If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that Life of Brian is a better film than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s clever and sharply observed where Holy Grail is anarchic and silly. It combines a devastating attack on organised religion with memorable characters and some laugh-out-loud gags. It’s orderly and impeccably structured, whereas Holy Grail culminates in one of the biggest let-downs in the history of cinema (it may be funny, but we still feel like we’ve been cheated a bit). Life of Brian never really feels like surrealism; Holy Grail seldom feels like anything else.
For all that, Holy Grail is my favourite. I was fourteen when I watched it and the Pythons’ uproarious humour had me in stitches. I am one of these boring people who can quote entire scenes off the cuff (although I endeavour to avoid doing this at parties) – a film has to be seriously good to give me the motivation to commit it to memory. I love its sketch show feel and the way it builds up the balloon of Arthur’s grandiose pomposity only to periodically shoot it down, or prick it by the beak of an unladen African swallow. By contrast, I saw Life of Brian when I was an irritating student and my response, after all the hype, was “Meh”. I suspect seeing it these days, in a time when the Church more than ever resembles the institution that Cleese parodies in his People’s Front of Judea sequence, would force me to re-evaluate it. Still, for whatever reason it’s never had the same place in my heart.
Another film I saw in my irritating student days was Excalibur, which we watched as part of a module on film, TV and literature I was doing as part of my English degree. I remember discussing the religious symbolism, Nicol Williamson’s amazing performance as Merlin and that wonderful sequence where a rejuvenated Lancelot comes galloping into the fray to assist a doomed Arthur – but what struck me most was how Excalibur, despite the fact that it was made some seven years later, always seemed to be the film that Holy Grail was parodying. I’m sure that there are other cinematic tales of Arthurian legend that formed the source of the Pythons’ inspiration, but that’s still the way it feels – much like This Is Spinal Tap was a piss-take of Rattle and Hum, a few years early.
The fact is that Holy Grail contains some splendid, dramatic dialogue, which is usually followed by an absurd visual gag or ludicrous animated sequence. It is therefore ripe for a trailer mashup. Resequenced trailers are nothing new: Shining arguably planted the flag, all those years ago, and if it wasn’t necessarily the first it was at least the first to go truly viral. The folks who reworked Kubrick’s macabre masterpiece into an uplifting feelgood drama (appropriately scored to Peter Gabriel) opened a floodgate for a torrent of imitations, some of which worked better than others – the Brokeback Mountain stuff, for example, was funny for a while but quickly became irritating. Nonetheless, trailer mashups are still very popular: the ready availability of video editing software has made it easy to do and there are a lot of talented people out there who can spot where a truly miserable film can be remade into a romantic comedy, or a musical can become a horror movie.
So it was inevitable that I’d jump on the rickety bandwagon at some point. This formed in my head over the space of a couple of months and then came together on screen fairly quickly. I had few rules, except that it had to include certain key lines, it had to end with that battle on the hill, and it had to be scored – predictably but inevitably – to ‘O Fortuna’. Reimagining Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a serious, overblown epic wasn’t a new idea; there are several of them on YouTube already. Still, this one was mine. And I think it turned out reasonably well…