What ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ Teaches Us About Filmmaking

 

Hello cinephiles! It’s time for another installment of What I Learned From Watching. Today, we take a look at the film you voted for—the classic comedy by the Silly Six, the British Buffoons, the Preposterous Pythons-

“Get on with it!”

“Yes! Get on with it!”

“Yes! Get on with it!”

You know what it is, you saw the title. Join me as I take a look at what Monty Python and the Holy Grail teaches us about filmmaking…

Monty Python’s first attempt at a feature-length film was And Now for Something Completely Different, directed by Ian MacNaughton in 1971. In spite of the title, the film was not very different from the television series at all. It was made up of reshot sketches from the first two seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus including such classics as The Lumberjack Song, Nudge Nudge, and Dead Parrot, to name a few (Wiki). And Now for Something Completely Different was meant to bring Monty Python’s fame to America, which it was unsuccessful in doing. This is probably why they chose the title Monty Python and the Holy Grail seeing as the title And Now for Something Completely Different doesn’t advertise the famous group (Larsen).

It wasn’t until the group was between the third and fourth seasons of Flying Circus in 1974 that they decided to make an attempt at a real feature film made up entirely from new material (Wiki).

John Cleese: “We went away and wrote bits and came back and put them together into a first-draft. This is probably fifteen months ago, I think. Not more than ten or fifteen percent still remains. And then we sort of went on playing with it and got it into one shape, and in that shape, half of it was medieval and half of it was modern.”

It was fascinating to learn that there wasn’t any adlibbing in the film. Every line was scripted and rehearsed beforehand. In the original draft of the screenplay— that switched back and forth between King Arthur’s story and the 20th Century—the Holy Grail was eventually found at Harrods—a departments store—at their “Holy Grail Counter.”

John Cleese: “The very first draft of the script, ninety percent of it was thrown out. Ninety percent. By the time it got to the fourth draft, it bore no resemblance to the first.”

After the new screenplay was finished, most of the rewrite was completed by Michael Palin and Terry Jones and the final screenplay was finished on March 15th, 1974 (Larsen). The germ of the idea started from a sketch that Michael Palin and Terry Jones had written involving the bit about the swallow and King Arthur (Tribeca Film Festival). This was also the first scene they shot (Commentary). They liked the concept of using the King Arthur and the Holy Grail story because there was basic legend they could parody and so they could stay along this basic path and deviate however much they wanted (Tribeca Film Festival).

So, what can we learn?

Number one: First Feature Directing

The film was directed by Python members Terry Jones and the American, Terry Gilliam. Of course, Gilliam would go on to become one of this era’s most imaginative directors.

When the group was working on And Now For Something Completely Different, the two Terrys thought they could do a better job than director Ian MacNaughton was doing. So, when they began to work on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the two Terrys threw their hats into the ring despite neither of them having any experience directing a feature film (Gilliam 155).

“How do two people who have never directed a film before in their lives direct a film?”

Terry Gilliam: “Well, I don’t know. We’re really learning as we do it. That’s what’s nice, we’ve been given a whole feature film to learn how to make films on.”

“Where’s the other Terry now?”

Terry Gilliam: “He’s directing. He’s directing the film… we do tag-team directing. When he finishes that, he’ll come out here and exhaustively tap me on the shoulder and I’ll rush into action and away we’ll go.”

Having two filmmakers directing their first feature together was beneficial at times. The ability to split the directing duties allowed for the two Terrys to keep from collapsing under the burden of directing a feature film for an already famous comedy group. In his autobiography titled Giliamesque, Terry Gilliam writes:

“One particular crisis while shooting Monty Python and the Holy Grail came when we had to dig a hole to get the camera in the right place to film for a special effects shot that involved animals being thrown over the battlements. The others didn’t understand the importance of having to kneel uncomfortably, aligning them beneath the level of parapet so later I could get a clean matte, and the heated debate which ensued culminated in me proclaiming, ‘You wrote this sketch and I’m just trying to make it work!’ Then I stomped off in high dudgeon to lie down in the tall grass. At this point it was a good job that we had two directors, as it meant the other Terry could take over while I quietly processed the realization that perhaps I didn’t want to direct Monty Python films any more” (Gilliam 159).

