Airspeed Velocity of Swallows, Arthurian Romances, comedy, elderberries, Elvis, Eric Idle, film review, Graham Chapman, hamsters, John Cleese, Kingsman-The Secret Service, Michael Palin, Monty Python, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Satire, T.H. White, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, The Black Knight, The Once and Future King
Do you know what the air-speed velocity of an un-laden swallow is? Because I do. Do you know why I do? Because there is a rite of passage shared by every nerd of this nation, and, dare-I-say, the world and that is memorizing line for line the entire film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Oh you don’t believe me. Well allow me to throw down. Ahem:
Solider: Where’d you get the coconuts?
King Arthur: We found them!
S: Found them? In Mercia, the coconut’s tropical.
S: Well this is a temperate zone!
KA: The swallow may fly South with the sun, or the House martin or the plover seek hot lands in winter, yet these are not strangers to our lands.
S: Are you suggesting coconuts Migrate?
KA: Not at all. They could be carried.
S: What? A swallow carrying a coconut?
KA: He could grip it by the husk!
S: It’s not a question of where he grips it. It’s a simple matter of weight-ratios. A five ounce bird, could not carry a one pound coconut!
KA: Well it doesn’t matter. Go and tell your master that Arthur from the court of Camelot is here.
S: Look to maintain velocity a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second right?
S: Am I right?
KA: I’m not interested.
Second solider: It could be carried by an African Swallow!
Now don’t you feel foolish.
I experienced Monty Python and the Holy Grail probably the way most people do, either through a friend or a parent. In my case it was my best friend Kevin Tokoph who happened to have a VHS copy of the film. We watched it, and I can’t remember even getting through the first two minutes before I was on the floor laughing. The film starts with, depending on which edition you have, black and white credits with Norwegian subtitles describing how the writer’s sister, a porn star, has been bitten by a Moose. Eventually these credits end when it’s announced everyone’s been fired and the black and white turns to epileptic inducing red and yellow credits involving a cast of llamas. My friend Kevin made it past this part, but we had to rewind the tape several times, the first time of course is when Arthur appears from the fog “riding” a horse. Watch the film, you’ll see.
The basic plot-line of the film is borrowed from actual Arthurian legend. God tasks King Arthur and his knights to find the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the last supper) to bring their order of knights great prestige. From here the viewer encounters a rude French guard that insults the knights parentage between blowing raspberries, a three headed knight that argues with itself over whether to have tea and biscuits, the Castle Anthrax filled with horned-up teenage maidens, the Knights who say “Ni!” who demand a shrubbery, Sir Lancelot slaughtering a castle in order to save a young lady that is fact a feminine young man, Tim the Soothsayer, a killer rabbit, and finally a bridge where in order to pass you must answer three questions or be thrown into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
The most brilliant aspect of Monty Python is the ability to balance sophisticated humor without the audience ever realizing it as such. If you take the dialogue of the French guard for example you’ll probably miss it:
French Soldier: I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
After he says this he blows a raspberry (a fart noise made with the tongue and mouth) and taps his hat before smacking his lip. Right off the bat this joke at first just seems like a stupid and absurd bit of humor, but I recently had coffee with two friends and they informed me this joke is actually deeper than at first glance. For starters the “mother was a hamster” is actually the Frenchman calling Arthur’s mother a whore. Hamsters tended to reproduce often and so the English assumed in them the nature of lechery (fancy word for fucking-a-lot), and so calling someone’s mother a hamster is like saying today “Yo mama’s a ho.” Now the “elderberries!” This small fruit was often placed in wine because of it’s sweet taste, and since human beings typically prefer their food and beverages to taste more like something tasty than raw spit, elderberries became associated with drunkenness. The Frenchman then is calling Arthur’s father a drunk.
If your mind has just been blown, imagine how I felt after watching this movie at least twenty seven times over the course of my life and just realizing this, and therein lies the genius of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
You don’t need three PhDs to appreciate Monty Python because so much of the humor is wrapped up in pure absurdity. Very few people probably realize that all the Pythons, with the exception of Terry Gilliam (the lone American) are Oxford and Cambridge graduates. These are intelligent men with a firm academic background, but their work never becomes pretentious. Had the film been about obscure Medieval puns instead of historians getting their throats slit or French guards throwing cows at Knights, there’s no way the film would have been the success that it was.
