The first Monty Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different… was little more than a collection of their Flying Circus skits, only slightly adapted for the big screen. With their second film, they created an autonomous script that works on its own, although they did carry over some of the trappings of their TV program, such as silly opening credits, this time involving phony Danish subtitles.
Although it is set in medieval Britain, Holy Grail delights in being wildly anachronistic. Most of the humor comes from injecting modern ideas, not to mention Cockney accents, into the dawn of British civilization. It is also the means by which the Pythons broadly parody the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and also pointedly critique the absurdity of concepts such as the king’s divine right. My favorite scene in the film comes when King Arthur encounters to peasants who question his claim to political power.
King Arthur: How do you do, good lady? l am Arthur, King of the Britons.
Peasant Woman: King of the who?
King Arthur: The Britons.
Peasant Woman: Who are the Britons?
King Arthur: We all are. We’re all Britons. And I am your king.
Peasant Woman: Didn’t know we had a king. We’re an autonomous collective.
Peasant Man: You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class–
Peasant Woman: There you go, bringing class into it again.
Peasant Man: That’s what it’s all about. If only people…
King Arthur: Please, good people. I am in haste…Who is your lord?
Peasant Woman: We don’t have a lord…I told you. We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.
Fortunately, the social commentary, as funny as it is, doesn’t last long, and the giddy silliness comes creeping back, as the Pythons in full suits of armor the song “Spamalot,” prompting Arthur to declare, “let’s not go to Camelot after all, it is a silly place.”
Holy Grail also marks the first of many difficult collaborations for Terry Gilliam as a director. Gilliam and Terry Jones have co-directing credits for the film. The other members of the troupe reportedly preferred working with Jones, who worked both as a writer and performer in “Flying Circus,” and focused on performance in his direction. Gilliam, who was mainly responsible for the animated segments in the show, only occasionally took small parts in front of the camera, was much more visual in his style, and reportedly exasperated the others by being a perfectionist on a shoot that had a very limited budget. The next two films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life would credit only Jones as director, although he did do uncredited direction on two scenes of Brian. The trademark Gilliam style is evident in a few scenes of Holy Grail, such as Sir Galahad arriving at Castle Anthrax, which uses extreme camera angles and candle lighting to establish the atmosphere, and the final scene in which modern-day police burst into the past and arrest everyone. Personally, I prefer Gilliam’s style.