State of the Art

The ‘Holy Grail’ of comedy turns 40

King Arthur (Graham Chapman, center) and his knights pause in their search in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” John Cleese is third from left.
King Arthur (Graham Chapman, center) and his knights pause in their search in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” John Cleese is third from left. A LARGE AND IMPORTANT MOVIE STUDIO

The funniest movie ever made was released 40 years ago this Saturday and – wait, I’ll start again.

The funniest parody movie ever made was – no, that’s not it.

The funniest full-length parody movie in the English language –

The funniest full-length parody movie in the English language not made in America and seen by me personally was released 40 years ago this Saturday. In the United Kingdom. America had to wait until June 1975 to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

I went on opening weekend, driving 45 minutes into Philadelphia with my friend Ric Upton. We sat through it twice in a row with a five-minute bathroom break in between, the only time I have ever done that for a film. Naturally, we paid twice. (For popcorn, anyhow.)

The Internet Movie Data Base entry contains 83 quotations from the film, one of the most quotable pictures ever made. (Most are script excerpts, because the writers build to big laughs.) Even peasants express themselves adroitly. As one says to Arthur after hearing about the Lady of the Lake, “You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

“Holy Grail” and “This Is Spinal Tap” remain the only two movies without a single completely wasted scene, and the only two comedies I can watch repeatedly without getting bored.

The six members of Monty Python set out to tease not only the legend of King Arthur but, by extension, all sword-and-sorcery stories. I’d guess that includes “The Lord of the Rings,” which had been re-released in paperback in the late 1960s and enthralled a whole new generation of college students. (Well, most of them. Harvard Lampoon’s immortal paperback parody “Bored of the Rings” came out in 1969.)

“Holy Grail” loosely concerns the search by Arthur and his knights for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. That plot is mostly an excuse to deflate politicians, class struggles, academicians – a historian who interrupts the tale to prattle on about its relevance gets his just reward – and many other subjects.

The picture’s often violent in an absurd way, occasionally sexy, frequently intentionally stupid and once in a while unintentionally stupid, but it’s remarkable from end to end. It’s also, despite low-budget effects, good-looking. (You can watch it on YouTube, but ... don’t.) And it’s not just a series of sketches, but a story with a through-line.

Monty Python eventually acquired the mythic patina that transformed it by reputation into a kind of comedy Beatles, whose every utterance deserved respect. That’s hardly true. But at its collective best, the troupe could split your sides over and over. Their best is in “Holy Grail.”

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