Later this year the Life of Brian – Monty Python’s masterpiece – will turn 40. It hit cinemas in August 1979 (in America – Brits had to wait until November) and caused one Hell of a fuss. Branded controversial, hilarious, genius, and wildly entertaining, it’s since secured its place as one of the greatest films of all time. So, let us genuflect about it all.
Life of Brian
Okay, a bit about the plot. Brian Cohen (the late Graham Chapman) is born in the stable next to one Jesus Christ. This coincidence causes some confusion for the three wise men, who mistake him for the deity.
After this mix-up ends, Brian grows up to be an idealistic young man with a hatred of the Roman government.
But his life keeps mimicking that of Jesus’, often through no fault of his own, whilst he attempts to usurp the Roman rule and bag a date with local hot stuff Judith Iscariot (Sue Jones-Davies in one of her few acting roles).
He meets Judith through the independence movement the People’s Front of Judea – one of many competing factions. But they’re really more interested in narcissistic pomp and ceremony, alongside outdoing each other, rather than defeating the Romans.
Joining the group, this sends Brian through various misadventures. He gets wrapped up in a botched kidnapping of Pilate’s wife, inadvertently becomes the Messiah, and goes up for crucifixion.
As a character arc, it’s the study of idealism crumbling due to the various inexplicable, and inane, conflicts raging around him. Brian is also there to subtly critique (and poke fun) at organised religion and the nature of politics.
Deconstructing the plot like that, we realise not much really happens. But Monty Python’s genius was in portraying the very ordinary Brian – the straight man of the piece – as a victim of bizarre happenstance.
He’s elevated to messianic status, through humility tries to reject his status, and the situation spirals totally out of control.
By the time the end credits role he’s an exasperated mess willing to embrace death over the farce of life.
It’s easy now to look at the finished production without realising the Monty Python team had a nightmare getting the thing made.
The project began after an off-hand joke from Eric Idle. This was in Amsterdam following the relative success of the brilliantly ridiculous Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
The idea took hold and developed from there. When the script was done, EMI Films greenlit the project. But after a final check of the script, the studio freaked out and abandoned the project. That was mere days before the start of production.
Eventually the script made its way to one George Harrison. He loved it so much he sold one of his houses to form the production and distribution company HandMade Films (it also went on to produce Withnail & I).
The former Beatles star said he did it simply as he wanted to see the film made, being a big fan of the Monty Python team’s work. Cheers, Mr. Harrison! For his efforts, he did receive a brief cameo – the dude in the red shawl.
Interestingly, another ’60s music legend, Keith Moon, was supposed to have a role as well. Unfortunately, he died in September 1978 so wasn’t able to take up the part the Python team had written just for him.
Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam shared directing duties for the Holy Grail, which caused some friction between the two. For Life of Brian, Jones was handed the sole responsibility.
The Holy Grail shoot difficulties in 1974 were exacerbated due to Graham Chapman’s alcoholism, which led him to turn up on set in Scotland suffering from delirium tremens.
By 1978 Chapman was sober (which he maintained until his death in 1989 – aged 48), prompting the other Pythons to hand him the lead – in part due to his good looks. He also used his medical education to act as the on-set doctor.
For the rest of the comedy troop, roles were distributed on a wide basis. John Cleese wanted the role of Brian, but the others instead handed him Reg, the high priest, Centurion of the Yard, and the first wise man. Of that lot, the magnificently cowardly Reg is the best.
What proved to be the first scene the crew filmed should get some credit. As the high priest, Cleese shows off his exceptional comedic chops. It’s also worth noting the male actors pretending to be women, which in the scene means the women are trying to be men.
Sir Michael Palin’s batch of characters is also of note. Arguably the best actor in Monty Python, he got the likes of: Mr. Big-Nose, Francis (of the People’s Front of Judea), an ex-leper, Ben (the lunatic hanging upside down in his jail cell), Pontius Pilate, and the Boring Prophet.
We also have to highlight the Python’s animator Terry Gilliam – who Cleese classed as a terrible actor – as the deranged Jailer. For that one role, Cleese classed him as a genius. And he is brilliantly creepy in it.
