Important question of the day: is it possible to like Monty Python and the Holy Grail but not be a total geek? Man, I hope so, for I rather enjoyed the film. Granted, I won’t memorize its routines any time soon, but I felt it offered a witty and winning experience that holds up well after almost three decades.
Grail follows the legend of King Arthur (Graham Chapman) as he and the Knights of the Round Table - including Sir Lancelot (John Cleese), Sir Robin (Eric Idle), Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), and Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) - go on a mission to locate the titular grail. Plot-wise, that’s it; they split up and attempt to find the thing. However, the fun is in the details, as the Python style takes on a variety of subtopics for a comedic romp. The knights’ side quests make up the majority of the film as they encounter the stupidly indomitable Black Knight, Tim the Enchanter, the Knights Who Say Ni, and many other odd characters.
Grail was the first film attempted by the Pythons, and in some ways, that newness showed. For the most part, it came across as little more than a conglomeration of sketches. Various tools tried to unite the skits, and they generally did so successfully, though the structure felt forced at times. Nonetheless, I had no problem with the manner in which the tale was constructed, as the Pythons openly acknowledged the artificiality and mocked it at times.
Like virtually all Python offerings, Grail was a hit or miss affair, but most of the time, their arrows reached their marks. While many of the pieces have achieved great fame, I preferred some of the smaller, lesser-known bits. An early segment in which some peasants argue the validity of King Arthur’s claim to the throne was priceless, and a number of other elements worked well also. The Pythons love to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, and most of Grail adheres.
Ultimately, I didn’t think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the greatest work of the Pythons. 1979’s Life of Brian was more far-reaching and ambitious, and it also seemed more coherent. Nonetheless, Grail offers a lot of solid laughs and Python nuttiness, and it deserves a spot in comedy history as a fun piece of work.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Based on my prior viewings of Grail, I expected this DVD to look like death. While the picture certainly won’t win any awards, nonetheless it provided a surprisingly solid experience that was much better than I anticipated.
Sharpness largely appeared quite good. A few soft spots occurred, but these were fairly mild and usually rare. Overall, the image maintained a pretty crisp and detailed look. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no concerns, and I detected no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws provided some problems, but not as many as I expected. Light grain cropped up during a fair amount of the film, and a mix of speckles and grit also appeared at times. In addition, a couple of nicks and blotches could be seen. However, in light of the age of the material and the crummy condition in which it usually appears, I felt the picture looked pleasantly clean.
England in the middle ages wasn’t exactly a tropical paradise, and the film depicted it in a grimy, drab manner that the DVD replicated accurately. All of the colors appeared pretty flat and muddy, but that was how they were supposed to look, and I felt the DVD showed them with good accuracy and clarity for what they were. Black levels seemed fairly deep and rich, while shadow detail was quite solid. Low-light sequences displayed positive clarity and rarely seemed excessively dim. No, you won’t use Grail as demo material, and the film could often look somewhat rough. However, the DVD showed the movie in a positive way that almost certainly marked its best reproduction in years.
One note about the version of Grail found on this DVD. It extends the original theatrical cut by 24 seconds. This footage appears during “The Tale of Sir Galahad”. Apparently the directors cut it just prior to release but regretted it when it was too late, so the DVD finally restores the material. It’s nothing special, but I like the fact it appears here.
Also surprisingly fine was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remixed from the original monaural stems, this new piece felt appropriately restrained and didn’t go nuts with isolated elements, but it expanded the material to a very satisfying degree.
The soundfield remained fairly strongly anchored in the front channels, but it opened up to use the sides well. The music benefited quite nicely, as the score provided pretty solid stereo imaging most of the time, and it showed good presence throughout the movie. As for effects, those largely stayed in the realm of general ambience, but that usage seemed more involving than it might sound. The effects created a reasonably involving environment given the source material. Little elements cropped up from the sides during a fair amount of the movie, and the rears reinforced both the effects and the music.
