Tuesday, July 26, 2011

None Shall Pass: King Arthur's Legend According to Monty Python

“It’s only a flesh wound.” The Black Knight to King Arthur

“Leave here or I shall taunt you a second time.” The French Taunter

“A spanking, a spanking!” the women of Anthrax Castle to Sir Galahad

“Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?” Sir Galahad to Sir Lancelot as he’s rescued (dragged) out of Castle Anthrax

Who doesn’t recognize those catch phrases from the hit comedy ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’? The film was a parody of King Arthur and his knights searching for the mystical Cup of Christ, the Holy Grail. Between live action and animation, the audience was treated to minutes of farcical performance that is still delighting fans to this day.

John Cleese, Eric Ide, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones started production of the film in 1974, releasing the movie in 1975. Carol Cleveland and Connie Booth appeared in both the TV series and the movie. The Holy Grail was directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; Gilliam was also responsible for the animation in the comedy series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The men had met in college, worked on different stage and TV shows prior to the Python show. After 2 ½ seasons, the show cancelled.

The actors were just as interesting as their on-screen personas, Graham Chapman went to medical school and completed his physicians’ training, but he didn’t actually practice medicine. Graham joined a dramatic group named Footlights during college, which led to meeting of future Python members. John Cleese studied science and law, teaching science for a while until he started a job writing for TV. That eventually led him along to the Python group. Eric Idle studied English at college. Eric also joined the Footlights, where he met future Phythonites. Terry Jones studied English and history before hooking up with the Pythons. Michael Palin studied history and was a child actor. Terry Gilliam was born in the USA and moved to England, where he worked with John Cleese.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a comedic film about the King Arthur legend. The movie contains silly musical numbers, Terry Gilliams’s animations, and of course, the live action all meshed together. King Arthur (Chapman) wanders the kingdom followed by his squire, Patsy (Gilliam) who bangs two cocoanuts together to make the sound of horses. Arthurs knights, Sir Bedevere the Wise (Jones), Sir Lancelot the Brave (Cleese), Sir Galahad the Pure (Palin, and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Idle) all search the land, trying to convince the people to join their cause. Of course, there are obstacles: the Black Knight (Cleese), the Knights who say Ni, the castle controlled by the French who taunt Arthur’s men and lob cows at them, and the three-headed giant among others. Other memorable characters include the Dead Collector(Idle), Prince Herbert (Jones),French Taunter (Cleese), Mud Eater (Palin)the Witch (Connie Booth), and Zoot (Carol Carol Cleveland).

God tells Arthur his knights must search for the Holy Grail. Arthur says he will do so. In one scene, Sir Galahad arrives at Castle Anthrax, where he is overwhelmed by women wanting sex led by Zoot. Lancelot has to ‘rescue’ Galahad. Later the group travels to a cave where the secret location of the Grail is inscribed on a wall of a cave. To find out the information, they must get past an Enchanter and one of the most deadly of creatures, the Rabbit of Caerbannog. To destroy the rabbit, they utilize the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

During the movie, a man fully dressed as a knight on horseback rides down and kills an elderly man. The local police are investigating the crime and do show up and arrest Sir Bedevere and King Arthur, thus ending the film.

What makes this film remarkable, other than its comedy? The Python Crew did a bang up job of showing historic reality with a comedic twist. During the scene with the Dead Collector One asks another if he knows who the men passing by are, only to be told it must be the King because he’s clean. Contrary to common belief, noblemen did bath as often as they could, but the lower class, especially the serfs may not have had the access to bathing water as the upper class did. Carrying buckets of water to heat over a stove was hard work, particularly in winter. Bathing tubs were luxuries.

During Arthur’s initial approach at the French occupied castle, he asks to speak to the person in charge. The Frenchmen hurl insults first, and then changed to objects, including animals. Sieges of castles would go on as long as the residents had food and water. They often started out by trading insults back & forth until one party decided enough was enough and began using a trebuchet, catapult, ballista, or battering ram concurrent with storms of arrows or dropping rocks and/or hot oil from the wall.

Many knights did devote their lives to quests. A Grail knight by tradition was supposed to be pure, in other words celibate. Temptation was everywhere if one listened to the Church. The Church used the average person’s fears and ignorance to create a society ruled by strict rules of conduct dictated by Church Doctrine.

When a village resident was ill, and was cured by a woman wise in herbal lore, no one thought anything of it, yet let one resident have a grudge against that healer and suddenly she was on trial as a witch. In some cases, it only took a person looking different to be accused of sorcery or witchcraft. To get an accused person to admit using witchcraft, they might be tied up and dunked in water, if they sunk the person was said to be innocent, if the accused floated - well, they were guilty, for the water was rejecting the Devil's spawn.

The movie depicted all aspects of knighthood. Sir Robin was the craven knight, seemingly afraid of his shadow when alone but walking tall when with his companion knights. Lancelot believing a fair maiden is in danger, annihilates the members of a wedding celebration in his rescue attempt only to discover the bride-to-be is actually an effeminate, reluctant,groom who’d rather be a stage singer.

Finally, there is the epic battle between King Arthur and the Black Knight. Rather than go around the tenacious guardian of the tiny stream, Arthur fights the man in black armor. After lopping off the first extremity, Arthur gives in to the Black Knight’s taunts and continues the match, until the Black Knight has no arms or legs left; proving that even the highest knight of the realm sets aside his honor when his ire is ignited. After all, Arthur doesn’t want to forever known as a pansy for leaving a man behind who still wishes to fight. We thus are taught by the Pythons that even our legends were no more than flesh and blood men bound to their emotions just as we are.

Is the movie funny? Hell yes it is. Who doesn’t laugh at the line “Bring out your dead!” or the sight of the monks snacking their foreheads with their books as they walk in rhythm to their chanting? Even the political speech by the Mud Man about having a leader appointed because he was given a sword by a “watery tart” instead of a democratically chosen leader still makes me laugh. The members of Monty Python were smart enough to market their film once it was finished. Limited edition action figure knights, full size helms, swords, costumes, signed memorabilia, books, recordings, toys, theatrical spoofs (Spamalot), and dozens of other items are as collectable today as when the movie was first released.

Raise your goblet full of Grail Ale (removing your helm so you might have a drink), don’t spill on your official surcoat, and toast to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Don’t worry if your cut yourself on the helm, after all it’s only a flesh would.

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