Study Guide

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Introduction


Release Year: 1975

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy

Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones

Writers: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Stars: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle


Welcome to the age-old tale of Arthur, the legendary king of the Britons, and his valiant Knights of the Round Table. They'll perform heroic feats of daring and cunning that will leave you breathless.

From laughing so hard, that is.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is where fantasy and adventure meet flat-out ridiculousness. Apparently it's a killer combination, since it's held up for more than four decades—unlike a lot of things we could list from 1975 (cough, polyester, cough)

The movie was produced by Monty (Python) Pictures and was written and directed by the Monty Python crew, the insanely funny absurdist comedy troupe made famous by their TV sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus. They made do with a measly $400,000 production budget (measly for Hollywood, that is), and they shot the entire film in twenty-eight days.

The Pythons themselves played all of the main characters—and then some. Graham Chapman takes the lead as King Arthur who's followed by Lancelot (John Cleese), Bedevere (Terry Jones), Galahad (Michael Palin, who plays a whopping ten roles), Robin (Eric Idle), and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) on his journey through a very odd version of the Middle Ages, where knights bang coconuts instead of riding horses and people seem weirdly preoccupied with the airspeed velocity of swallows.

Despite the low budget and the fact that the Pythons and the two directors, Jones and Gilliam, had never done a feature length film (and admitted to basically figuring it out as they went), the film was a smashing success. It's considered to be one of the funniest films of all time, ranking consistently in the top five best comedies in polls and reviews from the likes of Total Film and ABC. It has an amazing 97% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes film critics. 

Nobody gets 97%.

But don't take it from us; take it from The New Yorker:

We saw it last week, and it is our very deep, very personal privilege to report that, during the entire length of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the audience were either laughing or getting ready to laugh. The chairs were laughing, the rug was laughing, the exit signs were laughing, and the building next door was laughing. (Source)

Sure, the quests may be pointless (shrubbery?), the knights may not always be brave, the damsels may be a little more ready for action than your typical innocent maiden, and the monsters may be a tad unconventional (killer bunnies?). But all the components of a traditional Arthurian adventure are present and hilariously accounted for. We're talking brave knights, quests, beautiful damsels, fights to the death, fantastical monsters...and weird accents.

The movie had such staying power that the Pythons created a blockbuster Broadway version in Spamalot—a musical that won three Tony awards, including Best Musical. We could go on about The Holy Grail forever but, seeing as the movie itself is so much funnier, we're going to take Arthur & Co.'s advice and just...get on with it.

What is Monty Python and the Holy Grail About and Why Should I Care?

How many times have you heard the following lines?

"It's only a flesh wound."

"We are the knights who say "ni!"

"I fart in your general direction!"

"I'm not dead yet!"

The answer, if you're over seven years of age and haven't spent your life under a rock, is probably somewhere around a gazillion.

Most films have one catchphrase, like, say, "Show me the money!" A couple of uber-famous movies have two or three: "We'll always have Paris," and "Round up the usual suspects" both come from Casablanca

But Monty Python and the Holy Grail created approximately one quintillion catchphrases. In fact, we defy you to watch this movie for five minutes and not land on a phrase you've heard repeated, parodied, or referenced.

Why is this movie to eternally quotable? Is it the originality? The timelessness of that crazy Python humor? The total non-sequitur-ity of the non-sequiturs?

We think the answer is "all of the above." And we also think that's why you need to study this film.

Because even if you aren't concerned with understanding all of The Holy Grail's nuanced references, that doesn't mean it isn't worth watching and thinking about. Despite being one of the most ridiculous comedies ever, loaded with brilliant farcical humor, it covers some fairly interesting issues. Serious ones, like stereotypes, the use of violence in religion, social class conflict, even questioning the very nature of filmmaking.

In fact, we'd go so far as to say that studying The Holy Grail is as entertaining as watching it. Analysis doesn't kill these jokes. Heck, nothing short of an asteroid hitting Earth could kill these jokes.

And after a bit of Python-joke mining, you'll end up having a deeper appreciation of what makes these jokes so evergreen, so ironic and subversive, so absurdist, so full of non-sequiturs, and so full of rabbit gags.