Split-surround pieces were very rare, but the back speakers added a nice layer of atmosphere that seemed positive. A few examples of a somewhat artificial display occurred - such as when we heard screaming girls in Sir Galahad’s bit - but usually the soundfield came across as quite useful and believable.
Audio quality showed its age at times, but it still functioned pretty well. Dialogue generally sounded somewhat thin and demonstrated a reverberated tone at times, but speech remained within age-appropriate limits and generally appeared reasonably accurate and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects varied, as they occasionally seemed flat and a little rough, but they also came across as fairly clear and solid for the most part. Those elements didn’t approach great clarity or realism, but they sounded fine for their age and source.
Music came across as the tracks most pleasant surprise. As a whole, the score and other musical elements seemed nicely rich and bright. The music faltered on a few occasions, but usually it appeared quite positive, with clean highs and fairly deep bass response. Again, my “B” grade took the age of the material into account; this won’t be used to show off your system. However, I found the 5.1 remix of Grail to seem consistently fine.
The strengths of the new soundtrack seemed even clearer when I compared it to the monaural version, which also appeared on the DVD. Sometimes 5.1 remixes and the originals offer virtually identical sound quality; they differ only in the breadth of the speaker usage. That most definitely wasn’t the case with Grail. All of the different elements sounded noticeably more distinct and better defined during the 5.1 track. By comparison, the mono version was muddy and flat. For those who want the original auditory experience, I’m happy that Grail provides that option, but I’d never listen to it; the 5.1 mix sounded significantly better.
Columbia-Tristar (CTS) originally released Grail on DVD as a bare-bones disc; it tossed in four trailers - none of which were for Grail - but that was it. It also featured a non-anamorphic transfer and came only with the original monaural soundtrack. Happily, they’ve heard the cries of many Python fans and reissued the film via this fine two-DVD special edition. Not only do we get an improved anamorphic image and that nice 5.1 mix, but we also find a wealth of supplements. Most of the extras appear on the second disc, but DVD One packs some solid contest as well, beginning with two separate audio commentaries.
The first piece comes from Python members and co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Both were recorded separately for this edited but still screen-specific track. From what I’ve heard, this piece actually was originally done for an old Criterion laserdisc of the film. While Jones has also appeared on the commentary for Life of Brian, Gilliam’s a true veteran of the format, and he offers the best aspects of this piece. Actually, that fact probably results less from his commentary experience and more from his wonderfully frank and honest nature; Gilliam seems totally unable to dole out the usual “everything was great” pabulum, and his tracks reflect that.
This tendency continues here. Of course, the subject doesn’t merit the venom heard during his splendid discussion of the woes he experienced during Brazil, but Gilliam still provides a nicely candid discussion of the film. Jones does so as well, but we hear more from Gilliam, so his remarks stuck with me more. Overall, the commentary gives a lot of good information about the creation of Grail and it also goes into lots of interesting remarks about the history and dynamics of Python. The piece covers a lot of ground and does so in an entertaining and compelling manner that makes it a very solid track.
The second commentary features Python members Michael Palin, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Though the three were recorded separately, their comments have been edited together in a clever manner that creates the illusion they’re together. Each man fills a different area on the stereo spectrum; Palin’s on the left, Cleese resides in the center, and Idle sits to the left. Most edited group commentaries collate them in such a way that we hear only one participant at a time, but this one alters that standard. Occasionally they actually speak over each other to a very mild degree, but mostly we discern laughter from the others while one talks. Clearly the giggling results from the action onscreen, but the editing makes it seem like the non-speakers are reacting to the statements.
As deceptive as it may seem, I have no problem with the construction; it makes the track seem a little more lively than usual. Unfortunately, the commentary itself isn’t up to the standards set by that from the Terrys. Cleese and Palin dominate the piece; Idle chimes in at times, but not to as substantial a degree. On the positive side, each man offers a number of good anecdotes about the production. Cleese is especially interesting, mainly because he complains about a lot of aspects of the shoot.
