20 Facts About Monty Python and the Holy Grail That Might Make You Say, “Ni!”
Sitting at or near the top of many “best” lists (including an Amazon UK/IMDB poll rating it Britain’s Best Comedy) is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bare bones little film that could. The oft quoted, silly and irreverent Pythons (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam) share their take on King Arthur and the movie features each of the players in several roles. For my money, there are few funny movie scenes that hold as well as that of the Black Knight, it never fails to crack me up. And if any of you whippersnappers out there have yet to see this, then you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest…WITH A HERRING.
1. The opening credits are so plain because the sequence was done at the end of filming and there was no budget left. The “Swedish” subtitles were written by Michael Palin; he used it as an opportunity to entertain the “captive” audience. When the film opened at Cannes, the subtitles got huge laughs and right at the end of the credits, the film stopped and a bunch of firemen ran in to usher out the audience. Because of the perfect concurrence of events, filmgoers thought it was all part of the show, but they had been evacuated for a real bomb scare. After the theater was deemed clear, the audience went back in and resumed watching.
According to John Cleese, “The Llama is funny, like moose and Nixon, and fish of any kind.”
2. The Monty Python group was formed (according to Gilliam) while he was working for David Frost. He met John Cleese (who was doing “The Frost Report” along with Chapman) and everyone was working in television–Mike Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle on “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” Gilliam was a cartoonist; John Cleese introduced him to the “Do Not Adjust Your Set” producer, who liked Gilliam’s work. Gilliam began doing caricatures of the weekly guests and did his first animation there. Cleese had a standing show invitation for the BBC, so the group did a show together. After their fourth outing, the BBC said they didn’t understand the show and were ready to pull them off air, but the public loved them and thus, Python was born.
Other group names considered were: A Horse, a Spoon and a Basin, Owl Stretching Time, The Toad Elevating Moment, Bun Whacket Buzzard Stubble and Boot and Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus (Gwen Dibley was the lady who played piano at Palin’s mother’s afternoon town guild meetings and Palin thought she’d be quite surprised to have a group named after her.) For a while they had a working title of Circus, then Cleese suggested “python” as something nasty and sneaky and Idle came up with a sneaky agent called Monty. Terry Jones remembered a “Do Not Adjust Your Set” animation called “Elephants” that inspired him to think of continuous sketches that flowed like animation and that idea became the format for their show.
3. Self-described by co-director Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King, Brazil, Time Bandits) as “ambitious little shits who wanted to direct at all costs,” he and Terry Jones (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life) decided to do a film and that anyone named Terry would get to direct it.
4. In the original script, half the film was set in the middle ages and the other half in the 20th century. The story flipped about between them; at end of the first draft, the Holy Grail was discovered at Harrods department store, at the Holy Grail counter…because Harrods has everything. At the time, Terry Jones was working on his (Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary) book and thought it would be nice to keep it in middle ages, so they figured why not do the King Arthur story?
5. The opening shot was actually completed at the end of filming, near Terry Gilliam’s house. They had a big problem with locations, which had been set up in Scotland ahead of time. A week before filming was to begin, they got word the Environmental Department had forbidden them to shoot at any castles. In a last minute panic they found the privately owned Doune Castle in Glencoe. So all location shots (of different castles) are Doune.
6. Gilliam said the only time he ever saw Michael Palin get really annoyed is when he had to spend all day crawling in the Plague Village mud. The mud was foul and “full of pig shit; people had to get tetanus shots.” Palin said he spoke to a prop man about how he’d know which mud to eat–the man said he’d put down chocolate–to Palin it all looked the same. After about 14 takes, Palin lost it and beat the ground, which according to Cleese was “hysterical.” After all that, most of Palin’s crawling and mud eating was cut.
7. When Patsy (GIlliam) and Arthur (Graham Chapman) are crossing the meadow, the castle in the background (and later, Camelot) is a plywood cutout. Shooting had to be stopped many times as the wind kept blowing it over.
8. The actual period of the film is the 1350s. Gilliam said they blackened and yellowed all the actors’ teeth “because people always think medieval means bad teeth, but it probably wasn’t that way.” Referencing the Mary Rose (a ship sunk in 1545 and salvaged in 1982), the director related that the mariners all had perfect teeth because they had no sugar in their diet.
