They were something completely different. When Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on BBC TV in 1969, they were unlike anything ever seen before and they became the comedy darlings of Britain. But it wasn’t until 1975—and the release of their second film Monty Python and the Holy Grail—that they made it big in America and became an international sensation.
By 1975, the Monty Python comedy troupe—comprised of John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam—had already finished their legendary run on the TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus and filmed their first movie And Now For Something Completely Different, which was basically a Best-Of reenactment of their most popular routines. Although they had gone their separate ways—which allowed John Cleese to star in the brilliant sitcom Fawlty Towers—they chose to reunite for another film.
Terry Jones and Michael Palin had re-watched And Now for Something Completely Different and decided that the Monty Python team could make a much better film than that. The two felt that if they could get the whole Python team involved, a Monty Python film could be a smash hit. They approached the other members of the group. Gilliam, Idle and Chapman were agreeable. The independently successful Cleese finally decided to go along with it, because the idea of writing and starring in an original feature film was a new challenge that he’d never tackled before. It seemed exciting. The whole team was on board.
They tossed script ideas around for weeks and then finally settled on the idea of doing a parody of the King Arthur legend. It would be called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The BBC was unwilling to fund the project, so the team had to get sponsors of their own. Several show business people came to their aid, most notably the rock bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who were big fans of the Flying Circus. The budget for the film would be very limited (400,000 pounds, which was not a very large sum for a film, even 40 years ago) but the film could get made. It was shot on location in Scotland (With one castle substituting for all the English castles in the storyline.)
There were two directors for the film…Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. They tried to co-direct but their differing styles were not conducive. Jones was focused mostly on the script and the gags and the performances. Gilliam was much more visually oriented, with a Big Picture mentality, and shot the film with the eye of a perfectionist. They finally came to an understanding. Jones would deal with the actors, while Gilliam would deal with cinematography, sets and other matters.
Graham Chapman was chosen to play the starring role of King Arthur. (Cleese had wanted to play the role but after some debate, he was overruled.) As the production went on, Chapman’s alcoholism became a problem. He made things harder to the rest of the team. One day he tried to go without drinking and got the DTs. He swore to himself that for the next film, he’d be clean and sober. (Which he succeeded in doing.) Regardless of his personal demons, he did manage to put on a hilarious performance as King Arthur.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released March 23, 1975 and became a monster hit at the box office. It was so popular that it was also released in the United States. This was America’s first look at the Monty Python team. The film went over so well in the USA that their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus began airing on American TV stations for the first time, and would go on to become one of the most respected, oft-quoted and beloved comedy shows in history; on both sides of the Atlantic. The hit Broadway play Spamalot was later based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
For anyone who hasn’t seen this uproariously funny classic yet, your homework is to go find it and watch it. Or else I’ll say ‘Nee’ to you! No film fan or comedy fan should miss this. Whether watching the over-eager Sir Lancelot hack up innocent wedding guests due to a misunderstanding, or seeing the Black Knight try to spin an embarrassing loss into “a draw” despite having lost all his limbs, or watching “brave” Sir Robin run away, or seeing the knights of the round table being defeated by a bunny rabbit; there are just so many gems in here, I can’t do it justice in words. You need to see it. Trust me. You’ll learn a lot about Swallows.
So happy 40th anniversary to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film is getting a limited re-release this week in a small number of theaters. “And there was much rejoicing! Yah!”