory photo gallery; and the 2001 U.S. re-release trailer.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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