The Magic Christian

Movie Information

The Magic Christian, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Satirical Comedy
Director: Joseph McGrath
Starring: Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Spike Milligan, Raquel Welch
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “The Magic Christian

  1. Erik Harrison

    Fortuitous that this should be showing. I just read an interview with John Cleese where he spoke somewhat negatively about the film, which peaked my interest even more.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Well, considering that Cleese is in only one scene (in fact, he’s pictured there with Ringo and Sellers), I don’t think he’d probably think of it as one of his major works. Then too, the type of humor in MAGIC CHRISTIAN is significantly different than Monty Python-styled humor, though there are certain similarities and both share the same roots: THE GOON SHOW. And that, of course, is represented here by two of the classic radio show’s stars, Sellers and Spike Milligan.

  3. Alina

    I saw this when I was probably 15, my local library had a VHS copy. I remember loving it and thinking it was the weirdest, coolest thing I’d ever seen.

    You mention the era. There’s something about these films (Sellers, Louis de Funes, Michael Palin films like Brazil and the Time Bandits) that makes them solidly worth watching. Maybe film makers just aren’t doing much satire anymore? Maybe irony just doesn’t engender the same strength of feeling? Maybe I’m just not watching the right stuff (recommendations would be welcome.)

  4. Ken Hanke

    The sad thing is that there really aren’t films like this anymore. When I ran this film as a refresher (that I probably didn’t need, but it gave me the excuse to watch it) for this review, Justin Souther watched it with me and was taken with the fact that, unlike most modern comedy, its outrageousness was always grounded to the central idea, that it was never just being random for its own sake.

    If you’ll look at British film comedy from roughly 1964 through 1975, you’ll find a good deal that’s in this vein — or at least related to it. The sad part is that a good many of these films simply aren’t readily available. The Magic Christian is, as are Richard Lester’s two Beatle films and his The Knack…and How to Get It, but his How I Won the War is only out on a Brit DVD and you have to have a region free player to watch it, while The Bed-Sitting Room isn’t available at all, though it does show up on TCM occasionally. Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment is available. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled is out there. Michael Winner’s bitterly funny I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname is available, but his The Jokers isn’t. Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box isn’t on DVD, but again it does show up on TCM. Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class thankfully is out on DVD in its complete form (for years, cut VHS versions were all most people knew), and it’s an essential. Ken Russell’s Lisztomania — which makes Magic Christian look pretty tame — isn’t available, except on really lousy old VHS tapes and in a nice copy on laserdisc, if you happen to have a player.

  5. Alina

    I’ll readily admit that I don’t know any of these films, but I’ll (slowly) start looking. Thanks for the list!

  6. Alina

    A quick p.s., it took me a while to find the title and it’s outside of the period…and it’s also probably less obscure than your titles, revealing just how superficially i’ve skimmed the body of film arcana, but ‘Withnail and I.’ Another great film that I would have sworn belonged in this list (it was actually released in 1986.) According to wikipedia, one of the producers thought the film was badly lit, and I suspect that there’s something about the filters(?) or the lighting of the films of the 1965-1975 period that gives them a distinctly darkish feel. As you said of ‘The Magic Christian,’ critics thought it looked ‘messy.’

  7. Ken Hanke

    Well, Brazil doesn’t come along till 1985 either. I would actually not include it or Withnail as being quite the same as the 1964-75 crop I’m talking about. Maybe they’d be better viewed as extensions of it. You might also want to include Withnail writer-director Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising. While Withnail is a physically dark, even slightly murky film I wouldn’t say that about any of the other films cited.

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