42 Things We Learned From the ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ Commentary

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A lot of thought went into what quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be used for this intro. In the end, though, it was decided that you all probably know this film by heart, anyway. If you don’t, what are you doing right now? Get to memorizing. When you’re done, though, be sure to come back for this special, little treat we have in store for you on this week’s Commentary Commentary.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail had not one, but two directors to it, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. The rest of Monty Python did their own commentary track, but it’s separate. Something about a death threat or something. Anyway, this week we’re listening to Gilliam and Jones, the directing team behind this comedy classic, some would even consider it among the greatest comedies of all time. What could they possibly have to say that this film doesn’t say already? Let’s find out. We may even find out what the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is, but I’m not holding my breath.

Right. Off you go.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Commentators: Terry Gilliam (director, writer, actor), Terry Jones (director, writer, actor), Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot

  • Terry Gilliam introduces the film and himself. He then introduces the co-director of the film, Terry Jones, who responds with, “Many interesting furry animals.” Gilliam introduces Jones as “the one with the English accent.” He also explains Jones is dressed in women’s attire, that he, himself, is fully dressed but may change part-way through the commentary, and that Jones will eventually change into a cow costume. “He’s always the happiest as the back end of a cow,” says Gilliam.
  • Gilliam isn’t sure if the Swedish translations over the opening credits are accurate or not. According to Jones, the Swedish subtitles came about because the production had run out of money. All they could afford were black and white titles. It was Michael Palin’s idea to include Swedish subtitles as if you’re watching a Bergman film.
  • “This is typical, Python nonsense,” says Gilliam as the opening credits begin flashing orange and yellow. He explains that this kind of humor worked well for the TV series, because it ate up time, time they had to fill from week to week. He also explains the flashing lights are about as cheap as you can get when it comes to opening titles.
  • As Jones points out, the film takes place in 932 AD, but the costumes are from the 14th Century. “The idea, really, is that in most of the Arthurian legend, they’re actually told in the 14th Century about the 10th Century, so really the period of the film is 1350s or something like that.”
  • Gilliam and Jones had set up several locations throughout Scotland on which to film. However, the Department for the Environment in Scotland forbade them to use any of the country’s castles only a few weeks before production was set to begin. The only castle they were able to use in the film was Doune Castle, a privately owned estate. All of the castles seen in the film are this one castle shot from different angles and distances. Some of the castles seen in the film are, in fact, cardboard cutouts in the near distance. Camelot is one of these cardboard cutouts, which, as Gilliam notes, is only about 30 feet away from the actors.
  • None of the other members of Monty Python saw Terry Gilliam as a performer at first. He had begun work on the series as an animator and didn’t even begin acting with the others until Holy Grail. The others gradually realized what a talented performer he was.
  • Michael Palin was not happy with his part during the “Bring out your dead” scene. He’s the man crawling across the bottom of the screen with a yoke on his neck. Gilliam says Palin will never forgive he or Jones for making him a mud eater in this scene. Naturally, the shot where he actually eats the mud has been cut from the finished film. Gilliam also goes on to say most of the “mud” in the scene was “pig shit and piss.” According to him most of the cast and crew spent a lot of the time at this location getting tetanus shots.
  • According to Gilliam, many of the scenes in Holy Grail had gags that were cut out. The group went in with ambitious notions but would almost always end up cutting back on the quantity of jokes in any, given scene. “It was a frustration of trying to make a big feature film and wanting to pack as much in it when, in fact, they’re really just sketches,” he explains.
  • Jones doesn’t think the middle ages were filled with dirty people with disgusting, black teeth. “I think, in the modern 20th century, we like to believe that the middles ages was like that, so, when we showed it, a lot of critics said, ‘Oh, yes. Really authentic looking.’.” Jones notes the Mary Rose, a ship that sank in 1545 that was brought up in recent years. Everyone on board the ship had perfect teeth. Jones notes they didn’t have modern dentistry, but they also didn’t have a sugar industry.
  • Gilliam notes they shot Holy Grail like a television episode due to the speedy schedule they were working with. He sees several shots in the film that he’d like to redo. A lot of the shots are done as if they were being shot for television, ie. sitting back a good distance from the focal point of the shot, and all the players are included in the shot at once. He also mentions a rule in comedy where, if you can see all the faces at the same time, it’s funnier. This rule is used quite often throughout Holy Grail.
