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Landmark Theatres Exclusive!
Michael Palin remembers Life of Brian
in an open letter to all FiLM Club members.

 

 Monty Python's Life Of Brian
This is an edited extract from Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Robert Sellers

Welease Bwian

Out in Tunisia, a couple of sand dunes along from where George Lucas shot Star Wars, the Monty Python team were preparing their own little contribution to late 20th-century culture – Life of Brian.

EMI, Britain's leading film production company, had kindly stumped up the cash, a little over £2m. On the cusp of flying out to the north African location, the rug was unexpectedly yanked from under the crew on the direct order of EMI's 69-year-old chief executive, Lord Delfont.

The moment is still remembered with incredulity. "They pulled out on the Thursday," Terry Gilliam recalls. "The crew was supposed to be leaving on the Saturday. Disastrous. It was because they read the script... finally."

Royally shafted by EMI, the Pythons found themselves marooned in pre-production limbo. Already in way too deep to back out, there began a desperate scramble to raise funds.

Convinced that there was no way of financing it from within the UK, producer John Goldstone left for California with one of the Pythons, Eric Idle. By coincidence, a recent arrival in town was George Harrison, a Python fanatic with a private library of records and film of just about everything the comedians had done. He also happened to be an extremely close friend of Idle.

Upon hearing that George was in Hollywood, Idle instinctively got in touch. "I kept calling George, telling him that we were looking for money. I was just filling him in on what was happening and where we were at, and every time he would say, 'Don't worry, I'll get it.' And I sort of put that out of my head. I just didn't believe anybody could actually pay for it. Then eventually he said, 'Look, I'll pay for this. I'm going to set this up.'"

Goldstone was dumbstruck at the possibility that one individual, be he a Beatle or not, could single-handedly finance a project on this scale, but time was pressing and he was willing to listen to any offers, however crazy they sounded.

"We went up to see George at his house in the Hollywood hills," Goldstone says. "I can't remember whether he'd read the script already or not... it didn't really seem to matter. I just couldn't believe it. I felt... rock 'n' rollers, no sense of reality at all."

Everyone was taken aback by Harrison's generosity, not least Idle. "This was totally unheard of. It was a spectacular move for somebody to say, 'I will pay $4m for this movie,' it was really unheard of; that's like $40m now, a huge sum of money, and without which Life of Brian would never have been made."

Terry Jones remarks, "When Eric rang George and asked, 'What can we do?' George said, 'Well, you know, when the Beatles were breaking up, Python kept me sane, really, so I owe you one.'"

Six months after the withdrawal of EMI, filming on Monty Python's Life of Brian got under way on September 16 1978. The 41-day shoot progressed remarkably smoothly.

John Cleese comments, "It was extraordinarily efficient. I will always remember on the first day, I played the priest in the stoning sequence. We got out there at eight o'clock and by lunchtime we had the scene shot and I was in the hotel swimming pool. Usually, it takes about three days till you get to know everyone on set; it's like moving to a new football team, you don't know how people play, but Brian was different. Terry Jones was very well prepared and the camera and sound people were working like a well-oiled machine. God smiles on some projects and he smiled on that one."

Photographically, Life of Brian stands as the most accomplished Python film. One of the more grandiose images, of a crowd swarming up the mount to hear a sermon from Christ as the sun slowly sets, wasn't planned and came about purely by accident.

The crew had been shooting all day on a deserted hillside when at 4pm the extras suddenly disappeared. With most being local women, the excuse was that they had to go home and cook their husbands' dinners.

"But we haven't finished shooting!" yelled Jones, sending his assistant director off to herd the largely unwilling crowd back up the hillside. Eric Idle was beside Jones and tapped him on the shoulder. "It looks terrific," he said. "Turn the camera on them quick." Jones frantically spun round and reeled off as much footage as he could of this mass migration of people scrambling back up the
mount. And that's the shot they used.

Indeed, all the extras were derived from the local population. Jones remembers, "They were all very knowing because they'd all worked for Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth, so I had these elderly Tunisians telling me, 'Well, Mr Zeffirelli wouldn't have done it like that, you know.'"