Terry Jones: “Well, Terry Gilliam and I took it in turns to- every other day we did the show- directing.”

Terry Gilliam: “Yeah, I mean, we were doing all of the work and they were doing all of the complaining basically is what was going on.”

Terry Jones: “Yeah, well it’s a dogs-body job actually directing think. You really just got to organize things and work out what you’re doing in the morning and it’s a very thankless task.”

Of course the drawback of having two directors is having two different minds with different visions and equal influence over the film. There were many disagreements between the two Terrys—Gilliam thought Jones was choosing takes during the editing process based on the memory of which takes seemed to work on the day rather than objectively looking at the takes in the editing room. Gilliam confessed that he and editor John Hackney would switch out the shots late at night without Jones’ knowledge (Gilliam 160).

There were also multiple occasions where the two Terrys had disagreements on whether or not a shot was ruined by lighting issues.

“Cut it.”

“Cut.”

“Cut.” “Cut.”

The two Terrys are members of Monty Python and contributed to the screenplay as well as acting in the film. Being on the same level as the other Python members and suddenly raised up to the task of directing this film gave them a kind of authority over the group that no one was used to. Because of this, their authority was not always recognized and the fact that they were inexperienced in the job of directing further intensified this sentiment. Gilliam writes:

“It was inevitable that the rest of the group would have some difficulty coping with the idea of Terry J. and I having any kind of authority over them. But the speed with which the ‘them against us’ divide opened up took us both by surprise” (Gilliam 155).

Terry Gilliam: “Keep going, do it once again. John, really move your head around from the beginning. Start again.”

John Cleese: “Jesus Chris! How much do you think I could move it here, Terry?”

Terry Gilliam: “I know but just… Keep going.”

“We weren’t even that bossy, but someone’s got to tell people where to stand, and in which direction to point the camera. Graham was the worst, because he and Ian [MacNaughton] had been drinking partners. He used to get really pissed at night and be incredibly brutal: ‘Why isn’t Ian directing this thing? Ian was great, but this is in shambles…’” (Gilliam 155).

John Cleese: “I mean, there’s never been any mutual respect within the Python group at all as you probably know, but we’re withholding a lot of the criticism that we would normally be making.”

Gilliam addressed this in his auto-biography. He writes:

“I think I’d also started to suspect that comedy wasn’t of quite such paramount importance to me as it was to the others. I thought it was just as important to get the mud and the squalor of the setting right, so an exchange like

“Must be a king.”

“Why?”

“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”

could really resonate. As far as I was concerned, if we hadn’t managed to make something coherently real and gritty feel to it, we’d have been left with just a collection of sketches” (Gilliam 161).

This makes sense, there needs to be some kind of legitimacy to the mise-en-scene for the humor to work properly. And considering how low the budget was, it is amazing some of the detail they were able to get. In the commentary, Gilliam points out how great the characters look in this scene. The look of the people is giving the world character. Look how the baker is covered in flour and this guy looks like he’s in the middle of shaving.

There was even a gag where Michael Palin, as one of the villagers, had to crawl across the ground and eat some mud. The mud was specially made and Palin had to do it over and over and they ended up cutting it from the film (Commentary).

Number two, Comedy’s influence on film form.

Gilliam had said that, in hindsight, they shouldn’t have shot so wide in this scene, and wishes that he had shot some close-ups. He points out that they shot it similarly to how they’d shoot the television show—more or less like theater. The actors play out the scene in real-time with more than one camera setup so they could switch between the angles. Gilliam said that, when it comes to comedy, the theory is that if you can see all of the faces at the same time, it’s funnier (Commentary). I guess the aim of the production was to, for the most part, deviate from the “collection of sketches” that they would do on the show and instead, employ cinematic techniques to make something more cohesive.

