Monty Python on Monty Python, Part I: THE HOLY GRAIL

Bob McCabe wrote the book The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons unveiling the behind-the-scenes of Monty Python’s artistic life. This post and the next will specifically deal with their 2 most successful movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

For the rest of their film and TV career please go to the source and read this great book. Life of Brian will be discussed in a different post, this one will deal only with the making of

Monty Python and The Holy Grail

No interest by producers

TERRY JONES: I thought we’d write the script and go and get finance but it came as a bit of a surprise that film companies weren’t interested. They’d say, ‘Well, if you have your television director directing it, yeah we’ll have a look, but if you’re going to direct it, no way.’ And it was Michael White who saved the day really.

The Terrys decide to direct together

TERRY JONES: Nobody else was particularly interested in directing so it wasn’t really an issue. I always intended to do it and when it was discussed everybody agreed that I should, at which point I got cold feet and said, ‘Maybe Terry and I ought to do it together.’ So I really pulled Terry into it.

Coconuts saved Monty Python’s ass

TERRY JONES: The coconut gag was the original gag that sparked the whole thing off. We did talk about having horses at one point and then we quickly dismissed it, because we thought it would be funnier not to and because we couldn’t afford horses anyway.

TERRY GILLIAM: If we’d had the money we would have had real horses. What was wonderful was the limitations put on us by the budget. We couldn’t do all those things so we had to get clever and thank god, because the coconuts saved our ass. We would never have got through that movie with real horses. It makes a wonderful leap because with that opening shot you accept the kind of lunatic logic that’s there. Arthur is incredibly serious, never a blink, and then in the background you’ve got all this stuff going on. It’s one of those things that’s, in retrospect, brilliant.

Last-minute change of castles

TERRY JONES: We’d chosen all these castles in Scotland, then suddenly a week before Terry and I were going to go up to go over the filming, we got this message from the Department of the Environment for Scotland saying that they wouldn’t let us use any of their castles, because we were doing things that were not consistent with the dignity of the fabric of the buildings. These places had been built for torturing and killing people, you couldn’t do a bit of comedy? It was so ridiculous. So Terry and I ended up going off to find new locations a week before filming.

Graham Chapman (center); Eric Idle (left), next to John Cleese; on the right, Gilliam (background), Jones and Palin

In the meantime, Graham Chapman was facing his own monsters

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: I remember on the first day of filming Holy Grail, seven o’clock in the morning on a Scottish hillside, and nothing to drink—suddenly had DTs. I was playing King Arthur in a cold drizzle, and I realised I was letting my friends down, and letting myself down. I stayed more or less on an even keel, not drinking too much, but I resolved to stop as soon as I could.

A cold and miserable shooting

ERIC IDLE: It was just cold and wet and miserable. It was fucking awful. It was no fun at all. I don’t think there was hardly any fun. The only fun happened when the girls came and John and I moved out and found another hotel down the road which had hot water because there wasn’t enough hot water for a bath. You’d been out there eighteen hours and there was no bath.

You could tell what time of day it was by how soggy your tights were, as the water went up your woolly tights. So we found this other hotel which had hot water and then the second night we were there all the girls from the Castle Anthrax scene arrived and we thought, fucking hell, were we lucky?! It was like a little ray of light, all the women arrived to cheer us up and then they were taken away again.

MICHAEL PALIN: I remember our producer stopping tourists who were going up through Doune and saying, ‘Do you want to be in a film?’ And some of them did.

The two directors formula

MICHAEL PALIN: The two Terrys – that particular relationship didn’t work, it wasn’t a particularly good way of making the film, because if someone had a criticism they would play one director off against the other and say, ‘Well, Terry would never have asked us to do that.’ And because they were both called Terry it didn’t help either.

ERIC IDLE: Grail looks a lot better than it would have done if we’d just shot it out of our BBC experience, because it’s got a lot of those lovely moments like when that boat appears, which is pure Gilliam, which is beautiful. His visual sense lifted it into an area which makes it a movie. Whereas Jonesy’s comedic sense kept it rooted in what’s funny. So both of those elements contribute to it being good.

