Monty Python Penelope Gilliatt - Essay

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Monty Python and the Holy Grail"] is a cheerfully loused-up reworking of the legend of King Arthur's Grail hunt. This is the legend that has been such a nuisance to children and others…. [Almost everything] that has ever worried you about the Holy Grail, wimples, King Arthur, Malory, and the general mucking about of poets with the same old story is tackled head on. (p. 115)

In this version of the Grail-tale, King Arthur's knights are extremely cowardly, dirty, testy, and ill-starred…. The King himself, who hesitantly presents himself as Arthur, King of the Britons, to everyone he meets, has remarkably little effect on the lowly for a man of such high estate…. He seems exceptionally underprivileged as well as mentally underendowed. Perhaps this is because he is such an early king. He hasn't even got a horse…. [Many of the best debates in the film are yelled]. Musical geniuses have begged for centuries that arias in opera should advance the action; the creators of Monty Python now beg that rows in drama should have an equivalent right to drag the action to a standstill, and quite possibly send it packing.

If the film can be said to have a theme, it has three. These are swallows, mud, and the Grail. Swallows keep recurring. So does mud, and all manner of other dirt. (pp. 115-16)

The whole film, which is often recklessly funny and sometimes a matter of comic genius, is a triumph of errancy and muddle. Its mind strays like an eye, and it thrives on following false trails. The Monty Python people have won a peculiar right to be funny even when they make a mess of things, because their style accepts floundering as a condition of life. (p. 117)

Penelope Gilliatt, "The Current Cinema: Light-Years Ahead of the Cuckoo Clock," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 11, May 5, 1975, pp. 111-17.∗