Full disclosure: if you enter the weird, lunatic world of the people who brought us the Ministry of Silly Walks, you'll never be the same again. You'll have a deeper appreciation of migratory bird patterns, how to properly identify and punish witchcraft, the ins and outs of building swamp castles, and the importance of knowing what your favorite color is.

There's only one downside to entering the rabbithole (don't worry—not the Killer Rabbit Of Caerbannog's hole) of Monty Python; you might find yourself binge-watching episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus

But take a page from Sir Lancelot and be brave—no good knight turns away from peril.

Trivia

The image of God is actually a picture of the famous cricket player W. G. Grace. Why did they use his face? We don't know. Maybe it was the manly beard. (Source)

Terry Jones went on to write a book called "Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary." While shooting in Doune Castle, he learned that there were dividing walls so the king could be defended from his own knights, who were mercenaries and couldn't be trusted. (Source)

Everyone's favorite character, Sir-Not-Appearing-in-this-Film, was played by Michael Palin's son. He's since gone on to play the same role in all other films. (Source)

Gilliam and Cleese did all their own stunts in the fight between the Black Knight and the Green Knight. They did it because it was fun to learn how to swordfight, but also because it was filmed near the end of production and they'd run out of money. (Source)

Gilliam was originally scripted to play Sir Gawain, a character who would continuously break the fourth wall. Instead, his role was condensed to Patsy, whose one and only line points out the use of a model as Castle Camelot. (Source)

Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss say they were hugely influenced by the Holy Grail. (Source)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Resources

Websites

So Many Swallows
Finally, an answer to the film's biggest unanswered question. The air-speed velocity of European swallows has been unequivocally determined.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Monty Python but Were Afraid to Ask
The lads' very own site.

Quotable Quotes
Most hilarious quotes from the film according to IMDB.

Quotable Quotes, Vol. II
Here's what the Boston Globe thinks are the funniest quotes, plus video.

Look No Further
…for every single image and sound bite from the film.

Well, Maybe a Little Further
A list of everything we love about the film, in easy-to-use alphabetical order.

Shocking Fact Revealed: Why the Knights say "Ni!"
One guy with way too much time on his hands looked into it for us.

Book or TV Adaptations

"We eat ham and jam and…"
In 2005, Spamalot (a play that was "lovingly ripped off" from the movie) came out to both critical and public acclaim. It won the Tony for Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Record. If you thought Patsy should have had more than one line (or should have been a female), or if you wanted to know what was up with the Lady of the Lake, then you should check it out. (Seriously, it's hilarious. Go see it immediately.)

Articles and Interviews

Class Issues
Maybe you don't think Monty Python belongs in the classroom, but here's an article that explains why it may be the perfect way to spice things up.

Medieval Mania
Yes, Gilliam's animations are silly transitions, but there's actually a lot of history hidden in them. His co-director was a medieval scholar of sorts, so check out this article for all the historical references.

Terry Gilliam Explains It All
Gilliam on The Holy Grail and other stuff.

Get All the Jokes
This guy watched the film a zillion times and discovered lots of hidden jokes.

Video

Dennis the Wise
Have a look at one of the funniest, most well-written scenes of the movie; featuring everyone's favorite peasant-who-is-not-an-old-woman-but-actually-a-37-year-old-man, Dennis.

The Bridge of Absurd Questions
No other scene subverts audience expectations more than the "Bridge of Death" scene. Here it is in all its foggy glory.

Singalot
If you remember watching the Camelot song and having no idea what they were saying, you're not alone. The song has some purposefully silly rhymes, so some kind soul was nice enough to add subtitled lyrics for us.

That's Some Serious Grail
Ever wonder what everyone's favorite comedy would belike if it were a serious fantasy adventure film? Well, with some clever editing it's finally been created (or at least a trailer for it).

How They Did It
What happens when a purely TV comedy group writes a movie directed by two first-time directors? Find out in this epic "making of" documentary (check the sidebar for the other installments).

Images

How-To
Instructional guide for swallows. Looks like it's from IKEA.

Black Knight Advice
Some people are just wusses.

Original Movie Poster
You can get it for $200 on eBay.

Just a Flesh Wound
Battling Lego Knights