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“Oh you’ll probably get away with crucifixion!”
In 1979, all Christian hell broke loose with the cinematic release of Monty Python’s full-length movie Life of Brian. Hailed as the finest moment of the comedic troupe, and hugely misunderstood upon release, 40 after its initial run it remains one of the most popular comedy movies of the 20th century.
Python members Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and director Terry Jones all play multiple roles while the late Graham Chapman portrays the titular Brian. Financed by ex-Beatle George Harrison and banned in Ireland for eight years, it remains a legendary act of rebellion which strikes at the heart of the political and socialist organizations of the day.
The film was misunderstood in the sense that it was not a depiction of Jesus Christ. Instead the premise is based on a case of mistaken identity. Everyday man Brian is wrongly cited as being The Messiah. At no point does Life of Brian make fun of Jesus. In fact, it’s worth noting Monty Python were mindful and respective of the religious figure. The movie does not strike out at the church, but the hypocrisies and stupidity that can affect religion
“Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!” – Brian
Monty Python cleverly shows how even the most hapless of creatures – in this case the character of Brian – can gain worship from simply being in the right place at the right time. The satirical swipes they take do not simply extend to religion. There is also deeper context. Using John Cleese’s character of Reg, subjects such as racism in society are tacked: “What Jesus fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem!”
The extraordinary genius of Life of Brian is the way it took the topics of the day and launched a humorous attack through satire and wit. Even the trade union movements come into the crosshairs of Monty Python with the bitter rivalry shown in the film between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front and the Campaign for a Free Galilee. Despite sharing the same ideals, they all differ on hilariously minor details. Instead of actively achieving something, they spend their time debating what should be done.
The film also pokes fun at other parts of British left-wing politics, the idea that nothing is ever good enough in society and everything is open for debate. As Reg asks: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
The issue of women’s rights in society is raised also. This was revolutionary at the time of Life of Brian’s release but sadly still relevant today. One comedic sketch sees women not being allowed throw stones at a blasphemer, dressing up as men in order to take part. It’s a scene which exposes the fact that for no real reason, women are not treated equally. Still pertinent today, with sketches like this Python used their art to imitate life. They just wrapped this in the guise of farce, which at times is all life is.
Most actors would shy away from the controversial lead role. For Chapman, however, he reveled in it. He was one of the first actors to come out openly in public, announcing in 1972 he was gay on a television program. Of course, Monty Python came under fire for having a homosexual member. One letter from an audience member stated that the Bible said any man who lies with a man should be taken out and stoned. Thus, the fire was fueled for the Life of Brian.
Most of the movie was shot on location in Tunisia. Chapman, a medical student, also performed on-set doctor duties. After filming he would hold a clinic caring for sick members of the cast, crew and extras. A touch of irony given the basis of the movie.
Deep social commentary in any other outlet would outweigh the content. However, in the hands of Monty Python it simply adds to the quick-fire comedic nature of Life of Brian. John Cleese resurrects the bumbling wry humor of Basil Fawlty. Eric Idle is the supreme cheeky cockney. Terry Jones shrieks as Brian’s mother Mandy. However, Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate with a speech impediment is the moment audiences roll around the floor with laughter. The movie is so strong in fact that cameos from financier George Harrison and comedic goliath Spike Milligan almost go ignored within the mix.
Since its original release in 1979, it has become hailed as a watershed moment of both cinematic comedy and the idea that no sector of society should escape satire. In regards the latter, there is humour in everything. Life of Brian taught us to always look on the bright side of life. After all, crucifixion is not that bad. At least it gets you out in the open air!