Study Guide

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Analysis

  • The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

    Okay, we're going to preface all our fancy symbolic analysis with what we think is probably the best bit of war-related trivia: did you know that hand grenades existed way back in the 700s? True fact… and they were filled with something called Greek Fire, which is as cool as it sounds.

    But if you look closely at the Holy Hand Grenade, it looks a lot more like a 20th century grenade than anything to come out of the Dark Ages. So this holiest of weapons is more than a few centuries ahead of its time—it's clearly a satirical reference to religious war and destruction in general.

    The cutting satirical commentary doesn't stop there, though—this is Monty Python, after all. The HHGOA is visually a parody of the Sovereign's Orb, a relic made for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661. That's still three (or seven, depending on when you think the movie actually takes place) centuries after the film's time period.

    Finally, there's the Antioch reference. Antioch was an ancient Greek city where, during the First Crusade, someone reportedly found the lance that pierced the side of Jesus as he was crucified. It became known as the Holy Lance of Antioch… although its authenticity was debated. The lance often appeared in Arthurian legends along with the Grail. You can get some more details here.

    So not only is the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch filled to the brim with historical references, but it represents the insanity of war (killing a bunny with a grenade sure seems to define "overkill"). Even more than that, it satirizes and criticizes the much too-frequent association between war and religion.

    The whole episode drives home that point with Arthur somberly reading from the sacred "Book of Armaments" in which God commands the readers on the proper use of the Holy Hand Grenade. C'mon, now. It's true that some pretty epic things go down in the Bible (floods! plagues! men killing armies with a donkey's jawbone!) but nowhere is there an instructional manual on hand grenade use.

  • The Credits

    The Swedes and Passionate Dentistry

    If you don't speak Swedish you might not have picked up on the humor in the opening credits. Just a heads up; those weren't real subtitles. And, okay, fine—we'll save you from taking a crash course in Swedish 101—it wasn't actually real Swedish either.

    The whole thing was a joke. We know. It's shocking that a film as pivotal and serious as Monty Python and the Holy Grail would contain something as silly as a joke, but there you have it.

    Here are the credits, in their loony entirety:

    Wik
    Also wik
    Also also wik
    Wi not trei a holiday in Sweeden this yer ?
    See the loveli lakes
    The wonderful telephone system
    And mani interesting furry animals
    Including the majestic moose
    A moose once bit my sister...
    No realli! She was Karving her initials on the moose with the sharpened end of an interspace toothbrush given her by Svenge—her brother-in-law— an Oslo dentist and star of many Norwegian movies: "The Hot Hands of an Oslo Dentist", "Fillings of Passion", "The Huge Molars of Horst Nordfink"...
    Mynd you, moose bites Kan be pretti nasti...

    You might notice the Swedish-English mash-up starts veering off the translation track and starts sounding like a travel brochure. The lovely lakes? Really? Then it gets really funky with all the moose stuff and the sister and the space toothbrush… um, what?

    There's just no way of knowing Monty Python meant by this subtitle madness… and that's the point. Suddenly, the credits and soundtrack grind to a halt, and we're informed that the people responsible for them have been sacked. Good riddance.

    Moosin' Around

    Subsequently, the people who sacked the creators of the credits are themselves sacked, but the moose begins to find its way into the credits themselves:

    Møøse trained by Yutte Hermsgervørdenbrøtbørda Special Møøse Effects Olaf Prot.

    Then it starts to get even more ridiculous with

    Large møøse on the left hand side of the screen in the third scene from the end, given a thorough grounding in Latin, French and "O" Level Geography by Bo Benn.

    These people are then also sacked, and the credits are finished in a completely different style (one that definitely deserves a seizure warning). Moose have been replaced by llamas, which have apparently had some part in directing the movie, and the music changes to a rousing Mexican mariachi band.

    So, again: what's all this craziness about? And what does it have to do with Richard Nixon (who signed the "extra special thanks")? Well, it's actually quite complicated and necessitates a nuanced understanding of Swedish linguistics, the physiology of Alces alces, and the history surrounding the American presidency in the early '70s.