  • The Black Knight is played by John Cleese. Gilliam is dressed as the Green Knight who the Black Knight is fighting stabbing through the head. Gilliam and Cleese learned how to sword fight and perform their own stunts for this scene. Gilliam notes the trickiest part was being able to see through the tiny slit in the huge helmet. According to Jones, the Black Knight scene was filmed near the end of production, when the film had all but run out of money, and it took nearly a week to shoot. Also of note, the Black Knight is always played by John Cleese up until he loses his first leg where the character is played by an actor with one leg. The final version of the Black Knight, no arms and no legs, is a puppet.
  • Jones notes the Black Knight scene was not written with the Black Knight standing silent for the first part. It was only during editing, when they felt the scene didn’t work and needed something else, that they decided to include the three or four shots of Cleese as the Black Knight standing and not responding to Arthur’s queries. Also, for this scene, they didn’t initially intend to use Cleese’s voice for the Black Knight, but no one they brought in to dub over the scene worked. They ended up using Cleese’s original recorded voice for the final film.
  • Gilliam remembers the opening for Holy Grail in New York City. The audience at the time was very liberal-minded and anti-violence due to the Vietnam war, which was going on at the time. Gilliam notes the discomfort from the crowd when the Black Knight’s limbs begin getting sliced off. “In England blood is called Kensington Gore, and it’s the best blood in the world,” he says. Apparently the last leg getting chopped off finally won the New York crowd over. It’s not those first three severed limbs that get you. It’s that fourth one that really brings on the barrel laughs.
  • The head monk hitting himself in the head with a board is played by Neil Innes, who was originally set to do the score for Holy Grail. As Jones remembers, the score Innes came up with didn’t work for the film. It was too “quaint,” as Jones puts it, and didn’t work right with the film’s tone. He and Gilliam wanted something grander. Gilliam mentions later that Innes is essentially the “7th Python.”
  • During the witch scene, John Cleese continually changed up his timing, which would usually result in the other members laughing during the long pauses. You can see Eric Idle biting the scythe he’s carrying at one point to keep from laughing.
  • According to Gilliam, the subtitles when Holy Grail played in France messed up several of the jokes in the witch scene. When someone suggests that a church could float on water, the French subtitles changed “church” to “cricket”. “They didn’t quite understand the point of any of it,” notes Gilliam.
  • The image of God is actually a picture of W.G. Grace, an English cricketer.
  • Gilliam brings up the “right brain/left brain” breakdown of Monty Python. John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman were all Cambridge educated, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford educated, and Gilliam is the “token American.” Gilliam also breaks them down as the “tall group”, which is the Cambridge men, and the “normal sized people”, which was the other three. “Cambridge is interesting, because Cambridge seems to produce a kind of person that their best defense is a strong offense, and their minds seem to be more precise, more logical, more systematic, more attacking all the time.” Gilliam also notes the Cambridge group were the bullies.
  • Gilliam remembers Holy Grail opening at Cinema One in New York City. Before dawn the second day it had opened the line was around the block. This stunned Gilliam and the others, who walked around the crowd all day and even went into the theater to watch the film with an audience. Gilliam remembers two people in particular who attended one of those first screenings who came up to the troupe and told them how much they liked the film. Those two people were John Belushi and Gilda Radner, who were each beginning their own careers.
  • “Terry and I, who were the ambitious, little shits in the group who wanted to be film directors at all costs, we said, ‘Alright, if we make this film, let’s all be involved in the thing. We don’t want any outsiders. We’ll do everything, and anybody named Terry gets to direct it.’,” says Gilliam. At the time, the entire group was writing down ideas for sketches. They didn’t know what the film was going to be about at the time. Jones notes it was Michael Palin who came up with the idea of King Arthur and Patsy using coconuts for horse clops, which served as the starting point for the film.
  • In the original script, half of the events took place in the Middle Ages while the other half took place in the modern day. At the end of the initial script, the Holy Grail is discovered at Harrods. It was Jones’ idea to make the film be set entirely in medieval times.
  • Gilliam goes into how Monty Python was formed. Comedian David Frost had a show at the time, and he culled together “cheap college labor,” as Gilliam calls it, to write for his program. Cleese, Idle, Jones, Palin, and Chapman all came out of college writing for television and appearing in television programs, “The Frost Report” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set,” a kid’s show. It’s here where Gilliam never fully explains who was on what show when, but, as an overview, Gilliam was, at the time, editing for a magazine and met Cleese in the early ’60s. Gilliam was also doing illustrations for the magazine, and, when he went looking for a different job in the television industry, he was able to sell some sketch ideas for “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” This didn’t please the other members working on that show, as they saw Gilliam as an outsider. After this, many of the Python members, along with Gilliam, went to work on the show “We Have Ways of Making You Talk,” which began in 1968. It was here that Gilliam began providing illustrations and animated sequences. He worked on “We Have Ways of Making You Talk” and the second iteration of “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” It was here that the entire group came together, and, because of his standing with the BBC, Cleese was given an opportunity to create his own show. His idea for them was what eventually became “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
  • Several different names came and went before the group decided on Monty Python. As Jones remembers, some of the scratched ideas were A Horse, a Spoon, and a Basin and Owl-Stretching Time. The Toad-Elevating Moment was one of Jones’ favorite names that didn’t make it. The group decided on Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot, and this was their name all the way until they began filming their show. The BBC stepped in and said they couldn’t use that title. Something about it being too ridiculous or something. The BBC had been using the name Circus to describe the show, so the group decided to call it “The Flying Circus”. Cleese wanted Python in the name, because he wanted something slimy and slithery in there. Eric Idle suggested they also name it after a slimy agent of some sort, and the name Monty was suggested.
  • Jones recollects wanting their sketch show to have a different format from most sketch shows at the time. He recalled an animation Gilliam had done called Elephants. Gilliam had described the cartoon at the time as not really being about anything. It was just a “stream of consciousness,” as Jones calls it. It was his idea to give the entire show this structure where one sketch flows into the next.
  • Mark Zycon was a fan who showed up to the set one day. Gilliam recalls him showing up in a taxi. They needed a double for Eric Idle at the time. Zycon was the right size, so they gave him the job. They learned shortly after Zycon would be willing to perform stunts, so he began doing things “no stunt man would do,” says Gilliam. Zycon is seen briefly in the Camelot music sequence as the prisoner hanging on the wall.
  • In the ’60s and ’70s in England, tax laws were outrageous. Gilliam recalls some richer groups were paying up to 90% taxes. A lot of the pop stars were looking for ways to make tax losses. Much of this money went into funding Holy Grail. As Gilliam notes, many of the pop groups at the time, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to name a few, were huge Monty Python fans. “George Harrison always argued that we were the spirit of The Beatles continued,” Gilliam says. Monty Python began the year The Beatles broke up. And you wonder why no one knows who Paul McCartney is.
  • 52:06 – Terry Gilliam says he’s not even going to comment any more. He’s just going to watch and giggle.
  • Jones points out that the princess Prince Herbert is set to marry is named Lucky. It’s never mentioned in the movie, but the banners at the entrance have an H and an L on them.
  • It was originally planned for Prince Herbert to complete his song after he returned to court from falling out of the window. Jones, who plays Herbert in the film, regrets that they never got the full song caught on film.
  • Gilliam found difficulty in directing Holy Grail mainly because he primarily did animations for the “Flying Circus” show. He never joined the other members when they were going through rehearsals. If he appeared on the show, as he notes, it was only on the day he was set to film. He admits he was more of an outsider to the group’s process than Terry Jones was, and the problems with communication between Gilliam and the rest of the members became frustrating for everyone. “I think they felt I was more interested in the look of it than the performing and all those things, which wasn’t true. It was only that that was the thing that had to be fought for, because the others were not interested, good at it, or any of those things. In theory they were, but, in practice, the armor is uncomfortable,” he recalls.
  • Gilliam remembers the BBC to be a good training ground for the technical workers, the cameramen and effects crew to name just a few. The director remembers that many of the people who worked on the show were carried over to the crew for Holy Grail. Gilliam mentions they were all trained well, because of the vast numbers of genres they had to cover while working for the BBC.
  • Jones remembers some of the problems the group ran into going from TV to film. Their timing was always off when they started out. They wanted to get in as many big jokes in as early in the film as possible, not a pleasant pace for a 90 or 120 minute long film. Jones points out how the third acts of their films always have something of a dip, particularly in the energy. Jones blames audience fatigue for this. Good call.
  • The lady who owned the rabbit – the stage rabbit, not the one with nasty, big, pointy teeth – didn’t want the rabbit harmed or to be come dirty at all. Gilliam remembers the distractions involved to get the woman’s attention away from them caking the rabbit with red paint. Gilliam notes the bunny was happy, but the paint didn’t come out as quickly as hoped. “Why don’t we go to a store and buy a rabbit rather than getting a lady whose got a rabbit. Maybe we were trying to be professional, getting a professional rabbit that was trained by a professional so that we could count on it to do what it did, and, of course, it doesn’t work like that,” says Gilliam on animal wranglers. He believes animal wranglers are the angriest people you can find on a movie set.
  • “The English have some of the silliest vicars in the world.” – Gilliam.
  • Gilliam thinks Mel Brooks is the closest to Monty Python in the US. He notes the Spanish Inquisition, how horrible it is, and how you depict it, either serious and somber or “taking the piss out of it” meaning to make fun of it. Gilliam sees comedy as a catharsis where you can make fun of death. Not only that but making it as violent and ridiculous as you can. “Humor is just a great test, as well as a great defense,” he says.
  • Gilliam remembers not being able to figure out a way to get the knights away from the Black Beast of Argh. Killing the animator – Gilliam plays the animator who “suffers a fatal heart attack” – was just as logical as anything else he could think of, especially when you’re dealing with Monty Python.
  • The Bridge of Death scene was the first shot in the film. Jones remembers when they were set to shoot the first take of the first shot. The camera “sheared its gears” when they began shooting. They began shooting mute shots, since the camera that died was the only one with sync sound. The bridge that had been built was so rickety that no one wanted to cross it. Gilliam remembers walking across it a few times and being terrified. Chapman, a mountain climber, was equally terrified. Gilliam notes he was drunk the day they filmed the shot of Arthur and Bedevere crossing the bridge.
  • Gilliam explains how Monty Python can never get together again. He compares them to The Beatles – again with that – and how, if one member dies, the group is broken, and there’s no way to completely get back together. Graham Chapman died in 1989. Gilliam says many of the members will work together on each others projects, but “the group is dead.”
  • Gilliam can’t remember what was originally planned for Holy Grail’s end, but he does know they chopped much of it out. He remembers the original ending was very dreamlike. Gilliam notes how similar the ending to Robert Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake was to Holy Grail’s. Lancelot of the Lake came out in September of 1974. Holy Grail came out in April. Gilliam remembers seeing the Bresson film, and the audience roaring with laughter during the dramatic action sequence. The projectionist, who had not seen Holy Grail, couldn’t figure out why the audience responded this way.
  • It was initially supposed to be a stuffed sheep flung at King Arthur in the end scene. They didn’t have a stuffed sheep, but the assistant director found a dead sheep along the side of the road to work one day. They used that. Gilliam recalls how awful it smelled and how ecstatic the props master was to fix the dead sheep so they could use it on film.
  • The “army” Arthur brings in at the end of the film was made up of only about 200 crew members. Their family members pitched in to help by holding a banner, as well.
  • Gilliam recalls the first time Holy Grail was shown publicly. Many audience members thought the film had actually broken. Gilliam says they were confused, but then the organ music made everything better.

Best in Commentary

“The silliness comes from a real, deep-seeded confidence or arrogance. You can’t be silly if you’ve got self-doubt.” – Terry Gilliam on all British comedy, not just Monty Python

“That’s very dangerous to look for significance in Python stuff. It just seemed like a silly idea to us.” – Terry Jones

“The great thing when we were in these modes, you just take a logic, and you pursue it relentlessly and stupidly.” – Terry Gilliam

Final Thoughts

Those quotes really dig into what there is to find on this commentary. Gilliam and Jones can’t really discuss how a certain sketch came about, because, like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, Holy Grail is a series of ridiculous moments, one right after the next with little in the way of logical sequencing. This gives Gilliam and Jones ample amounts of time to recollect on how the group came together, how “Flying Circus” came about, and where the name Monty Python came from. This is mostly from Gilliam, but Jones, who was clearly recorded separately, has memories to share, as well.

Jones does slip into pointing out locations or even explaining obvious film trickery that everyone knows. We know a live rabbit was used in the first shot, but a puppet was used later. Thanks for that. Still, there is more than enough information regarding the group dynamic as a whole to recommend this commentary track. One with all five, living members of the group together in one room could offer more lighthearted anecdotes, though.

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