Yesterday’s controversies are strangely forgotten, as if the issues that caused the disagreement have suddenly vanished or no longer matter. Nowadays Monty Python’s most controversial movie has regular television screenings in my country without any protest. In 2007, the film was even shown in a church, and only produced mild complaints from parishioners.
Back in 1979 when the film was new, it was a different story. It is fortunate that the film was made at all. EMI pulled out of making Life of Brian at the last minute when they realised the content of the film. An unlikely rescuer emerged in the form of ex-Beatle, George Harrison. Harrison was running a film company of his own called Handmade Films, and he agreed to make Life of Brian instead.
It proved to be a fortunate decision. Despite (or because) of the controversy, the movie became the fourth highest grossing movie in Britain that year, and the highest grossing British movie in America. More importantly, the film’s reputation has grown ever since, and it frequently appears in list of the greatest comedies ever made.
However the film’s perceived blasphemy outraged Christians and Jews at the time of its release. Religious groups protested against the film. A New York screening was picketed by rabbis and nuns. 39 local authorities in Britain either banned it or put an X rating on it. It was banned for a long time in Ireland and Norway. Indeed the poster campaign for the film in Sweden advertised the film as, “So funny it was banned in Norway”.
Much time was spent on considering whether or not the film’s central character Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) was meant to be Jesus. The parallels are certainly strong. Both are born in a stable and visited by wise men bearing gifts, both have disciples and followers, and both end up being crucified by the Romans.
Defenders of the film have pointed out that the identity of Brian is clearly separated from that of Jesus. He has a different name. The wise men go to his stable by mistake, and then hastily reclaim their gifts when they find Jesus’s stable adjacent to theirs. Later we see Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount with Brian in the audience. An ex-leper complains to Brian that Jesus cured him, calling Christ a “bloody do-gooder”. Even Brian’s own mother tells his followers, “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.”
The Pythons are on record as saying that they decided that Jesus was a “good guy” and his teachings did not merit direct mockery. Perhaps they were simply reluctant to tackle Jesus head-on in a movie intended for international distribution.
While Brian is not Jesus, it is patently obvious that we are meant to see his parallel life as being some kind of reflection on the story of Jesus. In some ways, Life of Brian does for the New Testament what The Holy Grail did for Arthurian legends. It shows the source material up as being absurd and silly, and it treats both stories as being myths of equal merit.
The implication that is contained in Life of Brian is that this is how organised religions develop. A man who is not a god or a prophet is easily mistaken for one by credulous crowds of people who are determined to believe what they want to believe. If Brian can be held up as a saviour without having done anything to deserve it, the film seems to say, then perhaps the same thing happened to the man we call Jesus – or indeed any prophet or god.
For the main part, Life of Brian is not attacking Christ so much as his followers who constantly reinterpret his supposed message, which they have misunderstood, innocently or wilfully. So much of religious tradition is passed on orally that a game of Chinese Whispers takes place (“Blessed are the cheesemakers”). Even the Pythons have expressed different opinions about whether the film is blasphemy or merely heresy.
However much of religious dogma depends on what the followers want to believe. From the beginning Brian’s followers lack any agreement about his message, all the worse since he is not a god, and never had a message. Whether Brian denies or confirms that he is the Saviour, his followers will take his words to be proof that he is their god. “I’m not the Messiah!” Brian protests. He is answered: “I say you are, Lord, and I should know, I’ve followed a few.”
Terry Jones said of this scene that it is the “history of the church in three minutes”. Soon Brian’s followers are setting up rival icons based around items that he has discarded. Follow the Gourd, or gather shoes? They find miracles where there are none. Has the Lord been taken up? No, there he is. A juniper bush is seen as a sign that Brian is feeding his hungry followers. When the owner of the bush tries to find them off, he is killed for blasphemy.
Christianity is not the only faith seen to be absurd. There is a side-wipe at Judaism implied in the various Jewish liberation movements. A stoning is arranged for a man who used the name of “Jehovah”, but as the scene makes clear, it is very hard not to use the word. Another man refuses to speak for eighteen years due to a religious vow of silence. Why? What useful purpose has that served? Religious practice is seen as futile and worthless.
Behind this seeking of a Messiah lies an enthusiasm to accept any kind of authority, however spurious, and a blind conformity to religious dogma. “You are all individuals!” Brian urges his followers. They chant in unison, “Yes! We are all individuals!”
Even Life of Brian’s treatment of crucifixion was considered offensive by many Christians. Christian teachings wish to stress that Christ suffered unusually in dying for our sins. Instead we have a range of characters implying that it is a minor punishment; “You will probably get away with crucifixion”; “Crucifixion’s a doddle”; “I’ve had worse”.
In mocking organised religion, the Pythons were doing what they had been doing on their TV show for years. Their humour had always been a cheeky baring of the buttocks to authority figures. This is a little harder to do in a film set in Roman times. However religion is not the only target of satire in Life of Brian.
Government is also mocked. The Roman army and politicians are also portrayed as being repressive and stupid. On the whole though, the Pythons are reasonably indulgent towards the Romans, and it is the opponents of the ruling order who bear the brunt of the Pythons’ mockery. In this way, the film is more conservative than it seems at first glance.