    Or—wait. No it doesn't. Let's just hand the mic to John Cleese, who can explain the moostraganza:

    "The Llama is funny, like moose and Nixon, and fish of any kind."

    Yeah, this is really just an introduction to the arbitrary weirdness of what's to come. The Pythons had no budget and couldn't do anything fancy with the credits so they decided to do them up in a nonsensical, hilarious way. Holy Grail is literally packed full of absurdist humor at every turn and in every scene…and the opening credits are your fair warning.

  • Swallows

    What do swallows have to do with Arthurian legend? Well, nothing…but that's the point.

    The first guard Arthur meets is very interested about how Arthur and Patsy came across a coconut—this is a fair question, because coconuts don't grow in dreary ol' Britain. Arthur's eventual response is that it could have been carried by a migrating swallow traveling from a tropical zone to a temperate one. Thus ensues the lengthy and famous discussion about whether or not a swallow would be able to carry a coconut.

    That's not the last of the swallows; there are references to them throughout the movie. For instance, at the beginning of the witch trial scene, Bedevere is seen releasing a dove to which he has tied a coconut. (Sure it's a dove and not a swallow, but Bedevere just isn't too bright.)

    Next the Narrator makes reference to a swallow-flight as a measure of distance and compares it to the distance of a laden swallows flight (laden with a coconut, we presume). The cast gets a bit anxious and yells at him to "get on with it" before eventually shooting him with an arrow when he doesn't stop.

    But the Pythons, immune to the archers of their own creation, still aren't done with swallows. In the Bridge of Death scene, the Bridgekeeper asks Arthur about the airspeed velocity of an un-laden swallow, a question that will lead to the Bridgekeeper being flung into the abyss. Moral of the story: don't ask swallow-related questions.

    Why this swallow obsession? Well, everyone enjoys a running joke, the one you think is finished but manages to crop up again (and again, and again). But maybe the swallows also serve as an example of the trivial concerns we tend to get obsessed with at times, and tend to cloud our judgment. Should the guard really be so concerned about where Arthur got the coconuts, or should he focus on the fact that he's (oddly) using them to pretend he's riding a horse? Should the narrator explain distance in swallow-related terms, or should he "just get on with it"?

    The swallow gag shows us that a) trivial things are seriously funny and b) sometimes we all miss the forest for the swallow-laden trees.

  • The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog

    Sometimes a bunny is just a bunny… and sometimes it's a killer bunny. But sometimes a killer bunny… isn't just a killer bunny. A cute harmless bunny ripping the heads off of knights in a ferocious display of savagery is truly awe-inspiring as is, but if we ignored some of the symbolism and historical allusion we wouldn't be doing our job.

    The idea of the Killer Rabbit was reportedly taken from a carving in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris which depicts a knight running away from… a rabbit.

    Maybe he was a smart man running from a murderous hare, but more than likely it was representative of cowardice, a bunny being just about the least threatening animal imaginable. This is not something you'd want on your resume as a knight. (At least this Notre Dame knight didn't pull a Robin; his armor looks to be unsoiled.)

    In The Holy Grail, however, fleeing from a rabbit is less about being a coward and more about the knights' stupidity. Tim tries to warn them but they're deceived by the innocent, furry little guy.

    Also: does this remind you of the Trojan rabbit trick that Bedevere & Co tried to pull earlier? That also involved a rabbit—a rabbit whose most deadly weapon was its harmless appearance. And we see the knights outsmarted by the French who, realizing the deception, re-gift the rabbit in projectile form. It crushes one of the servants, making it another killer rabbit.

    So the rabbit seems to become a subversion of its original intention. It no longer references cowardice but hubris—the failure to recognize that you are outmanned (or outrabbited, as the case may be).

  • The Fourth Wall

    What fourth wall?

    It's rare that the characters' own awareness of the film they're in is actually a motif of the movie as a whole, but in The Holy Grail the fourth wall has been broken so many times that there's a permanent hole in it.

    Exhibit A: the scene in which Dingo (Zoot's twin sister) starts talking directly to the audience about whether her scene is any good. Dingo admits that the directors thought about cutting it (ironically, they did end up cutting it, only to release it later on home-release versions) and the cast starts interacting with her from within their various set pieces.