Making a comedy that isn’t grounded in reality affords some great opportunities to play with film form for comedic effect. We have become very accustomed to comedies nowadays relying pretty much solely on dialogue to create humor, but this is really only utilizing one tool that can be used. Of course, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is loaded with witty dialogue,

“Ni! Ni! Ni!”

but it also finds humor in how films are constructed.

For example, in this part where Sir Lancelot is running towards the castle, they are juxtaposing shots of the castle guards looking off in the distance with the same shot of Lancelot running over and over again.

Because of the way an audience member’s mind works, they are able to play with our expectation by cutting from a repeating shot to shots of time passing. It almost tricks us into thinking that, because Lancelot is so far away, he isn’t making very much progress toward the castle in the short amount of time we see him. We begin to realize something isn’t right and suddenly all of our spatial awareness is destroyed when Lancelot suddenly reaches the castle.

A side note: this shot was actually a pickup shot after principle photography ended and it was filmed in England and not in Scotland like nearly all of the film. They had shot the clip of Lancelot running toward the castle in Scotland during the shooting of the film, but they didn’t liked the way John Cleese was running—too silly apparently (Larsen).

Another example is how occasionally past or future scenes will interrupt and comment on current scenes,

“At least ours was better visually.”

“Well, at least ours was committed. It wasn’t just a string of pussy jokes.”

“Oh, I am enjoying this scene!”

“Get on with it!”

(Sigh)

or we’ll see the present day, or characters will refer to something that happened in the film by its scene number.

“Look! There’s the old man from Scene-24!”

“What is he doing here?”

All of this purposefully takes us out of the diegesis of the film in order to find absurdity in what the film actually is—it’s not just a story, but it is a movie made by people we already know. Terry Gilliam as himself actually dies while making the animation for the film in the film, but more on this later.

Considering all of the period films that had been made leading up to 1975, the film clearly parodies the style of what cinema history expects from a period piece. It is also possible that there are direct filmic references. Of course Ingmar Bergman is in there, but in a book titled, A Book about the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail: All the References from African Swallows to Zoot, a connection is drawn between the beginning of the film and the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood which played in London throughout the 60s and 70s (Larsen). You be the judge.

Some of my favorite bits in the film are what we’ll call “time-wasting jokes.”

“Make sure the Prince doesn’t leave this room until I come and get him.”

“Not to leave the room, even if you come and get him.”

“No, no. UNTIL I come and get him.”

“Until you come and get him, we’re not to enter the room.”

The humor in this scene isn’t just derived from the confusion of the guard, but in subverting the rules of cinema. One of the biggest don’ts in the school of cinema are scenes that don’t further the plot or build character. In movies, time is precious and things that waste it are avoided or cut out. It’s why you’ll probably never see a serious movie where someone is told to turn on the news and have to sit through a commercial before the relevant information comes on the television.

“And imagine the impact if that had come on right when we turned on the TV!”

Another example of this is the Holy Hand Grenade scene.

“Three shall be the number thou shalt count and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shall thou not count, neither count thou two excepting that thou then proceed to three.”

These scenes also work wonders for the budget because you can just let the camera roll without needing special effects, big coordinated scenes, or sight gags and it’s still funny.

“Five, is right out!”

According to John Cleese, this was the humor style of Terry Jones and Michael Palin (Dick Cavett).

While writing the show, the Python members would break into pairs. Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s sketches would often set up a dramatic scene only to get side tracked by an argument about misplacing a hammer or something like that. This concept also helps slow the pace down a bit. In the commentary, it is mentioned that one of the issues they had were too many jokes too fast, which would fatigue the audience. This way, they can slow it down while keeping the humor going and there isn’t really a chance of missing a joke because it’s, in essence, one joke.

