The poster (which, by the way, is on the wall in my living room) for this 1969 film reads, “The world’s richest man and the world’s poorest boy are getting it ready… and everybody everywhere will be a little worse off for it.” That certainly was the reaction of much of the critical populace at the time of the original release of The Magic Christian. The film was pretty much trashed for being “messy,” “incomprehensible” and “tasteless”—criticisms that overlooked the fact that all this was deliberate. The entire concept was to create a broad, sloppy canvas of social satire and outrage in a revolutionary manner that stood the establishment on its head.
It was in many ways the ultimate 1960s gesture movie—the full flowering of the cheeky satire of the Beatles movies into something harsher, more in keeping with the mood of the era. Think of it in relation to the earlier British Invasion movies, as you’d consider The Beatles (“The White Album”) to With the Beatles. At the same time, it’s not an angry film in the strict sense, choosing to take a generally playful attack—peppered with a handful of genuine slap-in-the-face moments that are all the more powerful for the more genial satire that surrounds them. (For example, there are few things more shocking than the famous news footage of the street execution in Vietnam being found less upsetting than an incident at a dog show.)
The setup—though never stated directly—is simply that Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) adopts a young man named Youngman (Ringo Starr), and the pair of them use Sir Guy’s bottomless wealth to prove that everyone can be bought. However, most of these “lessons” work on more than one level. It’s not just that Sir Guy can bribe a hunting party of rich snobs to be made into a mockery of their traditions; it’s the effect this affront to tradition has on the snobs. It’s almost irrelevant that they can buy championship boxers to go into a romantic clinch rather than punch each other; the real point is the outrage of the spectators (“The crowd appear to be sickened by the sight of no blood”). The affronts all tend to be in this realm, especially the penultimate one—and the most elaborate—which involves the maiden voyage of the ultra-exclusive luxury ship, the Magic Christian, whose passengers seem to include Jackie and Aristotle Onassis, John and Yoko, and definitely include Roman Polanski, Yul Brynner, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee.
Is it all of its era? Yes, most definitely. But it’s also as relevant and funny and pointed as it ever was—something I tested last week when I ran the film for some folks in their 20s. It was not only revelatory in itself, but also somewhat depressing when put up against what’s being palmed off as “edgy” comedy these days. And in the bargain, you get three great songs by Badfinger (one written by Paul McCartney) and Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.” It doesn’t get much better than that.