#2 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.
Watching this for the first time in at least ten years, it became screamingly obvious to me which sections were directed by Terry Gilliam and which were directed by Terry Jones. Jones tends to set up his camera from afar, capturing all of the actors in a single shot and letting them perform. Gilliam pieces his parts together from many smaller parts, individually gathered with more interesting angles and compositions. They both have their charms, and they end up working really well as a whole because while the visual aesthetic may be different between the two directors, there’s a common comedic approach that crosses that visual barrier and comes together as a whole and hilarious experience.
While the experience is a whole, it’s obviously built from smaller parts that stem from a group of comedians more in tune with the formula of sketch comedy. The intelligent approach was to use a story (the quest for the Holy Grail) which lent itself to branching off in a few different directions for a time, allowing isolated bits of comedy, before bringing it all back to one conclusion.
The movie is largely broken into three sections. The first is Arthur building his team (which really only accounts for his finding of Bedivere, everyone else gets summarized). The second is the knights going off in different directions to look for the grail. The third brings them all back to finish out the adventure (with the group getting smaller by the second for different reasons).
What makes the movie work, though, is the comedy. The comedy stems from the funny dialogue but also from the contrast between the serious look of the material against the inherent silliness of the comedy. Terry Gilliam called it “laughing at castles”. They had to film very cheaply, and one of the cheapest ways to film is to simply go outside. Living in a country as verdant and richly foliaged as England, while also populated with castles that have stood there for hundreds of years. Just going there gave the film instant production values that they could never get close to replicated on sets. It’s the contrast there that’s the source of much of the comedy.
Graham Chapman plays Arthur very seriously for most of the film, offering only scattered moments of befuddlement at the most ridiculous of circumstances. He’s the straight man, and his reactions are mostly the source of his own comedy. Terry Jones plays Bedivere as a nebbish knight who should probably not be in armor while being very sure of his grasp of the most advanced scientific knowledge. John Cleese is Lancelot, a mindlessly brave hero who runs into every situation ready to deal with it using his sword. Michael Palin is Galahad, the purest of the pure. Eric Idle plays Sir Robin, the most cowardly of the cowards. The characters aren’t deep. They’re meant as personifications of specific types that the Pythons use to direct jokes at, and it works exceedingly well.
I think it’s most obvious in the middle section, when the knights split up, to see where the humor comes from. Robin the coward is faced with certain death. Galahad the pure is faced with certain temptation. Lancelot the brave is put in a situation where his bravery is wildly out of place. They’re the sorts of adventures heroes defined by singular traits go on in straight adventure tales, but here everything’s turned on their heads. Robin doesn’t become brave, he remains cowardly, running away. Galahad decides that a little bit of temptation will be fine (only to be bravely saved by the brave Sir Lancelot at the last second). Lancelot is so blinded by his need for adventure that he murders half a wedding party to get to a waifish young prince who doesn’t really need the rescuing he desires.
It’s the contrasts and the inherent silliness that makes the film. That extends even further to the presence of the French, everything animated, the knights who say Ni, and the movie’s ending.
Oh, the ending. I think it’s perfect. In a movie built on setting expectations of a retelling of the Arthurian legend upside down, setting up a giant battle (with an army that appears out of nowhere) only to have it end with Arthur and Bedivere carried away in a modern police paddy wagon is great. It’s the exact sort of undermining of expectations that the movie has embraced from beginning to that very end.
So, it’s a patchwork that is designed to work as a patchwork. It’s tightly crafted humor at the hands of two surprisingly firm directorial hands (each in their first attempts) with varying styles that merge together really well. It’s beautiful to look at, using the most out of their location shooting. It’s fast at a quick 90 minutes, and it’s consistently funny throughout. You don’t need me to tell you, but this is a greatly crafted comedy.