I was first exposed to Monty Python whilst I was at school; I got one of their albums Monty Python’s Previous Record out of the local library and was instantly hooked. However, it would be over a decade before I got the opportunity to see the entire 4 seasons of the ground breaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus series in total and even then I had to shell out a small fortune to import the 14 disc DVD ‘Mega Set’ that was only available from the Arts & Entertainment television network in the US at the time. I’m envious of the current generation of Python neophytes who can download their entire oeuvre direct from iTunes instantly.
Although the TV series was unavailable on home video in the UK throughout my teens I was fortunate to be able to get all three of the feature films on tape to watch over and over again. After the box office success of the low budget Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Python’s got the financial backing of Beatle George Harrison’s fledging HandMade Films and spent two weeks in a Caribbean beach retreat writing the script that would become their recognised masterpiece Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an epic literally of biblical proportions.
Whilst Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had shared the directorial reigns of Holy Grail somewhat frustratingly, this time out Gilliam focuses on the production design leaving Jones to concentrate squarely on directing the performances. The end result is that Life of Brian is the most cinematic Python movie, looking less like a comedy and every bit like the Hollywood Biblical Epics that it parodies. Graham Chapman stars as Brian Cohen, a young Jewish man who lives a parallel life to Jesus Christ and is often mistaken for the Messiah.
The production benefitted from filming in Monastir, Tunisia where Franco Zeffirelli had recently shot the lavish miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, they were also able to re-use various costumes which helped add to authenticity the team were striving for, as Terry Jones says in the audio commentary “there is no reason why a comedy can’t look beautiful” and Life of Brian certainly looks incredibly sharp on this Sony Pictures Blu-ray release.
Despite being banned throughout the world’s more strictly Christian countries, including Scotland, for being blasphemous the film actually treats Christ played by Kenneth Colley with great respect, it isn’t claiming to be the life of Jesus after all. In fact if the movie could be accused of anything it would be heresy as the obvious target of its biting satire is the rigid dogma and hypocrisy of the various churches that can’t seem to agree on the exact meaning of the teachings of Christ despite over 2,000 years of often calamitous debate.
It also takes a side swipe at the political infighting in separatist factions like the “People’s Front of Judea” or the “Judean People’s Front” and challenges the unthinking devotion of the masses who long to see acts of God in the most banal everyday incidents, as depicted by the unwanted gourd that Brian acquires in the market. Above all else Life of Brian is packed full of the wonderfully absurd wordplay that you come to expect from the Monty Python team and each member is given an opportunity to shine in many memorable performances; they even get a chance to play a scene with their Goon Show idol, Spike Milligan, who was commemorating a battlefield in North Africa at the time and spent a day on the set.
Animator Terry Gilliam takes an opportunity to do a full-blown, incongruous, action sequence in the middle of the film when Brian is being chased by the Roman Centurions he is picked up by a randomly passing alien spaceship which allows for a fleeting send-up of George Lucas’ Star Wars. The movie reaches a climax with the sardonic sing-along of Eric Idle’s song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by those sentenced to death by crucifixion alongside Brian, an iconic image to close the film.
The hidef release contains most of the material from the Criterion Collection DVD release, including the two feature length audio commentaries, one featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese and the other Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, which both offer a wealth of background information. There is also the entire audio read through of the screenplay by the team which has been set to the typed script and excerpts of the original storyboard. The hour long Story of Brian is a detailed documentary which charts the controversy and subsequent banning of the film.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the most cohesive of all their movies, it’s not only one of the funniest comedies ever made it’s also an insightful probing of the history of organised religion and a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith and the loss of individualism.