Why ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ still matters, as it screens at MFAH

The satirical British comedy from 1975, screening at MFAH this weekend, set the table at which ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘South Park’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ later dined.

“On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot,” says King Arthur. “It is a silly place.”

Is it ever. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” screens at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston August 26-28, a rare opportunity to catch the 1975 masterpiece of Arthurian absurdity and flying cattle on the big screen. With no apologies to John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Graham Chapman (all still living save the latter two), it is the, er, Holy Grail of comedy films.

Five well-educated Brits and one puckish American — that would be Gilliam, co-director of “Holy Grail” and future director of “Brasil” and “The Fisher King” — Monty Python in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s minted a particularly British brand of scathing satire and surrealistic sketch humor that nonetheless wholly infiltrated lofty U.S. comedic totems as varied as “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” and “Saturday Night Live.” Not for nothing did The Atlantic once call them “The Beatles of comedy.”

Their first proper film after 1972’s “And Now For Something Completely Different” — a reprise of beloved sketches from their BBC series — “Holy Grail” spoofs the concepts of chivalry and heroic quests through a ceaseless procession of taunting French soldiers, annoyingly frank minstrels, killer bunnies, and an enchanter named Tim (Cleese) who is the closest thing the film gets to Merlin. Since the filmmakers couldn’t afford horses, Arthur and his knights’ valets bang coconut shells together.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

But more pointed messages poke their way through the abundant Scottish mists as well. The witch-burning scene, in which a woman is determined to be so because she weighs the same as a duck, echoes contemporary debates about women’s right to control their own bodies, while some of the most memorable lines come from the impressively erudite peasantry: “Strange women lying in ponds is no basis for a system of government.” The film never talks down to its audience, and in fact consistently challenges it to keep up.

“Holy Grail” accidentally set a high bar for subsequent Arthurian films as well. Six years later, John Boorman’s “Excalibur” took itself so seriously it verges on self-parody, but it’s still a fun watch. During “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” Guy Ritchie’s unfortunate 2017 entry into the Arthurian canon, “lines from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ kept bursting, unbidden, into my mind,” according to Christopher Orr of The Atlantic. (Last year’s “The Green Knight” notwithstanding, Ritchie’s film appears to have put Hollywood off the Round Table for at least a few years.)

As influential as “Holy Grail” has been on comedy and film, it has also inspired its fair share of scholarship — not all that surprising, considering that Terry Jones (the other co-director) went on to become an accomplished medieval scholar in his own right. Christine Neufeld, now a professor of language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University, wrote a 2002 post-doctoral paper tracing the farcical tales of Sirs Lancelot and Galahad to their medieval antecedents in the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory. (Its name: “Coconuts in Camelot: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ in the Arthurian Literature Course.)

In other words, the Pythons did their research. “Even as it mocks our chivalric fantasies,” concludes Neufeld’s paper, published in the peer-reviewed Middle Ages journal Florilegium, “Monty Python’s exuberantly flawed contemporary Grail quest helps students of Arthurian literature better comprehend both the complexities and sublimity of the Arthurian legend, as well as our own ongoing fascination with the Once and Future King.”

Deep appreciation of Arthurian lore is hardly required to enjoy “Holy Grail,” however. Elvis Presley particularly loved the Black Knight bit, in which Cleese bravely fights on as King Arthur (Chapman) hacks off one limb at a time. Members of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin helped finance the film; Iron Maiden screamer Bruce Dickinson is another Python superfan. The 2009 documentary “Monty Python: Almost the Truth — Lawyer’s Cut” is full of other celebrities — Dan Aykroyd, Russell Brand, Jimmy Fallon — likewise paying homage. 

Personally, I’ve watched the movie at least two or three dozen times and am still noticing things I missed. This time it was the trio of knights impaled on a lance while Sir Robin (Idle) and his not-so-merry minstrels navigate the Dark Forest of Ewing. The fact that I find something like that funny speaks to not only how much Python has undoubtedly warped my own sense of humor, but an underlying truth to their best work: abject silliness is almost always its own reward. No explanations necessary.

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.

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