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Unknown to Arthur, ‘The Holy Grail’ is About to Make Comedy History

It doesn’t really make sense. The budget? Not great. The cast? Still relatively unknown. The story? At times it felt more like a collection of sketches than scenes. And yet, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a cultural staple, lauded as one of the greatest comedies to ever hit the big screen. I, for one, couldn’t agree more. Over 45 years after debuting, “The Holy Grail” remains one of the greatest—if most unlikely—achievements in cinema. 

But even people who don’t know the film know the film. I met a guy who said he had never seen the film (he had barely even heard of it), but he could probably tell me the airspeed velocity of an unladen African (or European!) swallow. A crude child on the playground may scream, “I fart in your general direction” with no knowledge of its origin. Even when the jokes seem way too over the top—“one, two, five!”—and you think they won’t work for a general audience, they do.

The reason it works so well is because beyond all the seemingly vapid slapstick, the film is actually incredibly clever. Set against one of the most legendary myths of all time, the tale of King Arthur, “The Holy Grail” immediately turns it on his head. They quite literally strip him of his horse. Not only does it turn the legend on its head, but it turns filmmaking around as well. It opens with an incredibly long title sequence that quickly devolves into nonsense. From the outset, “Monty Python” is critiquing how film treats icons. 

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And, most importantly for a comedy, it’s just so funny.

As for its influence? Just ask comedian John Oliver! He wrote a piece where he said, “from now on it’s probably more efficient to say that comedy writers should have to explicitly state that they don’t owe a significant debt to Monty Python. And if someone does that, they’ll be emphatically wrong.”

In this photo, the late actor Graham Chapman (King Arthur) and John Cleese are sitting casually on a bench. Graham is taking a break, smoking a pipe, and holding a big ole anachronism. It’s strange to see him so relaxed, and he doesn’t have Patsy to give him a confidence boost! If you’re not already reaching for the remote to start your rewatch, check out one of my favorite scenes from a nearly perfect movie:

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(be warned, it’s bloody!)