The 26-year-old comedy classic is back on the big screen in a stunningly restored print that not only captures the inspired lunacy of the British comedy troupe in their prime and at their most controlled, but reminds us what an exceptionally accomplished piece of filmmaking Monty Python and the Holy Grail actually is. While the essence of the movie is to present the comic antics of Messrs. Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam, and Jones in a wide array of characterizations, it’s surprising to revisit it and see what an awfully well-made film it is — one that draws very much on British cinema of that era. Gilliam and Jones employ a directorial style that is very much an outgrowth of that developed by Richard Lester in his 1960s films — A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, How I Won the War, etc. — which is strangely apt since much of the Python humor is itself drawn from radio’s The Goon Show, with which Lester was himself associated. The various digressions, the off-the-cuff look of many of the proceedings, the sudden deliberately misplaced “intermission,” are all the essence of Lester’s style. However, it’s even more striking to see echoes of Ken Russell (whose name was invoked on the film’s original lobby cards) films more contemporary with Holy Grail. The opening shot of the corpse on a wheel on a pole — indeed the whole black plague sequence — is clearly drawn from The Devils, the rhythm and convoluted insults of the “quite extraordinarily rude Frenchman” are seemingly modeled on Dorothy Tutin’s dinner “speech” insults in Savage Messiah, and the killer bunny segment even uses Russell’s signature Lake District setting. This isn’t meant to denigrate the accomplishment of Holy Grail on its own merits, but rather to illustrate that, in hindsight, it’s more an extension of aspects of British filmmaking at the time than the curious aberration it is generally taken for. Strangely, it also looks forward to John Boorman’s Excalibur — almost seeming to parody a film that wasn’t made for another six years! (Could Boorman have been inspired to make his operatic take on the Arthurian legends by this anything-goes spoof of them?) Its pedigree notwithstanding, Holy Grail remains fresh, truly daring, and hysterically funny today — far outdistancing its modern day counterparts. (Granted, the name Castle Anthrax, through no fault of the Python boys, that once got a laugh is currently greeted with uncomfortable silence.) No gag is too wild, no joke is too low, no idea is too outrageous — and nearly all of it works. Unlike the flood of modern “bad taste” comedies, Holy Grail takes genuine risks. It junks all concerns of plot development and constantly reminds the viewer that it’s a movie. (“Camelot!” the noble knights enthuse upon seeing the castle in the distance, merely to have a servant point out, “It’s only a model,” whereupon we — and they — are treated to Neil Innes’ “Camelot” song as an intercut anachronistic Busby Berkeley production number that makes Arthur decide not to go there after all.) Unlike most Monty Python features, Holy Grail is built around a concentrated idea — which they then proceed to either demolish or ignore to an almost alarming degree. In the end, what they accomplish is to make an utterly surrealistic film that’s accessible to general audiences — a feat that has eluded any number of far more “serious” filmmakers. Sure, the movie has been out on home video forever, and there’s even a new special edition DVD available, but do yourself a favor and break out the coconut shells and clip-clop over to the Fine Arts and catch it on the screen with an audience. That’s the best way to appreciate a comedy, but be sure to remember what your favorite color is — and it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on the difference between a European and an African swallow.
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