The budget of the film was quite low— only 229,575 British Pounds. That would be around 1.7 million Pounds today or 2.1 million US Dollars. The film was pretty much entirely financed by popular musicians in England like George Harrison, Elton John and the members of Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin. You see, in 1975, the taxes on the rich in England were extremely high, so these musicians could keep more of their money by taking tax losses (Commentary). And, of course, the film ended up being a huge success.

But, because they had so little money to work with, the group had to make some creative decisions with the budget. You can even see some of these decisions at the very beginning of the film. They couldn’t afford an opening credit sequence, so they substituted a hilarious bit around Swedish subtitles—extremely cheap. Of course this bit is a joke, but apparently, Swedish doesn’t actually use the O with a slash through it (Larsen). Also, a side note: in Sweden the movie was titled Monty Python’s Crazy World (Larsen). The parts with the book were there to keep the cost down, and, of course, the coconuts—they couldn’t afford horses, so they had to invent one of the greatest visual gags in the history of cinema.

One of the funnier budget stories involves the rabbit. They actually borrowed this rabbit from a woman and they weren’t supposed to get it dirty, so they had to have someone keep her busy with something else while they lathered the rabbit with fake blood. And apparently the woman got pretty upset (Commentary).

Perhaps the most prevalent cost-cutting measure was something the Python gang was quite used to and would have done even if they had a bigger budget and that is having the Python members (and others) playing multiple roles. This gives the Python gang more opportunity to create comedy with different characterizations, but it sets a precedent for the film: that verisimilitude is off the table and they are not trying to fool you into accepting the reality of the film. The group can (and will) do whatever they want, no matter how absurd.

Sometimes the Python members play multiple parts even in the same scene.

And the Python members weren’t the only ones playing multiple parts in the film.

John Cleese: “I remember the last day, but one of the movie, being driven to the location and I said to the driver, I said, ‘you’ve managed to sneak into a couple of scenes haven’t you? How many have you actually been in?’ and he said, ‘I’ve played eleven parts so far.’ And he was aiming to get it up to fifteen by the end of the movie. If the driver’s playing fifteen, we’re working pretty hard.”

The absurdity of the film was perfect for first time directors with a low budget because it really doesn’t matter if you screw things up. Very close to the start of production, the National Trust denied them the ability to shoot in any of the castles they had scouted. A similar thing happened when they were denied permission to shoot at Edinburgh Castle for episode 38 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for a segment called “Kamikaze Highlanders” (Larsen). They ended up using Norwich Castle. For Holy Grail, they had to shoot all of the castle scenes at one privately owned castle called Doune Castle (Tribeca Film Festival). This was the castle that was surrounded by water. So, when they wanted to show a different castle in the distance, they used a flat 12-foot cutout of a castle (Commentary). Gilliam’s character even mentions that it’s fake in the movie.

“It’s only a model.”

“Shhh.”

The film ends in the unique way it does largely due to the production running out of money. King Arthur’s army was made up of the entire crew and their children. They didn’t have enough costumes, so they positioned the costumed people in the front. This was shot in a different location and they intercut with the shots of the castle. When the police show up the extras were students from Sterling University (Commentary).

Number three, Animation.

John Cleese: “Two or three of us are very verbal. I’m fairly verbal, Eric is even more verbal than I am, and then we have an American who can hardly speak who is almost completely visual. If he wants anything, he has to draw a picture of it.”

Dick Cavett: “Who is that?”

John Cleese: “Terry Gilliam. Terry talks like that, yeah.”

The animation in Monty Python’s Flying Circus sort of serves a different purpose than the animation in Holy Grail as Gilliam points out:

“In the TV series, the squishing foot from the Bronzino painting almost became a cue to cut back and forth between the unconscious mind and the world of physical reality.

The disruptive interventions I make on screen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – via the Beast of Aarrgh, or as Patsy, pointing out to others that Camelot is only a model when they’re still trying to play it straight – probably stemmed less from any counter-cultural or surrealist ideology than from my status as the member of the group most responsible for ensuring that what we were filming made sense on a physical level. It was just a way of solving problems.

