Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a shot in the funny bone - or, rather, an entire fusillade of shots, some landing on bones you never realized could be funny.
French knights send Arthur King of the Britons into retreat with taunts, such as "I blow my nose at you, so-called 'Arthur King.' " Catapulted cow and Trojan Rabbit alike curl across the screen like arrows crossed with boomerangs. Arthur can't make his way to Camelot without rousing discussions of class warfare, and once he gets there, he has a nightmare musical-comedy vision of a chorus line singing "We're knights of the Round Table, our shows are for-mi-dable." He turns away from this "silly place," and God obliges him with a cause - the quest for the Holy Grail. But not even the God of Python is a palliative sort. "Every time I try to talk to someone, it's 'sorry this' and 'forgive me that' and 'I'm not worthy,' " the deity complains.
Made in 1975 and released now with 24 new seconds - additional footage with the white-clad lasses hungry for spankings and oral sex in the astoundingly named Anthrax Castle - Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the funniest movies of the 10th and 20th centuries and a masterpiece of sophomoric humor. Even the hilariously slight alterations are like gleeful parodies of the mania for director's cuts; perhaps most significantly, we can now hear "Jesus Christ" used as a curse instead of being masked on the soundtrack with "Bleedin' 'ell."
These days we should be thankful for sophomoric humor; at least the term implies that the humorists made it through their freshman year. And this bubbly yet brainy movie respects viewers enough to bank on them howling at everything from the vicious uses of language - those French taunts include "your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries" - to eruptions of student-activist cliches and parodies of other pseudo-science besides vulgar Marxism. When one of Michael Palin's 10 characters, a peasant named Dennis, hears Arthur tell the tale of the Lady of the Lake "signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur," he responds, "You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!"
Arthur, whose air of command is matched only by his curiosity for the "new learning," inquires of Sir Bedevere, "Explain again how sheep's bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes."
Later Python movies like The Life of Brian carried too strong a whiff of Oxford and Cambridge common rooms. But Monty Python and the Holy Grail has an infectious verve that begins with the haywire, moose-obsessed opening credits and subtitles, and wavers only with the Blazing Saddles-like, obliterate-the-fourth-wall ending.
Old fans and new ones would love to be able to gather the late Graham Chapman (who plays Arthur) and co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin (they all play multiple parts and contributed to the script) so we could ask: "Explain again how two coconuts may be employed to give the impression of knights riding horseback when they're walking?" Or, "When did you decree that 'the Book of the Film' would appear within the film to cover a raft of non sequiturs?"
The Python troupe's TV show had already used Terry Gilliam's mad graphics to take them out of any skit that threatened to go on and on (like a Saturday Night Live skit) or merely to inject one more shot of the absurd. Gilliam's work shows a ragged grandeur here when interpreting, say, God. And though musical riffs energized the TV series as well, they rarely did so with as much oddball grace as the improvisations of the Least Favourite Minstrel (Neil Innes) of Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), who comments on the action with barbed ditties: "Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about, he turned his tail, he chickened out. Bravely taking to his feet, he beat a very brave retreat."
The best movies of the Airplane! team - basically, Airplane!, Top Secret and the first two Naked Gun movies - have a similar Hellzapoppin' energy. But they lack the unifying satire of medieval life and legendary or even the occasional flights of comic lyricism that emanate not just from the dark-age psychedelia of Gilliam's paint brush but also from the heady forlorn sight of knights gamboling on foot through sylvan landscapes.
Because Chapman, Gilliam, Jones, Cleese, Idle and Palin were creating comedy and performing it, like the British comedy group Beyond the Fringe before them and the Beatles in the musical world, the movie gives off a fresh and bristling spunkiness. What's ripe for re-appreciation is their fearless versatility as performers. One moment, John Cleese uproariously mangles the language as A Quite Extraordinarily Rude Frenchman and leans over a castle in a manner that makes him resemble a helmeted head with mittened hands. The next moment, he's bounding about in all his towering farceur's glory as a dead ringer for Mad magazine's Prince Violent.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be 26 years old, but even in the fast-moving world of pop culture, it's no relic. It's still the Holy Grail of crazy comedy.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Pallin
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Released by Rainbow Releasing
Running time 90 minutes
Sun score: * * * *