MICHAEL PALIN: Holy Grail hadn’t been a happy experience, particularly for Terry Gilliam. I think Terry Gilliam felt that he’d taken the brunt of the stick when things went wrong because he was concerned with the look of things and the aesthetic aspects of the film, whereas Terry J was concerned more with the comedy, and they’d been played off, one against the other, by John particularly.

ERIC IDLE: (..) After Holy Grail I think Gilliam had a nervous breakdown. It was just dreadful, because here were two people, both of them very, very strong personalities, wanting control of everything.

The trouble with Gilliam

JOHN CLEESE: I remember getting very cross with Terry Gilliam one day. He was lining up a shot, and we were kneeling on the ground, which didn’t help, in all that armour and it was very uncomfortable. And I remember he kept moving us about three-eighths of an inch this way, and then a quarter of an inch that way, and then he said, ‘No, can you come back a little bit there?’

By the end I remember saying to him when I was so uncomfortable, on the verge of pain, ‘For God’s sake, get on and shoot the fucking thing, you know, we’re not bits of paper.’ I think he was so used to doing animation that he was trying to do the same with us and it wasn’t all that comfortable. I think he was very hurt by my outburst because he went away and lay down in the shade by a wall and recovered for two or three hours. 

TERRY JONES: There was a tension with Terry because, as John put it, Terry was used to moving little bits of paper on a table around for his animation and John felt that Terry was treating the actors in the same way. He wasn’t really thinking about how uncomfortable it was to be kneeling in the mud at certain points, but that’s just because Terry’s got his eye on what he wants in the end and was not really thinking about that side of it.

Making an epic

TERRY GILLIAM: I was trying to make this epic. And I had been so long in my little room with pieces of paper, that I hadn’t adapted to talking to human beings and getting them to do things. When we did the scene where they are at the battlements and the cow is thrown over, it was a matte shot and the only way to do it was to dig a hole in the ground and have them all on their knees. John was going apeshit because he was uncomfortable.

I finally said, ‘Fuck it. It’s your sketch, you wrote it. I’m just trying to make it work. And this is a tricky shot here.’ So I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and went off in a snit and laid down in the grass, saying I’m not going to direct this. Terry and I, who had always been one voice, suddenly realised we weren’t actually one voice.

Then we got Gerry Harrison, the first assistant, to be the common voice. But it turned out he wanted to be a film director, too, so he was a third voice, and he wasn’t translating what Terry and I were saying. So it ended up that Terry talked to them, the guys, and I talked to the crew and the cameramen and that side of it. I stayed at the back of the camera and tried to get the shots working and it worked fine once we got that sorted out.

Legendary material that did not look legendary when being made

MICHAEL PALIN: Things with Python that have become kind of legendary were, at the time, very uncomfortable and you felt that somehow the actual effort, the logistics of doing them, had in the end compromised the material itself. I remember very much when I was doing the Knights of Ni, there were just so many problems actually shooting it – I had to stand up on top of a ladder, with an extremely heavy helmet on and a great long beard, and it was very, very difficult just to do the performance properly. At the end of the day I thought that we’d wasted that, it was a hilarious sketch and we just hadn’t got it, but now the Knights of Ni are quite legendary and a lot of people’s favourite thing in the film.

The disastrous first screenings

MICHAEL PALIN: It was one of those evenings when Python flopped. There was some laughter and there was some enjoyment and there was polite applause at the end which felt like a spear in the guts because it was clear that the audience had been, by and large, disappointed. Michael White and John Goldstone wouldn’t speak to us but then again they never do. White walked out at the end, giving Terry G a brief and non-committal pat on the shoulder.

TERRY JONES: We just kept on re-editing and cutting it and trying to make things work. It wasn’t until we showed it in a festival in Los Angeles, the first time we had a paying audience, that it really worked.


Spamalot, the musical -
A very successful stage musical was created by Eric Idle in 2005 , SPAMALOT, “lovingly ripped off” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and directed by no less than Mike Nichols.

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