Gilliam is a character who was once cut in two, somehow survived that, then faced a half-arsed reconstruction.
Due to the low budget of £200,000, the Pythons had found the Holy Grail filming experience arduous. In part due to the Scottish weather – after a day of shooting, they had to rush back to their hotel to warm up. But the place only provided enough hot water for half the crew.
But Life of Brian was out in Tunisia – so it was more like a holiday. Filming locations were in Sousse (for the Jerusalem outer walls and gateways seen in the film), Carthage (for the Roman amphitheatre) and Matmata.
By chance, ’60s surrealist comedian Spike Milligan happened to be on holiday at the location. A big inspiration for the whole crew, he got a brief cameo as a clueless acolyte who everyone ignores.
By most accounts, the shoot went well and the team assembled the first cut of over two hours – this was shredded back to 94 minutes for the final run. And Monty Python was set! As easy as that, right?
Accused of blasphemy, Life of Brian was banned in various destinations across the world. The reaction was so fierce John Cleese and Michael Palin eventually tried to quell the outrage through the above debate – it aired on BBC2.
Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, turned up to pour a lot of abuse on the film and its stars.
Meanwhile, Ireland banned the film for eight years. In New York, rabbis and nuns demonstrated outside screenings – as did many other religious groups, mainly Christians. It was also banned across various cities and towns in the UK.
Naturally, all this controversy ensured loads of people went to see the film. After the George Harrison-fuelled budget of $4 million, it went on to make $36 million worldwide – a hit.
Throughout the controversy, the Python team maintained the film had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Although blatantly a satire on the nature of belief (the Monty Python team is full of atheists), they had never intended it to cause offense.
Some More Best Bits
Okay, so there’s a lot of excellent stuff in Life of Brian. That’s what makes it stand out – all the little details that turn each scene into a glorious monument to intelligent writing (and excellent acting). Here are a few more of the best moments.
One of our favourite characters is the brilliantly clueless Reg. His moments include the likes of:
"What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it's the meek who are the problem."
The film’s portrayal of various competing independence factions was included to lampoon 1970s left-wing revolutionary British politics.
His antics are perfect – and timeless – as they mock the armchair keyboard warrior polemicists of our era. These sorts sit behind their computer ranting about lefties or whatever, of course absolutely knowing best, with their invective achieving nothing.
Cleese’s best role in the film is with Reg, who’s a slippery, cowardly character. He even abandons the People’s Front of Judea and its raid on Pilate’s castle as he has a bad back.
Palin portrays many people in the film, such as the Boring Prophet and he’s great as the enthusiastic revolutionary Francis.
But we think he’s best as Pontius Pilate. Boasting a strange speech impediment, he’s constantly embroiled in confusion with sycophantic guards too terrified of his authority to get him to speak properly.
He commands little respect from his subjects, though, who openly mock him at his various speeches. Somewhat naive, he Pilate fails to understand all of it is due to his silly voice.
Terry Gilliam took Keith Moon’s role for the start of this clip. He covered himself in mud, got half-naked, found a staff with some hands impaled on it, and let rip. Nice going!
However, Sir Michael Palin’s Boring Prophet is most famous from this line of prophesiers. As he is dull.
Bit actor Charles McKeown (often considered the unofficial fifth Python member) has a couple of small roles. One of the most memorable is at the 2 minute 45 second moment above, where for several takes he was able to plunge into that pit as if it was for the first time.
Terry Gilliam was so impressed by that skill the two of them hit it off. They’ve since worked together regularly, perhaps most notable on the sci-fi classic Brazil. They even wrote 2009’s fantasy romp The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus together.
Making of Documentary
Do you, sir or madam, have 50 Earth minutes to spare? Then watch this 2007 documentary about how the comedy troop went and did this film. Go on. It’s a good watch. And Sir Michael Palin is in it.
Addendum: Opening Credits
On a final, final note – what about those spectacular opening credits from Terry Gilliam, eh? He really outdid himself with those things. Intricate and captivating, his cut-out animation style took Monty Python’s TV show to other levels of madness in the 1960s.
For the film, there was really no other way to open things up than with this thing. And all that hard work paid off, Mr. Gilliam, as it’s yet another stunning element to a legendary production.