Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Life's a piece of s**t
When you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
People laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

If there is anything I will admit to being a die-hard fan of, other than Peanuts, it is Monty Python. I fell in love with the original Flying Circus TV series instantly when my parents rented some episodes of it at Blockbuster back when I was nine. I loved watching it as a kid. It was silly, it was irreverent, plus the fact that I was watching something mature and sophisticated for my age while everyone else at school was still watching cartoons and MTV made me feel kinda special. I have since collected the entire series on DVD, as well as most of the movies and many of the books. My older sister has given me a plethora of Python toys as Christmas and birthday gifts. I am that devoted.

And no, I'm not the kind of fan who annoys his friends by constantly quoting it in public. I'm not THAT devoted.

And since you've been such good little boys and girls during my "Trilogy of Imagination" ...trilogy, I have a little treat for you: this week, we're going to look at a Python movie.

No, not that one.

Yeah, I'm sure Google REALLY loves it when Blogger users put pics of topless women in crash helmets on their sites.

THAT'S the one, Life of Brian. The most controversial of their cinematic efforts.

While promoting Holy Grail in theaters, the Pythons were often asked what their next movie project would be, to which Eric Idle jokingly answered "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory". He had even written a sketch with Terry Gilliam where Jesus is angry with some carpenters because they hadn't built his cross properly. They didn't do anything with the sketch, but the idea of a Python Bible story intrigued them, so they did a crapton of Biblical research and spent two weeks in Barbados hammering out a movie script.

After examining the Dead Sea Scrolls and life in Biblical times, however, the Pythons couldn't really find anything all that funny about Jesus. So they decided instead to satirize Jesus' followers, more specifically mainstream religion and its holier-than-thou figureheads. The original script featured Brian as Jesus' thirteenth disciple, the one who couldn't attend the Last Supper because his wife was having friends over for dinner, but eventually Brian became just a regular guy in 33 A.D. Judea.

This sadly didn't stop the film from being at the center of many religious protests, led by a lot of church bigwigs who claimed that Brian was intended to be a mockery of Christ himself without even having seen the movie. It was actually banned in several countries and geographic regions for decades--Sweden marketed it as "the film so funny it was banned in Norway". They may have received a sign of times to come when the EMI studio thought the script was too blasphemous and pulled their money out just two days before they were supposed to fly out to Tunisia to start filming.

Fortunately, the Pythons managed to get by...with a little help from their friends.

Former Beatle George Harrison was a good friend of Eric's and wanted to see the movie made, so when he learned about their financial problems he and his business manager founded the Handmade Films production company to provide the movie's £2 million budget.

I saw this film on TV when I was eleven and didn't think too much of the film's message. I'm older now, and having been born and raised in a moderate Southern Baptist family and attending a Unitarian church in a progressive college town in the most sanctimonious state in the Union, it does kinda hit close to home for me.

(DISCLAIMER: One of the problems of analyzing movies in such a format as this is that you don't want to give too much away to those who haven't seen it. Comedies in particular are a minefield; a bad comedy is easy because you can complain about how the jokes aren't funny and how it insults the audience's intelligence, but GOOD comedies...well, there's always the risk that one or two people who haven't seen it will stumble across it and risk me spoiling the jokes for them. For the benefit of those one or two people, we'll be focusing on the plot of this film instead of its humor, while mentioning where the jokes are in this film so that those who HAVE seen it will know what I'm talking about.)

At least he's not a bureaucrat.

Nowhere is this blasphemy allegation proven more wrong than in the very first scene, which sets up an all-too-familiar setting...

The Three Wise Men have followed a star to a manger in Bethlehem, where a Mrs. Cohen (played by director Terry Jones) nearly throws them out before seeing the gold, frankincense and myrrh they want to give her son for Christmas. Despite some confusion over what myrrh is, they bless the child and bestow their offerings to him, but no sooner are they out the door do they realize they've made a mistake, take their gifts back and head to the heavenly-glowing stable next door.

(In a famous debate on British television where Michael Palin and John Cleese defended the film against two Anglican religious authorities, it turned out they'd had a long lunch and were late to the movie, so they missed this first scene. Remember, kids, always finish your homework.)

