Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A comedy classic has finally received the treatment it deserves, and then some
As readers of my review of the second series of Fawlty Towers may recall, I made an analogy between The Beatles and Monty Python, briefly comparing the solo careers of the members after their separations. However, it is universally acknowledged that The Beatles were at their strongest when they were together, and so it has proved to be with the Monty Python team; however, an added twist with the Pythons is that their films have proved to be funnier, more consistent and, perhaps, more durable than their television work, with the demands of a plot, narrative and some sort of vague cohesion enforcing a discipline on them that, even while they gleefully rebelled against it, made Life of Brian and this two of the greatest British comedy films ever made. (Some also love The Meaning of Life, a film that certainly has its moments but also lacks anything like a coherent narrative.) However, this film is comic joy from beginning to end, with virtually every aspect of it working beautifully.
The plot concerns King Arthur (Chapman) and his knights, in their quest to find the Holy Grail, even as they are beset by obstacles including the Knights who say ‘Ni!’, men who won’t give up fighting even as they lose all their limbs, holy hand grenades, offensive Frenchmen and a castle full of women who demand to be spanked. Obviously, it all makes sense in context (or at least, it’s funnier in context.)
Normally, writing a review of a DVD is a simple enough affair. I state my opinion about the film, look briefly at the technical qualities of the disc, and then discuss the supplementary features. However, as this is one of the most quoted, imitated, discussed and analysed comedy films ever made, my opinion feels slightly redundant, much as I would feel it redundant to attempt to criticise Citizen Kane in any terms other than gushing praise; however, Kane can at least be analysed from a critical perspective, something that this film almost defies, apart from the scholarly nods to Chaucer, Malory and even Beowulf, as Gilliam and Jones recreate medieval England in all its squalor. It’s worth noting that this is a very impressive film visually, thanks to Gilliam’s undoubted technical skill, with a sense of scope and size that really does make the jokes funnier (and much the same can be said of Life of Brian.)
This is a marvellous, hilarious film, and it’s endlessly rewatchable, with many of the jokes getting funnier every time. The performances are all terrific, as you would expect, the direction is strong, the script is hilarious, the hits are far, far more numerous than the misses, and it’s definitely one of my favourite comedy films. Buy it; if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably have bought it already, and if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.
Despite the film’s low budget (£200,000 or so), this is a surprisingly nice transfer, with clear colours, sharp detail, an absence of grain or print damage, and a generally pleasing look to the film. It’s not perfect, of course- it occasionally looks a little drab, and it certainly isn’t as stunning a transfer as some recent 1970s films- but this is still the best this film has ever looked, easily surpassing the lacklustre non-anamorphic transfer that was previously produced.
A 5.1 remix is provided. Much as I loathe remixes on the whole, this is a reasonably well-done one, with no noticeable use of the surrounds, but a clear presentation of the dialogue and music. The original mono track is also provided; while there is little real difference between the two tracks, purists might prefer to go with the original version.
Normally, a DVD contains a mixture of extras. Some are a pleasure to watch, being genuinely informative and highly enjoyable at the same time. Some are watchable enough, but lack any depth or insight, and some are simply promotional garbage. Here, however, we have a stunning collection of extras, that combine real insight into the film with a well-thought out structure of entertainment for anyone; I would be very surprised if the Python team hadn’t had extensive input into this DVD, as the extras really are some of the best, most original and most enjoyable I’ve ever seen.
The first extras are the two commentaries, both of which are hilarious, revealing, and don’t overlap too much, so there’s plenty of original material in both. On the Gilliam and Jones commentary, the talk is more technical in nature, but still very funny, as Gilliam describes the awesome pedantry he applied to some of his visuals; on the other track, there are many hilarious anecdotes about exactly how the film was made for a miniscule budget, and there are even a few moments where Cleese criticises aspects of the film. If the tracks don’t have the social relevance of the commentaries on Criterion’s Life of Brian release, they’re still just as entertaining.
There’s also screenplay access while you watch the film (quite fun), subtitles ‘for people who don’t like the film’, which are surprisingly apt subtitles from Henry IV part 2, and a ‘Follow the Killer Rabbit’ feature, where accountants notes (as symbolised by a rabbit with a £ sign on it) and Gilliam’s sketches can be accessed. By the way, the first time you watch the film, press play, and be prepared for a surprise…
The rest of the extras are on the second disc, and are all utterly excellent. The sing-alongs are fun karaoke versions of ‘The Knights of the Round Table’ and ‘Sir Robin’, and a fun ‘Chanting Monks’ one that has to be experienced first-hand (as do many of these extras, really). There is the usual selection of posters, sketches, a couple of hilarious trailers (well, it’s actually the same one, but never mind), production photos and, best of all, a negative review of the film which is read out in a suitably disapproving tone, an aspect of films that only the Fight Club DVD has previously included.
The more substantial extras are some of the strangest- and funniest- you will ever see. The infamous ‘Lego’ section is as bizarre as you can imagine an extra being, and is very funny indeed, as is the segment where the film is translated into Japanese, with subtitles re-translated into English, which leads to a stilted kind of speech that will doubtless be familiar to all users of Babelfish. There’s a short ‘education film’ on ‘How to use your coconuts’, featuring Palin as a civil servant type demonstrating how to bang coconuts together to create the sound of horses (with assistant), and there’s a hilarious short segment of ‘unused location ideas’, complete with commentary by Gilliam and Jones, over a collection of tacky vacation package images.
The best extras are, as you’d expect, the longest two. The first is the ‘On Location with the Pythons’ feature, a 1974 documentary on the making of the film; needless to say, it adopts a surreal attitude towards filmmaking, and is the complete antithesis of the EPK-led style of featurettes today. The other piece is the excellent 48-minute documentary ‘Quest for the Holy Grail Locations’, in which Palin and Jones return to the parts of Scotland where the film was shot; it’s both very funny and genuinely interesting, and highly enjoyable to watch. As, indeed, are all the features here.
A classic comedy film is presented on a top-notch disc, with good picture and sound quality, and some fantastic extras. This might just be the disc of the year so far…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum