Jointly directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, using the cast from the 1970s cult British TV comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus".
Terry Gilliam is an American director, screenwriter, animator, and actor who met John Cleese while working on the magazine Help! and subsequently became the resident animator with Monty Python's Flying Circus. Gilliam began his solo directing debut with Jabberwocky (1977), a medieval interpretation of the Lewis Carroll poem, had a more popular success with the "adult" children's film Time Bandits (1981). The more serious, political and critically acclaimed film Brazil (1985) has apsects of Monty Python satire and silliness and George Orwell's critique of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He could not repeat the formual with the expensive flop The Adventures of Baron von Munchhasuen (1989) about an 18thC ex-soldier, adventurer and liar whose life is relived through tall stories told to a disbelieving group of actors (some of the scenes dealing with sieges by the Turks is very interesting). With the star Robin Williams, Gilliam was able to return to critical favour with The Fisher King (1991).
Terry Jones is a Welsh director and screenwriter who was educated at Oxford University where he studied medieval literature. Although he turned down an academic career he retains a strong interest in medieval history as his films and published work show. He was a veteran of the Experimental Theatre Club and the Oxford Revue and had written for TV and radio when he joined the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" team in 1969. Jones was sole director of two "Python" films - probably their funniest film about the man who was not Jesus, Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983) - and Erik the Viking (1989), adapted from his own children's book. Has more recently written and directed a TV documentary series on The Crusades (1995).
Not as well liked by the critics as some of the other Monty Python films beginning withAnd Now for Something Completely Different (1972). Some would describe it as post-modern, others as silly or tedious. Suffers, as many Monty Python films do, from the episodic nature of the skits (a result of being transferred from the more suitable medium of TV). The film was funded from numerous sources including contributions from the rock groups Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and proved popular in America where its release coincided with the broadcast of their TV series on PBS TV.
Set in 932 AD Britain. It is a series of sketches which deal with the legend of Arthur and the nature of medieval English society, the church, knighhood, chivalry, the peasanty, the burning of witches. The film should be seen as part of the tradition of satire about the chivalric ideal which goes back to Erasmus, Cervantes, and Chaucer (according to Jones's book). Its episodic nature needs to be understood (if not always enjoyed) as a result of its origins in the TV series. In his book Chaucer's Knight (1980) the director Jones notes that he had been concerned for some time about Chaucer's treatment of the Knight in The Canterbury Tales. Given the horrendous acts he was supposed to have participated in as a warrior and knight, Jones was troubled by the apparent dullness of his treatment of the character in the tale. Only when he was in Scotland filming The Holy Grail did Jones begin to reinterpret Chaucer's tale:
My problem was then to find out what Chaucer's contemporaries though about these mercenaries. In 1974 I was in Scotland filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when I picked up the guide-book for the castle in which we were filming, and there I found that not only was Doune Castle built at the very time that Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales but it was specially constructed so as to minimize the kind of treachery which had come to be expected from the new breed of globe-trotting mercenary. So there, expressed in the very fabric of the building we were using for our film, was the answer to my question about Chaucer's Knight - evidently the people of Chaucer's day were deeply suspicious of these mercenary knights. (p. x)
Jones also has some thoughts on the nature of the duel and one-on-one combat. The former is often fought for frivolous reasons by men overly concerned with their honour (see the scene with the Black Knight). The latter would be a good substitute for war if restricted to the leaders or their representatives. In his book Jones notes again that:
On that often quoted occasion in 1390, when the Saracens challenged the Christians to a tournament during the siege of Mahdia, there was, in fact, a considerable difference of opinion among the Christians as to whether or not they should accept it. The Lord of Coucy said that where the Christian faith was called into question, it was too serious a matter to be answered by one knight and that, 'such defyaunce in armes for suche a quarell ought nat to passe without great deliberation of good counsayle.'
In Monty Python's Flying Circus, the TV show in which I have been involved over the last ten years, we once did a sketch in which, instead of debating the existence or non-existence of God, a bishop and a humanist philosopher fought each other for it. It seems to me that Chaucer made this same joke almost six hundred years ago.
In his day, however, it had even more relevance, since he was in effect commenting on the Church's double-think on the subject of war. For the same Church that condemned tournaments, condoned and encouraged crusades in which, instead of two men, two nations fought each other to the death to prove the superiority of one religion over another. (pp. 81-2).
The process of filming The Holy Grail also showed the difficulties of moving about in heavy chain-mail, an experience which Jones uses to evaluate divergent academic critical opinion. In a footnote Jones comments:
Muriel Bowden thinks we are meant to visualize the Knight actually riding in his chain-mail on the pilgrimage... Skeat thinks not... For what it is worth, I agree with Skeat. It was a common cry that the armour of the day was too heavy (he then quotes Bonet). And although this must refer to the use of plate-armour in addition to chain mail, the chain-mail itself must have been very heavy. When we made the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, most of us wore imitation chain-mail made out of knitted wool, which was uncomfortable enough, but Graham Chapman, as King Arthur, wore a genuine metal chain-mail coif and found the weight of it unbearable for more than short periods. (pp. 273-4).
Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (New York: Methuen, 1980, 1985).