With the recent passing of Terry Jones, we realised it was time to pay tribute to that less (fewer?) famous Monty Python film—yes, they did make another one after Life of Brian.
Jones directed this one, too, and it launched in 1983. And it’s about as dark as they come. Huzzah!
The Meaning of Life
At 90 minutes, the film plays out more like a feature-length version of a Flying Circus episode. Just darker.
This one is laden with black humour and follows a sketch show approach. There’s no real plot, more an assortment of critiques on bureaucracy, religion, society, death, marriage, organ donation, and one very gluttonous man.
For us, there’s no denying it’s the least memorable of Monty Python’s films. But that doesn’t mean it’s without merit.
In fact, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Including some of the most famous moments in the comedy troop’s history.
Take, for example, the gift ceremony out on the battlefields of WWI.
In fact, war features very heavily throughout The Meaning of Life. Whether it’s WWI or the Anglo-Zulu War of 11th January 1879 – 4th July 1879.
The latter has impressive production values. The troop had a budget of $9 million for this one, by far the largest amount for any of the Monty Python films.
And it shows—add in Michael Caine and this thing could have been a full-blown war epic.
The purpose of this war obsession seems pretty obvious—this film is obsessed about death.
In fact, Monty Python’s members were always obsessed about it. Whether with the Black Knight in The Holy Grail, or the bleak ending to Life of Brian.
But The Meaning of Life is on a different planet entirely. One scene, which we’re not including here, includes a live organ donation on a hapless Terry Gilliam.
It’s unbelievably graphic. Whilst his wife briefly protests, she then begins flirting with John Cleese’s character whilst her husband feebly attempts to insert organs back into his body.
Whilst that bit is graphic, the legendary arrival of Mr. Creosote is far more cartoonish.
Played brilliantly by Terry Jones, this enormously obese individual is rude, vile, and an unstoppable glutton.
Whilst John Cleese’s obsessive maître d’ fawns over his customer, excusing Mr. Creosote’s continuous vomiting sessions. It all ends with a mint!
We’ve got to say that’s the best bit of the film for us. Monty Python at their very best.
But The Meaning of Life certainly is odd. But in a good way. Watching its relentless bleakness is quite remarkable.
You have to wonder what mood the stars (all in their early 40s) were in. Graham Chapman had recently overcome his chronic alcoholism and seemed to have a new lease of life.
Still, he went all out with gusto to embrace this project. As did the rest of them, such as with Michael Palin.
The song “Every Sperm is Sacred” is a full-on dance number and went on for a nomination at the British Academy Film Awards.
This scene was shot in Colne of Lancashire (Palin grew up in a similar location in Sheffield). That’s where we’re from in England, by the way. Claim to fame!
Anyway, even though Life of Brian was Monty Python’s was controversial film, The Meaning of Life goes for the jugular.
It openly mocks religion, makes light of death, the stupidity of war, the stupidity of bureaucracy, the nature of life, the stupidity of wealth, and everything around that.
And whilst it does have many highs (such as the tremendous performances from Monty Python—a fine set of actors), it just doesn’t quite hit the peaks of their other two efforts.
Perhaps it’s that sketch show approach that does it. The film feels a bit disjointed and, occasionally, rushed.
As if the troop jammed everything together rapidly to have done with it.
Or, in truth, they’d had their peak with Life of Brian (filmed in 1978). And it was merely nice to get another film out of them four years later.
As after The Meaning of Life, the guys called it a day. Other than for the occasional reunion.
So here we have arguably the final effort from a legendary comedy group, just in the process of deflating from the peak of their powers. Enjoyable!
Production and Legacy
Palin later acknowledged Monty Python struggled writing the film. He described the process as “cumbersome”.
They abandoned a sense of structure to make it loose and playful, but in as thoroughly macabre way as possible.
Shooting began in earnest in July of 1982. It took two months to get nailed down.
Whereas for Life of Brian they’d gone off to Tunisia, this time out everything was filmed in England. Yay! That’s patriotic, that is.
Opening in March of 1983 in North America, it met with a mixed critical reaction. The US’s legendary film critic, Roger Ebert, noted its biting satire. But handed it 2.5/4.
Others were far less kind. But The film received the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.
But, of course, this one then drew a close the end of the Python’s comedic outings. And, in truth, it was a pretty neat way to go out, eh?