This is the 26th anniversary rerelease of the British comedy sextet Monty Python’s second feature, complete with almost 30 seconds of additional footage, though you’ll be hard-pressed to spot it even if you’ve seen the film several times.
Actually, this should probably be referred to as their first feature since their previous movie, And Now For Something Completely Different (1971), wasn’t a proper feature at all but merely a series of refilmed skits they had done on their TV show. Not that this isn’t just a series of skits too, but here — brilliant stroke — they have the unifying pretense of telling the tale of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail.
With its mix of absurdist fantasy and period verisimilitude, its combination of non sequiturs and the kind of British erudition whose main purpose seems to be to construct elaborate digressions in order to avoid getting to the point (if indeed there is one) and its recurring motif of face-saving denial, this is prime Python. Set in the randomly chosen year of 932, the movie wantonly blends a storybook Middle Ages, complete with brave knights and willowy nympho-maidens, with a spectacularly grungy Ken Russell-esque one where alarmingly warty peasants toil in the mud and the shit and toss their plague-riddled dead into a passing cart.
King Arthur (Graham Chapman), accompanied by his trusty page Patsy (Terry Gilliam), is roaming the English countryside looking for knights to join his fabled Round Table. Most of the inhabitants don’t seem to have been informed that there is a king — “I thought we were an autonomous collective,” says one peasant — and Arthur doesn’t seem to inspire too much confidence, possibly because Patsy’s clopping together of two coconuts can’t disguise the fact that they’re not really riding horses. Despite this he manages to recruit the wise Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones — “it’s well-known now that the world is banana-shaped,” he tells the impressed king), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), who takes pride in his special “idiom,” which is senseless slaughter, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave (Eric Idle) and Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin).
At some point a very cranky, animated God (“Don’t grovel. I hate it when people grovel.”) appears in the sky and informs Arthur that his mission is to seek the Holy Grail. This leads to a series of encounters of varying degrees of comic inspiration, though the undeniably classic bit comes near the beginning of the film when Arthur battles the literally indestructible Black Knight (Cleese again — all the troupe members play multiple roles, of course).
Other cool sequences, which somehow manage to still seem fresh after years of bad imitations by rabid Python fans (you know who you are), involve the dreaded Knights Who Say “Ni,” the egregiously Scottish Tim the Enchanter (Cleese), the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and gnomish Soothsayer (Gilliam) who guards the Bridge of Death and quizzes all who would cross it (e.g. “What is your favorite color?”).
There’s a lot crammed into this short movie and even though it winds down to a pretty rum ending, even by Python’s anything-goes standards, most of it is pretty smart stuff. True, it’s no Life of Brian, but then so few things are.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.