9. The Black Knight scene was inspired by a story John Cleese heard at college: two Roman wrestlers were engaged in a long match and they became so entangled that one of them suffered a broken limb. He couldn’t take the pain any longer and submitted, so various attendants came over, untangled them and tapped the winner on the shoulder, saying “You won,” at which time they discovered he was dead. Cleese and Chapman did their own stunts, including the sword fighting, which was described as very difficult because of the tiny eye slits in the helmets. At the time of shooting, they had run out of budget and the producer was running the camera and lighting; they had about three other people and it took a week to shoot the scene.
10. Gilliam said that because the film came out during the time of the Vietnam War, all the liberals who came to the see it were very anti-violence and couldn’t handle it–people didn’t laugh until the Black Knight’s very last limb was cut off. He said they (Jones and Gilliam) enjoyed the audience coming to terms with the scene, realizing it wasn’t about violence, but rather attitude. No matter how much of the guy is removed, he’s still a belligerent, mad character who won’t give up. Part of the scene is done with Cleese holding his arms behind his back, part by a one-legged silversmith, named Richard Burton (which delighted Cleese because he could say “Richard Burton was my stunt double”) and part with a wired puppet.
11. John Cleese’s first wife and “Fawlty Towers” co-writer and star, Connie Booth played the witch. During the scene, Eric Idle came so close to laughing that he bit his blade (on film).
12. The book scene was done to save money; Gilliam’s wife turned the pages (shot in his living room) and Michael Palin’s son Tom is the little baby.
13. Animated God was a picture of one of Britain’s most famous cricketers, W.G. Grace.
14. Gilliam spoke of people trying to write papers about the left-brain/right-brain theory of Python, noting that the group is split down the middle. John, Eric and Graham were Cambridge educated, Mike and Terry Jones went to Oxford and Terry Gilliam was the token American. In addition to the different universities, were differing heights. The Cambridge group was the “Tall Group” and the “Normal Sized People” were Mike, Terry and Gilliam. According to Gilliam, Cambridge seems to produce the kind of person whose best defense is strong offense (more logical, precise, etc.) and their verbal skills are more obvious. Mike, Terry and Gilliam were more conceptual. Whenever Python had a disagreement, there was usually a split down the middle of these groups.
15. The film played steadily at a cinema in France until The Life of Brian came out (1974-1979).
16. The catapulted cow was a toy from a railway set. It was the directors’ first model shot; Gilliam said, “We dug the camera into the ground, threw the cow in Julian Doyle’s (Production Manager) back garden, put it all together and we had entered the world of Special Effects. Explaining the tactic, the director said flinging animals in battle was not unheard of. During the Battle of Corsica, there was a town under siege for years. Gilliam related a story: the woman in charge of the town was trying to convince the besiegers that they were fine and had enough food, so she took the town’s last remaining pigs, stuffed them with bits of grain and other things and fired them out. It worked and the besiegers went home. The Python group was also obsessed with animals at the time, thus the Trojan Rabbit.
17. The directors were surprised at the success of the film. When it opened at Cinema One in New York, before dawn, there was a queue around the block. They didn’t know how people had heard about it and they snuck into shows with audiences. Gilliam remembered two people coming to him from out of the crowd, it was John Belushi and Gilda Radner, both of whom were just starting out–trying to break into showbiz.
18. The movie was made at a time in England when the rich were paying “crazy” taxes, 80 to 90 percent. All the music stars had made lots of money and were looking for ways of creating tax losses to salvage their earnings, so Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Chrysalis Records funded the film. The Python group didn’t have a lot of money to make it (most of the money went to costuming), thus the mimed horse riding with coconut banging (copied from BBC radio horse-clopping) sound effects. It is the film from which they made the most money because it cost the least to make and the group owns most of it. There is no ad-libbing; everything was scripted and rehearsed, which helped to keep down the cost.
19. Shooting inside Doune Castle led to Terry Jones writing Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary when it was learned the castle’s interior was sectioned in two (by walls). One section was for the lord and one for the soldiers, each defensible from the other because the soldiers were mercenaries and couldn’t be trusted. The lord had to defend himself against his own defenders. Jones set on path of reexamining Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and the symbol of knights being chivalrous; “It may have been a totally ironic piece written about a mercenary.”
20. Gilliam said, “The most damage we did was to the killer rabbit.” The lady who owned the bunny didn’t want it to get dirty or messed up, so they tried to keep her distracted. The dye they used didn’t immediately come out and the lady was crazed. He wondered why they didn’t just go out and buy a bunny instead of using a “trained” rabbit. The director felt that animal wranglers are the maddest people you’ll find on film, saying “The animals not really trained, they’re just doing what animals do–most of training is in trainers’ minds.”