The Holy Grail was written by the full Python gang but was directed by two of them: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Gilliam was the animator for Flying Circus, Holy Grail and all things Python. Jones was, like the rest of them, a writer and actor. In fact, most of the Pythons considered themselves to be first and foremost writers, but that never stopped them from appearing in their own work.
If you're watching the film again, look closely and you might notice that behind all that medieval garb there are some familiar faces appearing more than a few times. Each of the Pythons has a primary role, but they don many costumes throughout the film. It's this sort of freedom to write, direct, and act that gives the Pythons the liberty to create something truly unique, just as they'd done on TV. They're amazingly versatile actors, equally hilarious playing men and women.
Terry Jones, like most of the Pythons, has had a successful post-Python career. In fact, he not only went on to solo direct the group's other films but he wrote and directed a number of other screenplays and operas. He's also written a few books, including some nonfiction about the Middle Ages, perhaps inspired by his first venture into Arthurian lore.
Terry Gilliam, while primarily a writer, animator, and actor in previous works, launched himself into the role of director beginning with The Holy Grail. The only Yankee of the bunch, he's gone on to direct numerous films, among them the critically acclaimed Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King. His films are imaginative and fantastical, which is no surprise when you've seen his rather strange Holy Grail animations.
In a time before everyone's favorite Arthurian parody there were five British comedic writers known in the real world as Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.
The young men were from Cambridge and Oxford, where they wrote and acted in the university theater (or theatre, as the Brits would write it). They'd all been writers and performers in a number of British comedy shows, including "The Frost Report" and "Do Not Adjust Your Set." In 1969 Cleese had an offer from the BBC-TV to create a comedy series; he brought on the rest of the five, plus Terry Gilliam, an American animator whose work he admired.
Fortunately for us and the rest of the world, the result was "Monty Python's Flying Circus," a show that, in their own words, would be "unpredictable, aggressive, and irreverent, each episode a thirty-minute stream of consciousness, reflecting the revolutionary times of the late '60s" (source).
The show, consisting of sketches tied together by Gilliam's brilliant animations, ran for forty-five episodes, became a cult classic, and won tons of awards (source). The Pythons continually pushed the boundaries of intelligent, absurdist comedy, mixing pure silliness with references to existential philosophers and correct conjugation of Latin verbs. Like The Holy Grail, the sketches lampooned authority figures and the status quo—appealing perfectly to the rebellious youth movements of the '60s.
In 1971, the Pythons produced their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, which was basically a collection of sketches from the TV show. Encouraged by the success of that film, they went on to create Monty Python and the Holy Grail, their first real, original feature film, followed by the controversial Bible parody Life of Brian, and their final film, The Meaning of Life.
Why "Monty Python?" The guys gave different explanations for the group's name over the years, but generally it's just a name that they thought was silly, senseless, and slippery, like their comedy.
Michael White Productions and Python (Monty) Pictures produced The Holy Grail, written and directed by the Pythons themselves. The film's two producers were Mark Forstater and Michael White. The Holy Grail is Forstater's major claim to fame. He's continued to produce a few films but is actually best known for his lawsuit against the Pythons for Eric Idle's stage spinoff, Spamalot. Forstater won the suit and was rewarded the hefty sum of £800,000 for royalties due to him.
White had a more illustrious career as a producer. He's worked on many well-known plays and screenplays including the original cult classic Rocky Horror Show and movie adaptation Rocky Horror Picture Show. He's even important enough to have his own biopic, The Last Impresario.
Did we mention that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a super-low budget production? In fact, it was largely funded by wealthy Brits who were looking for tax write-offs on the exorbitantly high British tax rates of the '70s (the same rates that drove the Beatles to move to the U.S).
And, as it turns out, the low budget is part of what makes this movie so awesome. Take, for instance, the coconut knocking in place of the horses. Yes, it's a funny joke because coconuts were used to replicate horse hoof beats in old radio shows; but the decision to make the joke was much more practical—they simply didn't have the funds to get actual horses.
There are a number of other small production details related to the film's budget. The Black Knight scene, for instance, took about an entire week to film because of the limited number of people still working at that point (it was one of the final scenes filmed and they had run out of money). Despite these limitations, it has become one of the movie's most well-known and oft-quoted scenes.
Then there's the story behind the Killer Rabbit. Instead of buying a rabbit, they used a trained one they borrowed from a woman who was insistent he remained unsoiled. However, given that he was playing the role of killer rabbit, there was some red dye used that may have been more permanent than expected. Apparently the woman was not pleased and got a bit crazed (how would you like your rabbit drenched in fake blood?).
Fortunately, the low budget and random mishaps become jokes themselves that fit perfectly within the film. Like the coconuts, the castle Camelot was just a model due to budget and the whole castle fiasco. Unfortunately, it was pretty windy when they started filming, and the prop kept blowing over…leading to Patsy's inside joke in which he flat out tells us that it's just a model.
Doing more with less was basically Python specialty—which is probably, now that we think about it, why Monty Python is so popular with dads the world over.
Frequent Monty Python collaborator and member of the esteemed British avant-garde, psychedelic pop-jazz band Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Neil Innes is responsible for the majority of The Holy Grail's scoring.
Having written songs for some of the Python's Flying Circus sketches, the writing of music for comical purposes made Innes a perfect fit for the tone of the film.
But that's not to say the score itself is a joke. In fact, a lot of the score (with perhaps the exception of the "Knights of the Round Table" jig, which is hardly subtle) is actually quite serious, and it's this seriousness that juxtaposes the ridiculousness of the action and dialogue as it appears on screen.
Even as soon as the opening credits, we get this mixture of a score that hints at some sort of impending doom with which we read a story of a moose. In Swedish.
By the way, this track and others not written by Innes, were provided by De Wolfe Music's library, including "Homeward Bound" used for Arthur's theme.
Like the credits, we get this very grand sound (with lots of horns) to let us know it's an important song for kings and conquests. But, as the song plays, on screen we see Arthur and his knights riding pretend horses as their squires bang coconuts.
A final example we have to mention is Dudley Matthews' "Crossed Swords." A very epic, high intensity song with violent strings make this track sound like the quintessential fight song, and yet all we get is a deranged knight hopping around on one leg talking about a "flesh wound."
Monty Python and the Holy Grail isn't called a cult classic for nothing. This movie has an incredibly large and dedicated fan base, and it's not just a bunch of sixty year-olds remembering the good old days when things were really funny. The movie's loved even by the young'uns.
Seriously, what other low budget British comedy from the seventies do people born in the '90s even know about? There's even an app that takes you behind the scenes into the making of the film. (Show your parents how to use it.)
Part of the reason why The Holy Grail is burned so thoroughly into American and British minds is that the film is filled with classic one-liners that are seriously quotable. The internet is filled with "Top 10 Quotes" sites like this one from the Boston Globe.
One fan took the time to edit the trailer and make it into a serious movie. There are fan-made Lego sets, fan-made Lego music videos, a Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog plush toy, and even a book about Monty Python fandom itself.
There's also plenty of more scholarly work to read if you want to take your love of the movie even more seriously. You can check out our "Best of the Web" section for more.