One of the famous scenes in the film shows the insurgent People’s Front of Judea holding a meeting to decide what action to take against the Romans. Their leader Stan (John Cleese) asks what the Romans have ever done for the people they rule. Suddenly a whole list of undeniable advantages follow, all delivered from the very mouths of the people who wish to remove the Romans. It seems that the Romans are credited with bringing aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, baths, and law and order. What exactly are the oppressed Jews complaining about, we might wonder?
In fact the only item on the list that is rejected as useless is “peace”, which says something about a belligerent movement that would rather cause trouble based on a spurious feeling of injury than to feel grateful for the many benefits they are receiving. Even those parts of Jesus’s message that might seem least objectionable to many are anathema to the People’s Front of Judea. After listening to the Sermon on the Mount, they again dismiss the kinder parts of Jesus’s message:
FRANCIS: Well, blessed is just about everyone with a vested interest in the status quo, as far as I can tell, Reg.
REG: Yeah. Well, what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.
While the various independence movements are nationalist in intention, it is clear that what is really being satirised is radical left-wing politics. This reduction of leftist movements into broad stereotypes – humourless, ineffectual and rigidly PC bloviators – betrays the fact that the Pythons were always part of the establishment that they mocked.
Whenever a former Python makes a narrow-minded remark (e.g. John Cleese saying that London is no longer English due to the number of members of ethnic minorities living there), there are always people who express dismay at hearing such remarks from a one-time member of the alternative comedy movement. However Monty Python was never part of that movement. Their heyday was the 1970s when un-PC and questionable jokes were so commonplace that most people did not even see them as offensive.
This is clearly in evidence in Life of Brian, which contains jokes about rape, mental illness and speech impediments. Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) and Stan/Loretta (Eric Idle) are mocked for constantly spouting feminist views, and Stan’s wish to be a woman is portrayed as ridiculous.
Still the Pythons are not wholly wrong in their portrayal of the hard-left. Anyone who has had contact with members of left-wing groups will find the speeches of the People’s Front of Judea familiar, and even many self-aware left-wing people will find it hard not to smile. The Pythons do hit on a truth here.
The behaviour of the various Judean nationalist groups in Life of Brian is essentially the political equivalent of the actions of the various religious sects portrayed in the film. In both cases, we see constantly divided groups splitting into ever smaller numbers, and more concerned with fanatically preserving the purity of their particular dogma than they are with ensuring the success of their overall belief system, even though the differences between them and similar groups is miniscule.
This is notable in an early scene where Brian asks to join the People’s Front of Judea. They are indignant when he mistakes them for the almost identical Judean People’s Front, and they indicate that they hate other nationalist separatist organisations even more than they hate the Romans. The various insurgent groups continue to split into ever smaller numbers. “Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?” asks Francis (Michael Palin). “He’s over there,” replies Reg. To paraphrase Terry Jones, this represents the history of the socialist movement in three minutes.
The effect of all this in-fighting is to ensure the continuation of the regime that they profess to hate. An attempt to kidnap Pilate’s wife (one of the rare times we see them actually doing something) collapses into chaos when two rival factions are more concerned with killing one another than completing their mission. Mostly however the People’s Front of Judea content themselves with futile activities such as having long, pompous discussions, or writing ungrammatical graffiti attacking the Romans.
I may have made Life of Brian seem like a film that was written in order to make important points about religion and politics, but it is not. As with the best Marx Brothers movies (Duck Soup or Horse Feathers), the satirical content is not aimed at making serious attacks on organised religion and ineffectual political figures. Rather the point of the satire is that these things are not to be taken seriously.
The Python world is one that points to the essential silliness of life. All the things that many hold dear are a joke to the Pythons. Religion has its origin in long-forgotten absurdities; the authorities are run by pompous twits; political fanaticism is nonsensical. In short, the failings of our world are there to be laughed at, not railed against. The Monty Python team are comedians, not polemicists.
In some ways, Life of Brian is hardly a film at all, so much as a series of connected comedy sketches with a story arc. There is no room here for serous acting. Characters exist for purely comic purposes, and they are little more than an extension of the kind of people we saw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This is reflected in the fact that 40 of the characters in the movie are played by the six Pythons.
Terry Gilliam was the only member of the team who had a genuine cinematic sensibility. After creative differences during The Holy Grail, he left Terry Jones to direct the movie, and contented himself with working on the set design, matte paintings and animation. However Jones makes no attempt to fully utilise Gilliam’s sets, and they remain nothing more than a backdrop for the comic scenes.
Indeed the film pokes fun at serious movies. This is no portentous Biblical saga, but a mockery of one. It is no epic Roman tale, but one that laughs at movies with such pretentions: “I’m Brian and so’s my wife!” Even the theme tunes to popular movies are parodied in the Shirley Bassey-style song that plays over the opening credits.
Ultimately Life of Brian is about finding comedy amidst those beliefs and institutions that often embitter the world. Perhaps it is appropriate then that it is remembered for Eric Idle’s closing song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
This ditty was sung by sailors waiting for rescue during the Falklands War, by representatives for Manchester’s bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, by Idle himself at the close of the 2012 Olympics, and by the Pythons at the funeral of Graham Chapman.
It might be said to be the anthem of the Monty Python team, and a reminder not to get too tight-lipped when analysing any of their shows or films. When I think about Life of Brian, its purported blasphemy is only the second thing that comes to mind. I first remember the many hilarious jokes peppered across the entire movie, and smile. “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten – and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”
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