About thirty years and a bizarre but nicely animated opening title sequence later, we cut to the Sermon on the Mount as given by Admiral Piett.

The boy whose name was Brian has grown up to be this man called Brian (Graham Chapman), who still lives with his mother and resents the oppression his people are suffering at the hands of the occupying Roman Empire. It is a fact proved early on when it is revealed that his father was a centurion and he wasn't quite immaculately conceived, if you get my meaning. This motivates him to sign up with the People's Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People's Front), an anti-Roman resistance movement lead by one of John's, Michael's and Eric Idle's characters each, and also that he's fallen for another member of theirs, a young lady named Judith (played by Sue Jones-Davies, who lifted the ban of this film in a small Welsh town in 2009 by becoming mayor of it).

The People's Front of Judea can be best described as a faction that doesn't really do a lot of resisting. They just sit around and talk a lot of power-to-the-people stuff and about how much better they are than those other resistance groups, especially the Judean People's Front (splitters!). One of them is also fighting for his right to be a woman. Yes, HIS.

"Item four on the agenda, how all the other left-wing organization's mothers wear army boots..."

He meets the PFJ again at his day job selling food to patrons at the local coliseum. His first assignment is to paint an anti-Roman slogan on the front of Pilate's palace. This is one of the best gags in the movie, so I won't spoil it for you, but it ends with "Romans Go Home" written in Latin one hundred times on the palace walls in various font sizes. Suffice to say, he's as good as in.

Soon after, our little revolutionary is going on his first gubernatorial raid, in which the PFJ sneak into the imperial palace and attempt to kidnap Pilate's wife and hold her hostage until Pilate agrees to withdraw all Roman soldiers from Judea. (Well, except for those who contribute to roads, housing, education, public security, health...crap, did I just give away a good joke then? You one or two people forget you read this!) Things don't go exactly according to plan, thanks to the sudden appearance of a rival anti-government faction, and an argument over which of them came up with kidnapping Pilate's wife first has a hockey game breaking out between them leaving Brian the only one still standing when the centurions arrive.

Brian is brought before Pontius Pilate (think Michael Palin in a toga with an Elmer Fudd/Homestar Runner-type speech impediment) while he decide what to do with him. Or he would if he could, err...stop them laughing about...something that comes up when Brian mentions that his father was in the Roman garrisons...err...

REALLY hard to describe this without giving away a lot of the jokes in them. I'm not even sure I should have mentioned the "what have the Romans ever done for us" scene, even if it is crucial to the film's message.

Anyway, Brian manages to escape and runs up the stairs of a very high, unfinished tower to escape the guards chasing after him, but inadvertently runs off the top of it.

And then...this happens:

I am aware that this movie came out not long after the first Star Wars film was released, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

After...that, the chase resumes as Brian retreats back to PFJ HQ with a legion of centurions right behind him.

Incidentally, the PFJ are headquartered at the residence of one Matthias, son of Deuteronomy of Gath (played by John Young, who in an earlier scene was about to be stoned to death for blasphemy, but that went wrong, they just...let him go?). The balcony he is hiding in gives way to drop him right in a line of prophets and seers preaching to the masses, one of whom looks like Terry Gilliam in a potential Keith Moon role. In order to keep his cover, he pretends he is one of them, spouting off philosophical nonsense to a crowd of skeptical listeners who keep picking holes in his parables, and only when some centurions pass by is he suddenly struck with inspiration, and only then does this ruse work.

A little too well, actually.

In fact, his listeners are now convinced that he's their new Messiah, and he is forced to get away from them.

While fleeing from the multitudes, Brian loses one of his shoes (sandals?), which his new-found devotees interpret as a sign, thus kicking off a scene which the Pythons themselves have described as "the entire history of religion in two minutes." The only thing I can mention about it without spoilers is that British comic legend Spike Milligan cameos as the only man left behind when the Brianites run off in the same yet now separate directions.

Maybe it's Matthias' identical twin brother, Dingo.