However, the track falls flat some of the time because the participants often simply laugh at the movie. It’s nice that they still enjoy the work after almost three decades, but it doesn’t make for a very stimulating commentary. Overall, I feel the piece includes enough compelling material to merit a listen from fans of the film, but it seems somewhat disappointing as a whole.
A few other options can be experienced while one watches the film. We get the Follow the Killer Rabbit feature that allows you to check out some behind the scenes stuff. Two kinds of rabbits appear: the standard white rabbit, and an accountant rabbit. When chosen, the former shows sketches by Gilliam created for the film and also some stills from the production, while the latter shows costs of various props and other items. It’s modestly interesting but the option didn’t do much for me.
A couple interesting subtitle options appear. For one, you can check out the screenplay as you watch the film. This is a cool idea, though I’d be curious to know if it’s entirely the original text or if it’s been modified to match the movie; during his commentary, Eric Idle states that one of his lines was improvised, but it shows up in the screenplay. In any case, it’s a nice touch.
In a more irreverent vein we find Subtitles for People Who Do Not Like the Film. These take bits from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Pt. II and connect them to the Grail action. That aspect made the gimmick more interesting. I thought the text would just run the play in its normal sequence, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, Shakespeare’s lines fit in with the Python action to essentially create an alternate version of the movie. It’s still a stunt, but it’s a clever and interesting one.
Lastly, DVD One tosses in some minor but cute bits. If you click on Extras, you’ll find a modestly amusing command to go to the second disc. “Hard Of Hearing” simply has someone state all of the DVD options, but he does this really loudly. Also, there’s a very fun little bit that appears before the movie itself starts. I’ll leave it at that - see it for yourself and enjoy!
When we move on to DVD Two, we find a mix of additional extras. The most substantial of these is The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations. This 46-minute and 55-second program features Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin as they traverse the Scottish countryside to revisit the sites used for the movie. Production manager Julian Doyle also comes along for the ride, but he stays in the background most of the time. We also meet a couple of other folks, like Glencoe Rescue Team Leader Hamish Macinnes - who worked on the film’s rickety bridge - and workers at some of the castles.
While I would prefer a true documentary about the making of the movie, “Quest” was a pretty entertaining piece. It starts a bit slowly, but eventually it becomes fairly involving as we watch Jones and Palin examine the original locations and comment upon them. Ultimately it was moderately informative and witty, and it merits a look.
Three Singalongs appear on DVD Two. These include “Knights of the Round Table”, “Sir Robin”, and “Monks Chant”. The first two simply repeat the material found in the film; you could do the same kind of Karaoke if you just watched the movie with the subtitles activated. The chant, however, is more entertaining, as it starts with an instructional introduction from Terry Jones. It eventually leads in to a movie snippet, but the opening is quite funny.
Under the Sacred Relics subdomain we locate a bunch of materials. “Coconuts” provides a newly created film from the “Ministry of Foods”. In this two-minute and 55-second clip Michael Palin teaches us how to use coconuts to imitate hoof beats. It’s mildly amusing but nothing special.
The “Japanese Version” of the film takes two scenes - “The French Castle” and “The Knights of Ni” - and provides their Japanese-dubbed renditions. In addition, the Japanese translations have been converted back to English in the subtitles, with some moderately amusing results. Actually, I thought they’d badly distort the original wording, but they weren’t that far astray, despite the description of the film as the “holy sake search”. Anyway, this eight and a half minute piece offers some fun viewing.
One of the DVD’s best elements comes with “BBC Film Night”. A TV program that aired on December 19, 1974, this 17 minute and five second program takes us to the set of Grail where we find some fun footage from the shoot as well as lots of entertaining soundbites from the participants. Much of this was played for laughs, of course, but we still got a good look at the making of the movie, at least on a small scale. The material’s in rough shape but this is still a very interesting and compelling piece.
