An Oxford Historian
Monty Python and the Holy Grail: A Review
The classic Arthurian comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail remains as strong today as ever. Its wild historical accuracy is a function of its witty criticisms and quick jokes - by wearing its historical inaccuracies as a badge of honour, it remains a great laugh.
Some films are instantly quotable, and that process of quoting somewhat blunts the original. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of those films and, if you've never seen it and only had your friends quote lines at you over a drink, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the least funny thing on this earth. But you'd be sorely mistaken. The Python's classic romp through the medieval period is as witty as ever.
The plot is (reassuringly) simple - King Arthur and his brave knights are sent to recover the Holy Grail by God. And that's about it really - the path is strewn with various setbacks and challenges, sidequests and misadventure, but the central plot is pretty black and white. All the more space for laughs.
Is this film widely historically inaccurate? Of course! It's all knitted chainmail and sepia tones, with medieval peasants living in muddy squalor. Perhaps most significantly, the chronology is somewhat confused; the film takes place in 932AD but, instead of Anglo-Saxons running around, we're met with a barrage of high-medieval stereotypes. But this is very much the point of the film, in lampooning the ridiculousness of pompous English chivalry. Helpless maidens, plague carts, scary monsters - it's all here, and we're all laughing together at it. We mustn't forget that Terry Jones, one of the Pythons and joint director of the film, was himself a keen medievalist, and his thinkings on Chaucer particularly are well-respected by the academic community.
The film lacks a slight narrative cohesion, especially when compared to the Python's later Life of Brian. Where, even on rewatch, I wouldn't be able to turn Brian off until the end of the film, Holy Grail is much easier to watch in small bursts. It feels very much like their previous sketch comedy work - a set of highly amusing situations strung together loosely into one whole. 'Making sense' was never a concern for the Pythons, whose absurdist and wildly form-breaking comedy rocked the 1970s, and here that acts as both a great strength (this is Python humour at its best) and to a slight narrative drawback. Still, with the massive setbacks thrown at the production (not least of all the serious alcoholism of its star), it's an absolute miracle the film was produced at all, let alone to this high quality.
That being said, the film remains as funny today as when it was released - there is something pleasantly time-less about the Pythons, as the Arthurian myth appears also to be.
Interested in history, and keen to access more information and resources? I have recently released a set of free, online notes for the archaeology of 'Anglo-Saxon' England - this is available here.
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Check out my previous articles on my own personal PhD research on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames.
A new Deep-Dive article on the so-called 'New Chronology' historiographical conspiracy theory can be found here. It's received some glowingly hateful comments by conspiracy theorists...
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