Brian repeatedly tries to tell his new followers that he's not their new Messiah, but his many attempts to talk sense into them are interpreted as blessings or miracles or words of guidance. He finally tells them to, in a less polite choice of words, "copulate off", only for them to ask him how they should do so. They eventually leave him alone, carrying off a heretical naked hermit whose vow of silence was recently broken to be stoned or something, leaving Judith behind.

One passionate night later, Brian awakens stark naked to an even larger crowd of devotees outside his bedroom window.

Insert funny yet satirically relevant scene I can't tell you about here.

Things are no different at PFJ headquarters, where the sick and possessed have lined up to be healed by their new Savior. Reg has even struck a deal with a Mr. Papadopoulus (executive producer Harrison in an uncredited cameo) to let Brian speak at the Mount. Even Judith has caught Brian fever.

This never happened to the other guy.

Right about now, the Romans finally catch up with Brian (took them that long to chase him down?) and take him back to Pilate, who calmly sends him off to be "cwucified".

Pilate, in a festive Passover spirit, addresses the crowd with his friend from Rome whose name I can't mention for fear of giving away another joke, announcing that he will release one prisoner from his crucifixion party, which the crowd takes as an excuse to name as many 'R' names as they can to poke fun at his accent. After failing to get her comrades in the PFJ to get off their lazy asses and do something about it, Judith joins this crowd to call for Brian's release.

Meanwhile, the PFJ finally decide on a unanimous vote to get off their lazy asses and do something about it.

Mean-meanwhile, Brian has just been sent off with the rest of the crucifers...crucifixioners...crucifees...he's going to be crucified.

Not a lot of major jokes to give away in that lot.

"I will cwucify that wascawwy wabbit!"

Brian is eventually strung up on his cross along with 139 other criminals. The PFJ finally arrive...to wish him well on his martyrdom for the cause, and then sing and applaud for him.

The Roman rescue party show up to release him, but when everyone insists that their name is Brian ("I'm Brian and so's my wife!") they take the wrong man down instead.

A sudden appearance by the Judean People's Front's crack suicide squad (introduced in a deleted scene) goes about as well as you'd expect. Wish I could tell you about it.

Judith appears to say farewell after Reg tells her "what he was doing".

Even his own mother shows up to disown him.

So to summarize: Brian is now hanging on a cross, a long, torturous, horrible death awaits him and all avenues of rescue have pretty much left him to rot.

What more perfect time for a merry sing-along?

So that's Life of Brian. And how does it hold up?

Well, in this so-called enlightened age of Fox News pundits, holier-than-thou politicians, and religious types who spend more time in picket lines than in church...pretty well.

The extensive research the Pythons did for this film shows. The biblical look of the film is quite authentic, and the cinematography and Terry Gilliam's production design makes it all the more realistic. Man, it had ALIENS in it and it looked real. In fact, just about the only thing it gets wrong is that everybody in Judea is Caucasian.

Also...blasphemous? HOW?? Jesus appears in this movie twice, just before AND immediately after the opening credits, and he's the only person in the film who is actually played straight. The Pythons casually tiptoe around all references to him; the worst he gets is when Michael Palin's ex-leper calls him a "bloody do-gooder". The film doesn't outright tell you to abandon Christianity and become an agnostic, it's just saying think for yourselves and have some common sense, a message I'd imagine some mainstream religious leaders would have trouble wrapping their heads around. Message aside, it also has some of their funniest material. Those one or two of you who haven't seen this movie will love it.

Since its release, Brian has become a cult classic--not as popular as Holy Grail or as censor-baiting as Meaning of Life, even though you do get a brief glimpse of Chapman's naughty bits at the start of the "we're all individuals" bit, but it has a nice tinge of satire that the other two films lack. The controversy that surrounds it even now only adds to why people like it so much (look up "Not the Nine O'clock News" on YouTube sometime). It's basic Monty Python--humor that's silly, absurdist and at times sophomoric, but at the same time so sophisticated only the stupid amongst the stupid couldn't understand it. I'm quite proud to list this movie as one of my all-time favorites.

And I didn't even mention the best jokes in it, either.

Praise be to Brian, patron saint of satire, who died so that we all shall laugh.

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