“Old Rubbish” adds some stillframe materials. We find six screens of press releases and similar bits. These are interesting, but unfortunately they’ve been reproduced in a way that makes them quite small. I found it very hard to discern what some of them said, which kind of defeated the purpose of their inclusion. CTS loves to offer stillframe images that only fill a fraction of the screen, and this becomes very frustrating. “Artefacts” adds five posters for the film, and it suffers from the same tiny-image syndrome, as does “Photos” with its 82 stills from the set. However, the latter comes across best of the bunch, if just because it contains no text; the pictures are still too small, but they remain easily seen nonetheless.
Unlike the first DVD release of Grail, this one includes trailers for the movie itself. We find the fairly long (three minutes) and very funny original UK ad as well as one for the 2001 US re-release clip; the latter duplicates the former but adds a few seconds at the end. As such, if you want to watch one, you may as well go with the US trailer; it makes the original redundant.
“The Cast” provides no biographical information about the participants, but it may be informative nonetheless. We find mentions of all six Pythons as well as cohorts Carol Cleveland, John Young, Neil Innes, Connie Booth, Bee Duffel, and Rita Davies. If you click on any of their names, you’ll see a photo of them from the film along with a credit for their character. In addition, those who played other parts have those roles listed, and you can access photos of the different characters from there. It’s a decent way to see who played which parts. (For the record, Michael Palin took on the most roles with 10!)
That finishes "Sacred Relics" but doesn’t exhaust the DVD’s extras. When we move to Unshot Footage we find three more pieces. “Lego Knights” takes the “Knights of the Round Table” production number and animates it using Lego figures. The 100-second piece is inconsequential but amusing and well executed.
After an introductory screen that spoofs The Blair Witch Project, “Location Recce” provides two minutes and 10 seconds of footage that shows directors Gilliam and Jones as they scouted for shooting sites. Or maybe not. Actually, it tosses in snippets of various travel spots as Gilliam and Jones provide commentary about it. The piece is pretty funny and merits a look, especially because it seems to offer the only occasion on which any of the Pythons actually interact; unlike the commentaries, Jones and Gilliam clearly were recorded together for this.
“Unused Ideas” adds 13 screens of rough sketches by Gilliam. Apparently these were unutilized plans for some of his animation. We don’t learn much about them or what they would have been, but they offer a neat look at some of his work nonetheless.
While the DVD’s booklet contains no proper production notes, it may be useful because it offers a neat description of the package’s extras. It also tells us of the work that went into freshening up the film for the new release, and it’s a moderately interesting piece.
Finally, “Excommunication” just shows us the address for the Python Internet site, something that can be more easily accessed by DVD-ROM users. When you plop the disc in the drive, you’ll find “Weblinks” to www.pythonline - the aforementioned site for the group - as well as the movie’s own website and the home page for Columbia-Tristar Home Entertainment. No more substantial DVD-ROM materials appear.
One complaint about the execution of the DVD: though this won’t affect users of standalone players, when I tried to access different options on my DVD-ROM drive, I had to play a serious game of “Find the Pixel”. It was a pain to locate the tiny sweet spot in which I could choose a feature.
Yes, this is a minor concern, but considering the terrific quality of this package, I have to complain about something! After 27 years, Monty Python and the Holy Grail remains an inconsistent but generally funny and fresh film. It’s not my favorite Python offering, but it’s entertaining and clever nonetheless. Objectively, the DVD’s picture and audio aren’t great, but the presentation appears to look and sound better than ever, and the wealth of extras makes this a terrific package.
Recommendation time, and this one’s pretty much a no-brainer for all camps. Anyone who doesn’t already own the prior DVD should definitely give the Grail SE a look. It’s a fun film that will work well for already-established Python fans as well as newcomers. In regard to owners of the original disc, prepare to turn it into a Frisbee; the new one offers improved picture and sound as well as a surfeit of supplements. The new release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows the way reissues should be done.