Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) is a cult classic. As a lover of Arthurian lore, however, I found its slapstick and cheesy humor rather off-putting when I first saw this film back in 1994, and I waited that long to watch it because I didn’t like “stupid” humor. I only watched it then because I was in graduate school and took a course in the Arthurian legend and we watched it as our end of semester class party. I was about the only one in the class who thought it stupid while everyone else thought it funny.
And then I watched it again this past week. Either my sense of humor has gotten better (or worse), or watching it on a larger screen as a restored version did the trick (a special edition re-release came out in 2001), but I found the film very funny. A big problem with all Arthurian films, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is definitely such a film, is that we have preconceived notions about what the Arthurian legend should be before we watch the film, and consequently, we may fail to appreciate what the film is actually trying to do. Case in point, the first time I saw the musical film Camelot (1967), I thought it was kind of boring – when were they going to get to the quest for the Holy Grail? Well, they never do because the Arthurian legend has too much in it for any one film, even for a three hour film like Camelot, and that film focused on the love triangle between Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot and Arthur’s belief that Camelot’s ideal should be not “might is right but might for right.” Consequently, it took a second viewing for me to come to appreciate Camelot. And anyone who knows me well knows that for the last twenty-five years, I have claimed it as my favorite movie and I have worn out records, cassette tapes, and then CDs listening to the soundtrack–thank God for iTunes.
But back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I love musicals–Camelot is my favorite–and so consequently I had to listen to the Broadway Cast Recording soundtrack to Spamalot–I have yet to see the play–but I love the music. And the musical is a vast improvement on the film. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the film again, and knowing this time what to expect, sheer humor and no real closeness to the Arthurian legend, I was able to enjoy the film a great deal, to laugh out loud in numerous places. I love the cow being catapulted, and who doesn’t love the killer rabbit! And a few things, like the mention of Joseph of Arimathea, attest to some knowledge in the film of the real legend. Furthermore, I loved the sets, the castles, and some of the songs in Spamalot, such as “Brave Sir Robin,” originated in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Finally, I remember first watching this film and thinking it had that dull, gray ’70s look that most films of that period had, but the special edition version has made Monty Python and the Holy Grail visually beautiful. I was stunned by the colors, and in some scenes, I could forget for a minute that I was watching a comedy, and think instead that I was looking at some of N.C. Wyeth’s beautiful illustrations or even some Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The only other Arthurian film that I have found so visually stunning was the NBC TV series Merlin (1998).
All in all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film I can appreciate for what it tries to do–make fun of the Arthurian legend in a way that is funny and not solely demeaning. It is well worth watching and deserves its status as one of the best known and most popular films about the Arthurian legend. I do find the ending of the film very disappointing, and it is far inferior to Spamalot, but overall, it’s a film worth watching and enjoying more than once. I mean, it has even inspired people to wear pajamas with killer rabbits on them, and when a film influences pajama fashions, it has to have something of value!
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com