Monty Python and the Holy Grail … is neither as sparkling as it is said to be nor as bad as it seems to be at the start. But it's pretty good—thus, as British phenomena go these days, exceptional….
The previous Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different … had the hijinks ebullience of university humor, than which jinks there is none higher, and was a series of skits that hit or missed. Holy Grail is a series of skits on one general theme, so is disguised as an organic story. It too has hits and misses. When it hits, it makes some clear statements of national humor….
Leg-pull is the British term, and the pleasant glow of the leg-pull, rather than the yok or boff, is the aim of Holy Grail. What's up for teasing here is the whole body of Arthurian legend, and the basic leg-pull is of the sanctity of that legend and of British sanctimoniousness toward it. Part of the leg-pull is through period realism. (Arthur identifies himself to two bedraggled caitiffs, and after he passes, one grimy serf says to the other, "He must be a king. He hasn't got shit all over him.") Part of it is just the reverse: anachronism. (A peasant launches a political tirade at Arthur in modern lingo.) Part of it is by digression into non sequitur. (Arthur hails a sentry at a castle, and in 10 seconds the formal military exchange has gone off into a long irrelevant discussion.) Part depends on obvious lunacy. (All the knights "ride" by hopping around as children do on their own two feet, while attendants behind them clomp coconut shells to sound like horses' hoofs.) Part depends on contemporary recognitions. (Arthur's upper-class accent is markedly different from that of almost everyone he meets, and seems to underscore his incomprehension of everything around him.)
I, with inverted snobbism, tend to resist the snobbism of this kind of comedy, the sort of film that heavily implies, "You and I are cultivated, just a wee bit jaded, and will get these superior jokes." (In another culture it's the Marcel Marceau syndrome.) And Holy Grail gets off to a particularly lame start in this vein by using fake Swedish subtitles under the credits, a gag that was not fresh when it was used, in reverse, in The Dove several years ago. But soon the picture reaches the good leg-pull level, mostly sustained and just moves along in a comic temperament without much actual laughter. I laughed aloud only once. Some wretch is hanging by his wrists from a castle wall in chains. A group of knights below do an anachronistic song and dance. When they finish, the chained wretch manages, above his head, to applaud wanly. (p. 20)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Stanley Kauffmann on Films" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1975 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 172, No. 21, May 24, 1975, pp. 20, 33.∗