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Monty Python and the Holy Movie Review
By Josh McGee
In 1975 a film was made in the United Kingdom that would change the world forever. Well, not really, but an amusing film it was just the same. The film in reference is of course the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Although the film is not intended to be a historical film as it is purely for comedic value (and those comedic goods it does deliver), it nevertheless does have some historical validity in terms of dress and the way medieval life is portrayed in the film, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a great commentary on 1970’s England.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail portrays the comic adventures and misadventures of the mythical King Arthur and a handful of his knights including Sir Bedivere, Sir Galahad the Chaste, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not Quite as Brave as Sir Lancelot, and of course Sir Not Appearing in This Film. With this highly memorable cast comes an almost non stop onslaught of highly memorable jokes. This enjoyable film includes such classic gags as the “Trojan Rabbit” in which Sir Bedivere has the knights construct a wooden rabbit in order to sneak their way inside of a French castle (which is oddly enough in England) after the guards of the castle catapulted livestock and other animals at Arthur and his knights. Another noteworthy scene is the depiction of Sir Galahad the Chaste in a castle full of beautiful young women (ages 16 to 19 and a half) who desperately want to be spanked (just watch the movie to understand). Running gags also abound through the film such as the “well I’m not quite dead” gag in which numerous horribly injured people claim that they are not quite dead and actually they kind of feel better until realizing that they will be just fine. Usually the fact that they are not dead is an inconvenience to the living. Despite being a very enjoyable and humorous film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has a bit of history as well.
As far as history would be concerned, if Arthur did exist he would have been a hero who held off Anglo Saxon attacks sometime after the Roman Empire packed up and left the British Isles. He and his men would have used equipment of the dark ages of Europe, with nothing more than a maille hauberk (shirt) and perhaps a helmet. The helm would have looked more like the one found in the Sutton Hoo treasure than that of the high Middle Ages. So often King Arthur is portrayed in film and popular culture of modern times as living in a later century than he actually would have lived. This is likely because much of the historical manuscripts of the Middle Ages depict him as such. The medieval manuscripts portrayed ancient legends as well as biblical stories to reflect the clothing and equipment of the time in which the artist lived. In short, they would portray characters as contemporaries although they were not.
In the Monty Python version, the characters are not wearing Dark Age armour nor are they in a Dark Age setting, as the big stone castles shown in the film would suggest; in the Dark Ages English castles were made from wood in the motte and bailey style where a round fortification made of timber would be placed atop a manmade hill for defense purposes. Though not from the authentic Dark Ages, the film actually manages to achieve the look and feel of the early to mid 12th century very well with few exceptions. Arthur and his knights are wearing maille armour with surcoats over the maille, which were used historically to emblazon coats of arms upon to identify the wearer in battle, as well as to protect the maille from rust. As a joke, the knights do not ride horses but instead are followed by men carrying their belongings and clanging coconuts together to imitate the noise of horse’s hooves. Ironically, medieval England was not known for its cavalry forces. The English made much better use of foot soldiers and archers than of heavy cavalry. The longbowmen and yeomen archers as well as the billmen and men at arms of England were second to none of the period. I find it amusing as a historian when I watch a movie such as this that is not intended to be historically accurate but somehow still manages on one level or another to be so. The historical inaccuracies are not even worth mentioning since, once again, this film is not concerned with such things (nor should it be.) For instance, Sir Bedivere wears a round steel helm with a visor that he could easily see through but constantly lifts it up when he attempts to get a better look at something or talk to someone. Though it is likely that no helm of this type ever existed, this running gag of the film would be lost without this liberty on the film maker’s part.
The most important tie-in to history that Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes is to 1970’s England and the more modern view that the English have of the Middle Ages. King Arthur is used only as a backdrop for what the true message of the film is. It is quite simply a mockery of the ideals and values held by previous generations in England. England of the 1970’s was an unstable and often hostile environment. People were dissatisfied with their government and tired of living in poverty stricken conditions. Garbage literally piled up in the streets during the dustman’s strike in the 1970’s in which no garbage was collected. The results of this can be seen in the film The Filth and the Fury– a documentary on the Sex Pistols. To even give birth to a band like the Sex Pistols shows the attitude of the English in the 1970’s because, not only were bands like the Sex Pistols popular with the people, they had number one hits on U.K. pop charts! This was not a society that simply wanted a spot of tea and some fish and chips. They wanted change and they were increasingly becoming sore over the English monarchy. As they lived with garbage and poverty, the monarchy lived the life of luxury and for no real reason, since the monarchy had no ruling power.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail has the overtones of England’s attitude within it. As the film opens the Pythons begin mocking the past while an old fashioned song plays and humorous statements are flashed across the screen below the credits. Later Arthur stumbles upon a castle and has an argument with a guard about African swallows and European swallows on how much weight each type of bird could carry. The guard is using logic and scientific reasoning to present his side of the argument and Arthur only has medieval superstition to argue with. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie happens when Arthur stumbles upon some peasants and declares that he is “Arthur, king of the Bretons.” The peasants explain to him that they have no lord and that they use a form of government in which an “official of the week” is elected by simple majority by the entire group of peasants that live in the area. When Arthur insists that he is king one replies “well, I didn’t vote for ya!” Arthur continues to tell them the story of how the lady of the lake presented him with the sword Excalibur and that therefore he is king, and one of the peasants proclaims something to the effect of “Well that’s no way to run a government.” This is an obvious stab at the British monarchy and another way of making fun of England’s past. It is a parody of the ignorance and superstition of the real medieval period. Religion is also mocked greatly in this film -a fairly popular practice in 1970’s England; the Christian religion of the past was a thing to be looked down upon by the modern world of reason. Late in the movie a priest is called to bring a holy relic to Arthur and his knights to assist them in battle – the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. A scripture is read from the bible on how to use the hand grenade. The passage is long -winded and repetitive as a mocking parody of the real Bible and its repetitious nature.
On the surface Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a hilarious comedy that came out of England in the mid 1970’s. Most people either love or hate the comedic style of the Pythons, but I find that it helps to appreciate the comic value of this movie if one is familiar with the social contexts of the time in which it was created in as well as the past that it is imitating. Life in the Middle Ages was certainly hard but who knew that it could be so funny?