We only ended up doing that ridiculous thing with the cut-out because we got banished from the real castle, so come on, let’s comment on it and admit it’s only a model” (Gilliam 156).

Terry Gilliam – who was responsible for the animations in the TV show as well as the film—got his inspiration for the animations in Holy Grail from a book of drawings in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Presumably monks in medieval times got as bored as we do and would occasionally doodle in the margins like we might during a long lecture (Gilliam 157). A book historian at Leiden University in Holland named Erik Kwakkel has been searching for medieval doodles and sharing his findings. A lot of these drawings are really fascinating and you can see more on Erik’s tumblr page, which you can find a link to in the description.

Gilliam based the weird creatures like the Black Beast on what he calls “non-descripts,” – pretty much bizarre imaginary animals – found in the margins of these medieval texts (Gilliam 157). The Black Beast was also a cost-saving concept and the animator in the film—played by Gilliam himself—dies of a heart attack simply because they had written themselves into a corner and needed to move on (Gilliam 157).

God, in the film, was portrayed entirely in animation using a photo of a famous British cricket player named W.G. Grace (Commentary). That’s quite a beard, isn’t it? But aside from the humor and the low cost, the animation served a much more important purpose.

Terry Gilliam: “I don’t know if ultimately, in the end on a film like this, they add to that overall texture that you feel, by the time you’ve walked out of the film, you’ve been part of this much more complete world.”

I would say that this is indeed what it does for the film. The animation is one of several attributes that are uniquely Monty Python and without it, the film wouldn’t feel quite right. I’d say it’s very much like James Bond’s action setpiece openings, opening credit sequences, theme music, gadgets, etc. There is an interesting opportunity to set up certain expectations that keep audiences coming back to the franchise and you feel more like you’ve been transported to a unique and somewhat familiar world.

There is also this sense of pure creativity in Gilliam’s animations. The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, has these little stations where you can use cutouts to make simple animations. Here is a short animation I made there.

There is something very interesting in beginning, not a planning stage, but the actual execution of an animation without any idea where you’ll end up. You can also see I accidentally photographed my hand in some of the frames—those mistakes can’t be easily fixed, so it also sort of teaches you how to keep the creative expression going without over-thinking it too much. Which, I must admit, is kind of funny for me to say in a video that has taken so long to finish.

Because of Gilliam’s style in the animation, this cohesive world easily made the jump outside of the films themselves to the posters and other marketing materials. The look of the illustrations as well as the jokes on the posters perfectly tease the world of Monty Python without the need to show a single frame of the film. Of course there is the Ben Hur joke, but they almost had a tagline that was a parody of George Lucas’ American Graffiti. American Graffiti had the marketing slogan: “Where were you in ’62?” and Holy Grail’s producer suggested, “Where were you in 1282?” as a tagline (Larsen).

As you’ve probably heard, Terry Jones has sadly been struggling with Frontotemporal Dementia, which has taken his ability to speak. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for Jones, his family, and his friends. I want to thank him and the rest of the pythons for cracking me up ever since I was a kid and making me laugh throughout the entire process of making this video.

And thank you for watching! A special thanks to my patrons who suggested this video. If you would like to be a part of the suggesting process for future videos, head on over to Patreon now and pledge as little as $1 and you’ll be able to pick three movies for the next vote. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you. Thanks again for watching!

 

Credits

Monty Python at Tribeca Film Festival 2015

BBC Film Night – Location Report

Blu-ray Commentary with Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

John Cleese on the Dick Cavett Show, 1979 (YouTube: Dantemadison)

Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam

A Book about the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail: All the References from African Swallows to Zoot by Darl Larsen

 

Music:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Theme)

“RSPN” by Blank & Kytt (https://blankkytt.bandcamp.com/)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

 

“Backed Vibes Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

 

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cinematyler Written by:

Understanding filmmaking through watching, researching, and analyzing film.