Quest for The Holy Grail

Note: In case you missed it, I’m taking much of this week off and handing over the keys to The Matinee to a few of my fellow movie lovers from around the internet. Each one of them will be dropping by to talk about an experience where a film’s effect on them changed after they watched it a second time. Today, Brian J. Roan gets us started – RM

When I first encountered Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I loved it. It thought it was the funniest thing I had ever come across in the waking world, and within a few minutes I was quoting lines like “it’s just a flesh wound!” with all of my friends.

When I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, I thought it was a laughless monstrosity that defied every convention of decent or even competent filmmaking. I sat silently, save for the imperceptible sounds of my blinking, and contemplated the screen with something akin to mortification.

Something was obviously wrong, but was it wrong with me or the world at large?.
See the first time I had come across Monty Python and the Holy Grail was on a hiking trip at a summer camp, listening to a group of the older kids recite the lines to themselves amid peals of laughter. There was something about the insanity behind their delivery that spoke to the level of hilarity of the film and it’s dialogue and situations, something that made me trust in the inherent but as-of-yet unobserved precision of the humor in the film.

Maybe I let my mind run away with the possibility of what the film could be. Maybe I had to build a mental framework around the funny bits I had heard to give it some kind of form in my mind. Whatever the reason, I was wholly unprepared for the reality of the film itself.

When I finally saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail I was at a whole different summer camp, amongst a group of Holy Grail virgins just like myself. We sat, all of us eagerly awaiting the romp that had left our older siblings and random assorted elders in states of near-universal laugh-induced catatonia. Yet all of us had a bit of trouble finding the film engaging, let alone funny. The rote comedic storyline I had expected was wholly lacking, replaced by some madcap collection of nonsensical farce. I remember walking out of the pavilion and across the fields toward my tent city with a sinking sense of hopelessness.

Either I was a moron devoid of properly highbrow comedic sensibilities, or age was doomed to turn me into the kind of dolt that would find that thing I had just watched into a laugh riot.

Then my father came along with my mother and sister to pick me up from camp. We had an hour-long car ride back to civilization and I was expected to be the source of our discussion all the way back. How was camp? Cool. What did I do. Swimming, fishing, some merit badges, I dunno, stuff. Did anything funny happen? Not really.


“In fact I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail and – ”

Before I could launch into my righteous tirade against the offensively unfunny monstrosity I had been forced to see, my dad began laughing and my mother groaned and my older sister simply asked what was happening. What was a young boy on the verge of disillusionment with the whole human race to do?


Luckily, my dad began quoting a scene from the film. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. A fire-throwing mage named Tim is trying to explain to a group of knights why a small white rabbit is actually a terrifying sentry to an innocuous cave. Why? Because it has a vicious streak a mile wide!

Ah but now the laughter came. My father and I quoted as much of the movie as we could to one another, and in retrospect every damned line of that movie, every insane instance of left-field skullduggery, every anachronism… they were all the funniest thing ever put to film.

So what was the difference? Every time I have seen the movie since that car trip I’ve looked back at that pavilion and wondered what was wrong with me. Why was the thing not nearly as funny as the idea of the thing or the recollection or reliving of the thing? Who can say? Maybe it was like being shot, or losing a limb – maybe shock took over and kept me from feeling anything. Maybe the film was so radically different from anything I had seen before that I couldn’t quite fathom it and I needed the crystallizing effects of conversation to bring it into focus.

All I know is that something about the way I’ve looked at that film ever since that first time has been different. Something about the innate knowledge of what is to come and its utter distance from reality or even common filmic sense makes it better.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the rare comedy that actually benefits from foreknowledge. It doesn’t draw its laughs from the unexpected, but from the feeling of being in on it all, of being the only one in a whole cast of misfits who truly understands the absurdity of what is going on. Like a secret handshake that ends with people gasping for breath from laughter.

I’m not often wrong, but man, when I get something wrong do I go for broke. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a masterpiece of a comedy, and I’m ashamed I ever thought differently.

Brian J. Roan’s writing can be found at Dear Film.