When Sir Galahad enters the Castle Anthrax and finds himself surrounded by horny young maidens who want to sleep with him this is funny for a number of reasons. If you take the time to read the Arthurian legends it’s a fact that in order to actually grasp the Holy Grail you must be chaste, meaning you can’t have sex. In the Medieval legends sex and lechery was equated with impurity and so knights like Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, etc., could not actually acquire, hold, and deliver the Holy Grail to Arthur and then eventually the Holy Land where it must be returned. Sir Galahad however remained Chaste in the legends and was therefore able to actually acquire the cup. But you don’t need to know that enjoy the scene because Galahad is living the fantasy of every adolescent male the world over.
Dingo: You must spank her well, and after you are done with her, you may deal with her as you like… and then… spank me.
All: And me. And me too. And me.
Dingo: Yes. Yes, you must give us all a good spanking.
The fact that he comes so close to getting laid by 150 women is funny simply for the fact that he begs Lancelot to let go back into the castle to “face the peril.”
I would be cheating my reader if I didn’t at least talk a little bit about The Black Knight. Before I tell it however I must tell a small story. Elvis loved Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact whenever he played football with his friends and family and would become injured he would remark, “Oh it’s just a flesh wound.”
There are few moments that posses such miraculous ability to leave someone with so little breath as the scene of the Black Knight. I won’t even attempt to describe it. Watch it for yourself here, and if you cannot find the ability to laugh at least once you are not at all human.
The purpose of any review of a film, novel, essay, play, poem, etc., should be to inspire in the reader a desire to witness for themselves the actual aesthetic and intellectual reaction of a work of art. What keeps me coming back again and again to Monty Python and the Holy Grail is it’s perfect blend of realism and absurdity. The legends of King Arthur, though steeped more in English culture more than American, still manage to inspire countless generations. Perhaps because the historical record of Arthur is so murky, storytellers are allowed more freedom to explore alternative narrative structures. Kingsman: The Secret Service, the latest answer to spy films (and an almost perfect film apart from one scene at the very end, and you’ll get that pun once you’ve seen it) employs the Arthur myth to give structure to their espionage secret society. King Arthur, a pseudo-historical reinterpretation of the legends attempts to blend the myths with Roman history providing the audience with a “this could have happened” version of the story(Spoiler alert, it couldn’t but nice try). The Sword and The Stone, taken loosely from the first book of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, introduced legions of young children to the Arthurian myths, and the stories continue on being re-imagined by every subsequent generation. The story of Arthur is of a man trying to bring stability to his society and overcome the “might makes right” reality of his world. In this way Monty Python and the Holy Grail does not deviate that far off the mark…well, not too far anyway.
However rather than simply retell the myths, Monty Python must subvert the narratives, creating a standard of comedy that’s being imitated even to this day.
Well so what? my reader says. Why should I give three shits about some old comedy about old boring books about an old dead English King?
Well dear reader, before I answer, perhaps you’ll enjoy this:
Large Man with Dead Body: Who’s that then?
The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
Large Man with Dead Body: Why?
The Dead Collector: He hasn’t got shit all over him.
That’s why. This smart comedy, this subversion of language, history, and literature inspired me to read the Arthurian myths. It inspired me to write a novel based upon the characters . It continues to show me what is possible through writing. And finally it inspires me to laugh my ass off until I can’t breath. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an essential text for any study of Arthurian romances for the simple fact that it provides a retelling of the narratives of Arthur and his Knights that is both amusing and definitively modern. The film is an intelligent parody of cultural archetypes.
But mostly you should watch it to learn the differences between African and European swallows, lest you encounter and old man on the bridge asking questions.
I know it’s been established that I’m an atheist, but I have to admit, one of my favorite characters in this film is God. He still has one of the best damn lines in the film.
God: Every time I try to talk to someone it’s “sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy”…
Growing up in the Episcopal church that line was precious.
Scratch that. THIS is the best line in the film: