During a promotional tour for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons were asked what their next project would be. Eric Idle blurted out, "Jesus Christ -- Lust for Glory." Of course, the Pythons never made that movie. But the idea of a movie based upon the life of Christ stayed with them as they threw around ideas for their next movie.

As described by John Cleese on the audio commentary for The Criterion Collection's new DVD release of Monty Python's Life of Brian, it's hard to make jokes about Christ: "I don't really know what we'd find funny about him. I think you can only laugh at people if their behavior is basically inappropriate and I don't see that Christ's behavior was inappropriate. So I don't think you could probably be funny about him--only about the way that people subsequently tried to follow his teaching."

The Pythons were drawn to a story that would focus upon a man named Brian (played by Graham Chapman), born at the same time as Christ, whose life would contain several parallels with Christ. When they filmed Life of Brian, Christ only appears in one scene, and there, he is treated reverently as he delivers the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, the Pythons wondered, "Would everyone have been able to hear him?" So we get a scene with people near the back who are straining to hear what's being said and often misinterpreting what they hear:

"What was that?" asks a man.

"I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers,'" says another.

"What's so special about the cheesemakers?" asks a woman.

"Well, it's not meant to be taken literally," says the woman's husband. "But it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products."

While treating Christ himself with great respect, the Pythons take aim instead on his followers, who often forget about Christ's teachings altogether as they squabble amongst themselves. This point was almost completely ignored by the self-appointed guardians of morality, who upon the initial release of Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979 attacked the movie and claimed it was sacrilegious. But the movie clearly isn't parodying the life of Christ. The real damage posed by the movie was, according to John Cleese, "it wasn't good for business." In its portrayal of how a normal man could be misinterpreted as a messiah by a throng of people, the movie suggested that the followers of organized religion can become self-deluded.

The subject matter enforced upon the Pythons a different approach than they had taken on Holy Grail. While Holy Grail contains utterly absurd (and wonderful) insanity, such as King Arthur clomping around the countryside on foot with a servant creating the sound of horse hooves by smacking together two coconut halves, Life of Brian is tied to a less outlandish sense of comedy. As a result, much of the comedy in Life of Brian comes from verbal sparing, as when a Roman soldier played by John Cleese berates Brian (who is trying to paint "Romans go home!" on a wall) for using poor grammar or when Michael Palin as a prisoner hanging by his wrists from a prison wall berates Brian for complaining.

In the middle of the movie, we do get a surprising and brief interlude where Brian is whisked away by a flying saucer! However, it's telling that the movie had to leave Earth entirely to deliver this sort of insanity. For the most part, however, the humor in Life of Brian is somewhat restricted by the subject matter. There is nothing as blatantly silly as the vicious rabbit attacking King Arthur and his followers or the Black Knight continuing to fight after all his limbs have been lopped off by King Arthur, as happened in Holy Grail. When Python fans name their favorite scenes from Python movies, I would guess that Holy Grail would get the most attention, not Life of Brian. Still, this movie contains some of the Pythons' sharpest social commentary, especially in the form of the squabbling militant groups that become enamored of their own rhetoric with little regard for the cause in question.

"What have [the Romans] ever given us?" asks Reggie (John Cleese), the leader of the People's Front of Judea.

" the aqueduct?" offers a man, meekly.

"What?"

"The aqueduct?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah, they did give us that. That's true," says Reggie.

"And the sanitation," says another man.

"Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?" says the group's secretary (Eric Idle).

"Oh, all right. I'll grant you the aqueduct, the sanitation--the two things the Romans have done."

"And the roads," says another man.

"Obviously the roads. I mean the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--" says Reggie.

"Irrigation?"

And on it goes with Reggie refusing to give ground as his comrades continue to unwittingly erode his position.

While the Pythons' humor isn't as blatantly silly as usual, the movie contains many excellent scenes: during a public stoning (which women are forbidden to attend), women wear beards so they can throw stones; Brian encounters a naked hermit (Terry Jones) in a dirt pit; Brian rises (buck naked) from a good night's sleep, opens his bedroom window, and finds a throng of followers waiting outside; a polite Roman (Michael Palin) conducts the condemned to their crosses ("Outside, to your left, one cross apiece," he says); and Eric Idle sings "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" while nailed to a cross. In addition, Terry Gilliam's animation sequence for the opening credits is arguably the best animation of his career.

The Pythons literally had over ten times as much money to work with on Life of Brian as they had on Holy Grail, so the production values are much superior this go round. George Harrison formed the film production company Handmade Films in order to help the Pythons make this movie after the original production company, EMI, pulled out of the project just two days before the actors and crew were set to leave for location shooting in Tunisia.

This new DVD release from The Criterion Collection features a widescreen transfer approved by director Terry Jones and two audio commentary tracks. The first commentary track features Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones. And the second features John Cleese and Michael Palin. The Pythons appear to have recorded all of their commentaries separately. After the fact, the commentaries were edited together. Terry Jones also reached into his closet and pulled out five deleted scenes, which are also available with commentary tracks. (One of the deleted scenes explains a rather mystifying character created by Eric Idle named Otto.) Other extras include four original British radio ads and a documentary film, The Pythons, filmed on location in Tunisia during the making of Life of Brian.

 


Monty Python's Life of Brian is on available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a widescreen digital transfer approved by director Terry Jones and enhanced for widescreen television. The DVD contains several special features: two audio commentaries, one by Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones, and a second by John Cleese and Michael Palin; the original theatrical trailer; five deleted scenes with audio commentary by the Pythons; four original British radio ads; and a documentary film, The Pythons, shot on location during the making of Life of Brian. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.