Like a lot of people, I love Monty Python. Despite them being several decades before my time, I still discovered them in my mid-teens when my sense of humour was taking shape (dark, surreal and musical for me, please and thank you) and Python was a revelation to me.
I couldn’t believe the things these six guys came up with; yes, it’s immensely silly at times, but that’s the charm, it’s one of those things that don’t need explanation in order to be funny, it just is. Everyone has their personal favourite sketches from the TV show, and for the record mine are: Dead Parrot, Four Yorkshireman and Mr Smokestoomuch.
The troupe themselves were an example of six individual talents coming together and making a special product through their combined genius. Each on their own, they have incredible legacies.
John Cleese went on to create Fawlty Towers (one of the best British sitcoms of all time) as well as starring in several highly-successful films, Michael Palin would become a cherished presence on TV through his travel series, Terry Gilliam became and acclaimed film director, Eric Idle wrote a very commercially successful musical based off the Holy Grail, Terry Jones was also a successful director, and Graham Chapman… well, Graham died tragically young (he’s bereft of life, he rests in peace etc etc…) but, he maintained a level of reverence amongst his peers for his writing and performing.
So, Life of Brian then; it’s the Python’s second full-length film (third if you count And Now For Something Completely Different, which I personally don’t) and follows the life of… well, Brian. An unfortunate man who just happened to be born in the shed next door to Jesus, and later in life would luck his way into having a group of gormless followers, praising him as the Messiah.
As you can imagine, Life of Brian was greeted by the inevitable controversy when it first released back in 1979, it was banned in several countries and cities with an obvious deficiency in their sense of humour, and the usual boring debates commenced about whether spoofing religion was acceptable (it definitely is).
The thing about these controversies though, is that they very rarely stop people seeing the film, game or TV show that people have collectively got their knickers in a twist about. In fact, it brings the product into sharper focus in the public eye, giving it the kind of exposure advertising executives can only dream of, and you’d think someone would have realised this by now, but alas, no. People still lack the requisite self-awareness.
Truthfully, Life of Brian is ABOUT Jesus about as much as it’s about halibut. They both appear tangentially in one scene and have no bearing on the plot at all. The real victims of the Pythons ire is those who blindly follow, so maybe that’s why people got so touchy about it, it wasn’t a case of: ‘these people are mocking our God’ but more: ‘these people are mocking US’.
The film doesn’t need the controversy to be successful at what it sets out to do; its skewering of organised followers is rapier-sharp, and not just on one front either, look at the Judean People’s Front (‘splitter!’) they are an organised group against the oppression of the Romans, yet they’re shown to be just as witless as those who blindly follow Brian.
This broad approach to satirising is a very smart move, nimbly side-stepping accusations of being anti-Christian by having something they can point to as proof that they’re not just picking one one group.
The JPF supply some of the most reliable laughs in the film, but don’t think the Python’s are taking this subject seriously, as mots of the jokes rely on their usual irreverent humour, ask any Python fan and they’ll quote one for you, beyond that there’s even subtler irreverence that makes me laugh just as much, such as the centurion who corrects Brian’s grammar, or the very casual jailer checking off those about to be crucified, they might have been afterthoughts, but they really add to the air of effortlessness about the film, making it seem like a product of talents at their peak.
As well as being at their peak in terms of writing, they were prime performers at this time too. Chapman shoulder the greatest burden, being the lead character, while everyone else in his orbit makes even their smallest parts memorable; each Python has at least one character that will stick with you, and all of them are swinging for the fences in performance terms.
Special mentions must go to Eric Idle for his his chirpy ‘Mr Cheeky’ who finds himself crucified with Brian, and Michael Palin for keeping a straight face as Pontius Pilate.
The film was directed by Jones, who also has one of the films most memorable turns as Brian’s mother, anyone who can direct themselves to a positive performance has my respect, and while Jones is no Clint Eastwood, he manages to wring every drop of humour from his shrill matriarch while keeping a firm hand on the films direction and pace.
The influence of Gilliam can be felt later in the film with an inexplicable left-turn into sci-fi, in a turn of events that only the Python’s can truly get away with.
I regard this and The Holy Grail as the absolute pinnacle of cinematic comedy. Comedy is perhaps the hardest genre to pull of successfully, nothing in film is more excruciating than a comedy that falls flat, so to turn out two all-time greats is yet another indication of the Python’s brilliance.
There are faults with it cinematically, granted. the cinematography has undoubtedly aged, but you’ll be too busy laughing and having fun to notice that, and that’s what the Pythons bread and butter is: fun. Silly fun, yes. But no less worthy an entertainment as something more ‘high-brow’ but if that’s a problem for you, that’s your loss, no-one else’s, because Brian is wall-to-wall entertainment.
All together now: ‘He’s not the messiah… he’s a very naughty boy!’