    Not only does she talk to other characters with no connection with her (aside from the fact they're in a movie together), but many of the characters are ones that we haven't even seen yet. There's Tim the Enchanter, the Bridgekeeper, and Arthur's army…who we don't even know about until the final scene.

    The wall takes another hit when the dreaded animated Beast of Arrrggghhh is chasing an animated version of Arthur and the Knights. The Narrator informs us that the situation looked hopeless for the unfortunate knights, until the animator had a heart attack and the Beast disappeared. We see animator drop dead at his desk, and the Beast disappears from the scene.

    The wall comes completely down with the policemen who end the movie. They literally walk up to the camera guy and turn off the camera. The cameraman is usually a non-entity in most films—the camera is purely how the audience is able to access the film. But our own perspective as viewers is brought to our attention.

    In fact, if we look closely, we can see the whole film crew in the reflection of the police van. So the audience are characters and the characters are the audience… basically the flimsy fourth wall has been pushed over like a model castle, creating a bridge between the experience of the film and the film itself. (And we don't even need to know the capital of Assyria to cross it.)

    What's interesting about this is that, even with the intrusions of self-consciousness throughout the film, we still get caught up in the story. We feel we're watching the knights on their quest, and not just a parody of filmmaking. Maybe that's because the story of Arthur is so familiar that we fill in the gaps as they go along, but we like to think that it's a little bit of genius on the part of the writers.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    Ordinary life in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is…anything but ordinary.

    Our first scene is a ridiculous conversation between Arthur and a French guard about coconuts and swallows, which we quickly learn is actually a pret-ty normal day for our King. Even the absurd lack of horses will soon be unnoticeable.

    Call To Adventure

    Arthur starts out in medias res with his quest to gain knightly followers, so it isn't until after the Round Table has been formed that we get his true Call to Adventure.

    After nope-ing out of Camelot, God breaks through the clouds and gives Arthur and his knights a purpose, to search for the ever-coveted Holy Grail. This is what the rest of their adventures will aim toward…with some slight detours, of course.

    Refusal Of The Call

    The problem with Arthur and the Knights is that there is no Refusal of the Call.

    While it seems reasonable to assume obtaining the Holy Grail will be no easy task, the Knights march on in great spirits, oblivious to the dangers that lie ahead of them, and woefully unprepared for rude Frenchmen.

    Meeting The Mentor

    If there is a mentor in The Holy Grail it must be Tim, the eccentric sorcerer. Tim, however, doesn't provide Arthur and company with a whole lot of guidance. He mostly just tells them about the cave with clues to the Grail and then laughs as the cute bunny massacres them.

    At one point we see him walk out of the frame and then…that's it. So much for a mentor: they really could have used one, too.

    Crossing The Threshold

    This stage happens the moment each of the Knights splits, and they go their separate ways. While they had only been together for a short time, their combined idiocy seemed to provide a shield from the terrors of the outside world. But as they go alone, each will encounter separate tests and enemies that will test their mettle, if not their metal as well.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    The Knights who say "ni," Anthrax Castle, Swamp Castle, and a three-headed giant: these are the horrors that await our brave, chaste Knights as they venture toward the Grail by their lonely selves.

    Each Knight must overcome their weaknesses in order to survive their enemies and prove themselves worthy…or they could just get lucky and stumble upon the right word…or kill tons of innocent bystanders.

    Okay, so their efforts to defeat their foes are anything but heroic, but this whole narrative is a parody, and—that's kind of the point.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Campbell may not have meant the cave thing literally, but such a rocky inlet is exactly what the Knights of the Round Table approach as they draw near their quest's end.

    Ordeal

    Surely the The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog was the final ordeal? It was so deceptively ferocious.

    While the beast did disembowel many a good Knight, there's an even more perilous climax ahead: crossing a wooden bridge. Okay, it may not sound as frightening, but these tricky questions they must answer to get across cost both the life of Robin and Galahad who fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Crossing the bridge leads to a castle in the distance. It seems that there is no reward yet to be had, but they must be so close; they can actually see the Grail itself shining above the castle.

