Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an excellent collection of very funny sketches on a theme. It’s really funny. It’s often exceptionally well performed–acted is a bit of a stretch–and it’s got a wonderful tone. It also lacks narrative momentum, which is kind of extraordinary since it’s about the quest for the Holy Grail. The Pythons sort of drain any epical structure. It’s a fine approach. It leads to some great sketches, but it just doesn’t connect all its pieces.
Did I say “it” enough? We needed to get past some things.
There’s a certain meta thing the film does–from the opening titles and the end credits–but it’s just filler between the sketches. The meta element is conceptually amusing, never funny, while the sketches are always funny without having much conceptual amusement. I think one of the transitory cartoons has more depth in a pun than anything in the film proper.
Unfortunately for Holy Grail, the comedic intensity of the sketches is unsteady. The finale is nowhere near funny enough to finish the film. There’s spectacle to it–extremely well done spectacle, probably directors Jones and Gilliam’s best work in the film–but there’s not the right kind of humor. Is everything before it great? No, especially not some of the stuff in the second half of the film when the quest gets more underway. But the first half is pretty spectacular and there’s still some strong material in the second half, just not as much as in the first. And there are some pacing issues with the sketches.
Holy Grail’s other problem is it’s too well-produced. Terry Bedford’s photography is exceptional, John Hackney’s editing is better. The fine production design is part of the joke–these six jackasses are funnier in a realistic tenth century than they’d be in a stagy one–but the editing almost gets distracting at times. It’s too good.
As far as the aforementioned jackasses go–and Holy Grail is jackass humor more than anything else; the idea being you act like a jackass long enough, eventually it’s funny. And Grail waits. Directors Jones and Gilliam take their sweet time waiting for the pay-off. They even joke about it after a while. Because jackasses make you wait to laugh.
Anyway, Graham Chapman’s a fine King Arthur. He’s the straightest man in the picture. John Cleese’s good. Eric Idle’s good. Terry Jones is kind of annoying. Michael Palin’s great, of course. Terry Gilliam’s actually not annoying. I always assume I’ll find him annoying but I don’t.
Connie Booth’s got a nice part in one of the sketches.
Holy Grail is a funny effort. It’s not quite successful–if only because it’s disinterested in trying to be anything but funny, even if it’s smart funny. But not always. Smart, I mean. It’s always funny. Even when it’s annoying.
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Gilliam, Jones, and Michael Palin; director of photography, Terry Bedford; edited by John Hackney; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; produced by Mark Forstater and Michael White; released by EMI Films.
Starring Graham Chapman (King Arthur), John Cleese (Sir Lancelot the Brave), Eric Idle (Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot), Terry Gilliam (Patsy), Terry Jones (Sir Bedevere), Michael Palin (Sir Galahad the Pure), and Connie Booth (The Witch).