    The Road Back

    But it's not that easy. The French are blocking Arthur from the Grail, once again foiling his plans with insults. Arthur and Lancelot are forced to retreat and prepare for one final battle as they make their last push to end their quest.

    Resurrection

    Suddenly, Arthur has an army of men behind him, ready to charge the castle and overtake the French. Arthur is finally about to prove himself a true King after all the silly nonsense that has happened during his journey…

    Return With The Elixir

    …but there is no elixir, and no return home.

    Arthur and army are stopped by the police, who have been tracking the Knights ever since the historian was killed. The quest narrative parody ends on a low note, an anti-climax with no Grail and no glory.

  • Setting

    Medieval England 932 AD…or the 1350s...or the Present Day?

    In the 1350s, people were telling stories that took place at the turn of the millennium. So while the movie may tell us that it takes place in 932, the production design looks more akin to sometime around the middle of the 14th century.

    The filming took place largely in Scotland, but unfortunately many of the castles Monty Python had planned to film at were unavailable at the last minute. Luckily, they found the privately owned Doune Castle, which is responsible for almost all of the castle shots. Filmed cleverly from different sides and angles, it's a stand-in for all of the castles.

    Fun fact: the original screenplay was set half in the Middle Ages and half in the modern world. Supposedly, the knights actually did find the Holy Grail in this version and it was located in none other than Harrods (a famous department store in London) because Harrods has everything.

    However, as the script was refined it was determined that a solely medieval setting would be best (maybe for budget-related reasons) and that's why we have the tale of Arthur as it occurs: in Monty Python's own wacked-out version of medieval England. That doesn't stop modern day police officers from showing up at the end of the film and arresting everyone though.

  • Point of View

    Sketchiness

    Monty Python has always been all about the sketches… and that's evident in the structure of The Holy Grail. Really, the whole first third of the movie is just a series of Arthur's random encounters, tied together only because he's there (and sometimes, as in the "bring out yer dead" scene, only briefly). Even when we get a more comprehensive narrative—the quest for the Holy Grail—it still comes packaged in an episodic fashion with each part featuring one of the knights as its protagonist.

    Finally, the knights reconvene and go through a series of final tests (namely a rabbit, a beast, and a bit of trivia) in a more traditional adventure narrative. Really, even standard, non-parody type adventures can be thought of as a series of obstacles that must be overcome. These kinds of journeys naturally have stages and this is largely how The Holy Grail operates. But it's the kind of journey that, instead of leading somewhere, just stops.

    Animation Station

    So how does one turn such an episodic narrative into a single film while maintaining some semblance of coherence? One way is by creating special transition sequences in between the small stand-alone sketches, and especially between plot sequences that are separated by a period of time.

    But the Pythons don't use a standard montage (that cinematic technique for showing the passage of time while maintaining plot continuity). Instead, animator (and director, and actor, and writer) Terry Gilliam takes drawings from old texts and repurposes them with his psychedelic twist, as silly moving pictures that move things forward and imply the passage of time.

    Gilliam perfected these kinds of sequences in "Monty Python's Flying Circus." It's extremely low tech (in fact it's been described as "no tech "). You can check out our "Best of the Web" section for all the details on his sources of inspiration.

  • Genre

    Comedy; Adventure; Fantasy

    Comedy

    But hopefully you've figured that out for yourself.

    When it comes to Monty Python, there's no using the old excuses that British humor is too dry for you. This movie is funny—that's a fact, not an opinion.

    It's been consistently voted as one of the funniest movie comedies of all time, but what makes it so funny? Well, it's a parody, meaning it takes something (in this case a fantasy adventure story) and turns it on its head. Adventuring in the medieval world means defeating rogue knights and monsters, not being repelled from castles by nasty words and using modern weapons to kill bunny rabbits. The humor is in its subversion of everything we think we know about knights, quests, and damsels in distress.

    Adventure

    But in order to be a parody of adventure it first has to be an adventure. While the narrative format may be rather episodic, it's still one continuous journey… well, maybe two somewhat continuous journeys.

    The first is Arthur's quest to gather knights to serve his court at Camelot. We're not sure why—maybe he's preparing for a poker tournament? Then we have the main quest where they all go in search of the Holy Grail—which, btw, Galahad eventually finds, according to the 12th Century legend.

    Fantasy

    The film takes place in 932 AD (which looks surprisingly a lot like the 1350s, closer to when the Arthurian legends were first being told) so we have the classic medieval warfare with swords and armor and castles and all that good stuff.

    There are enchanters and evil knights and witches and temptresses and legendary beasts; everything you need in a good medieval fantasy. And all of these things are redesigned for the sake of parody.

    Let's just think about the inhabitants of our story: we've got some rude Frenchmen, cowardly knights, some swallow-savvy guards, eight score blondes and brunettes, a Galahad the Chaste who wishes he weren't quite so celibate, killer bunnies, and a troubled young prince who just wants to sing. This may be a fantasy, but it's not your usual trip through the Middle Ages.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We hope the "Holy Grail" part is pretty self-explanatory: it's what they're after, the reason for the season, the object of the quest. The Holy Grail is a staple of Arthurian lore; it's the cup that Jesus is said to have drunk from at The Last Supper/the cup that caught Jesus' blood when He was crucified. It's usually portrayed as a golden, glowing cup or chalice. (Although we know better—we've seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The DaVinci Code.) We could continue with all the historical what's-what, but let's just say it's important and sacred and get on with the interesting part: Monty Python.

    For starters, it's the name of the comedy group, first made famous by their sketch TV show Monty Python's Flying Circus; but where does "Monty Python" come from? Apparently it comes from… nowhere.

    Here's a quick interview with Palin, where he describes the creative process as coming up with random names that made them laugh. There's some speculation that Monty refers to Lord Montgomery and even a story of Monty being a regular at a bar Cleese frequented. At any rate, it's really about the silliness of the name rather than any sort of deeper meaning or significance that people like to think it possesses—it has a totally opposite connotation to the "holy grail."

    Including the Monty Python name in the title made sure that no one would mistake this film for a serious piece of Arthurian fiction. It signaled a total sendup up of anything sacred or serious.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Yeah, we were wondering that too. What is up with the ending?

    But to understand the ending, we have to back up a bit to a short transitional scene in which a modern-day Historian is killed by a knight who slices his neck as he flies by on a horse. The Historian's wife rushes over, screaming, "Mike!"

    We see the policemen investigating the murder and following the path that Arthur and the knights take as they continue their search for the Grail. Suddenly, as the film comes to a close, we have a shot of Lancelot being patted down, his hands on a police car. Then, just as the climax of the movie is about to unfold, a whole squad rolls in and stops Arthur's army in its tracks. The historian's wife gets out of a car and accuses Arthur of being her late husband's killer.

    Let's leap to Arthur's defense. First of all, Arthur doesn't have a horse—he has Patsy and some coconuts. Secondly, if we go back and watch the clip slowly, the murderous knight is wearing a helmet, not a crown, and isn't wearing Arthur's armor (though it's hard to tell exactly what he looks like, it all happens so fast). Well, no one ever said eyewitness testimonies were accurate, so Arthur is bagged and taken away and—just like that—the movie ends.

    It may be a very sudden and shocking conclusion, but when we think about it there's really no other way for it to end. The knights can't complete their quest… because these guys can't complete anything. But having them fail on their quest doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the movie—that's too much of a downer.

    We also have to take into consideration Monty Python as a comedic group. If you've seen their Flying Circus show you might be familiar with The Colonel, who will jump into a sketch, break the fourth wall, and shut down whatever's happening by proclaiming it "too silly."

    In fact, Monty Python's first full-length movie (which was a collection of their sketches) was called And Now for Something Completely Different, highlighting their other favorite change of direction in a sketch being abandoned… with no obligation to explain why.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    The Holy Grail came out before the advent of the PG-13 rating. However, it's a pretty tame movie. Sure, there's a lot of violence and a bit of blood, but most of it is over-the top and cartoonish: a rabbit biting peoples' heads off, a knight losing all of his limbs, people being crushed by cows and giant wooden rabbits.

    And Monty Python keeps all the sex and drugs on the light side… even in Castle Anthrax.