Another testing moment was Graham Chapman's nude scene. Famously, Chapman opens the shutters of his room stark-bollock-naked only to discover hordes of disciples waiting outside. The problem was that half of the 300 extras were women, and Muslim women to boot, whose law forbade them to see such aberrations.

"It's absolutely forbidden for them to even think of viewing naughty bits," Chapman later recalled. "So when I flung open the shutters, half the crowd ran away screaming."

Four hundred years ago, the Pythons might well have been burnt at the stake for making Life of Brian. But this was, after all, the late 20th century and the rather antiquated British blasphemy laws were something of an irrelevance. That was until July 1977, when Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of national morals, won a blasphemy libel case against Gay News for publishing a poem about a Roman centurion's homoerotic leanings towards the crucified Christ.

It was the first successful prosecution for blasphemous libel since the 1920s and had a personal resonance within the Python camp, for Chapman had helped launch Gay News and was an ardent supporter of gay rights. The possibility of being found guilty of blasphemy over Brian was now a very real, if distant, threat.

In such a climate, it was decided to open Life of Brian first in America, where freedom of speech and religious choice is enshrined in the constitution. Or so it was thought. Life of Brian received its world premiere in New York on August 17 1979, the same week as Apocalypse Now and The Muppet Movie.

The opening salvo in what became a heated and often surreal religious war of words arrived on August 19 from Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, who claimed to speak for half a million Jews. Speaking in Variety, he declared, "Never have we come across such a foul, disgusting, blasphemous film before."

Hecht went on to make public his view that Brian "was produced in hell".

After Hecht's denunciation, outraged religious leaders queued up to vent their spleen to any hack with a microphone, in stark contrast to other more liberal churchmen who defended the film's right to be shown.

The voice of Protestant protest belonged to Robert EA Lee of the Lutheran Council, whose tirade against Brian - "crude and rude mockery, colossal bad taste, profane parody. A disgraceful assault on religious sensitivity" - was broadcast across 1,000 radio stations.

Not to be outdone, the Catholic film-monitoring office rated Brian "C" for "Condemned" and implored its flock not to visit theatres where it was playing, it being a sin to do so.

Naturally, the protests and marches only served to heighten Brian's media profile and so increase its box-office take. Nothing sells better than when it comes attached to the whiff of notoriety. When the shit started hitting the fan Stateside, the original plan to open Brian on 200 screens nationwide snowballed to nearer 600.

"They have actually made me rich," Cleese ribbed on an American chat show. "I feel we should send them a crate of champagne."

In Britain, the war against Life of Brian was fought a little differently. The most vociferous critics were the Nationwide Festival of Light, a watchdog association working in league with Whitehouse, who opened the batting by lobbying the British Board of Film Censors to refuse Brian a certificate.

They failed, and it was passed uncut as an AA (the equivalent of a 15 today) after much legal advice. The then British censor James Ferman publicly defended the decision. "We took the view that 14-year-olds are quite capable of telling the difference between a lampoon and a serious attack upon people's religious beliefs."

Unperturbed, the Festival of Light, supported by the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility, began circulating anti-Brian literature and even encouraged their Christian members to pray for the film's downfall.

With protests almost inevitable, distributors CIC moved cautiously, deciding to launch Brian in just one London cinema, waiting until after the religiously sensitive Christmas period to put it out on general release.

So Life of Brian opened exclusively at the Plaza, Lower Regent Street, on November 8, 1979 and, in spite of hymn-singing demonstrators outside, went on to break box-office records, raking in £40,000 in its first week, smashing the previous house record set by Jaws.

The film was backed by an ingenious advertising campaign in which each Python recruited either a relative or friend (Gilliam's mum, Michael Palin's dentist) to present their own radio spot.

By far the best was Cleese's 80-year-old mother, Muriel, reading an appeal to listeners, claiming that she is 102-years old and kept in a retirement home by her son, and that unless enough people see his new film and make him richer, he will throw her on to the streets where she will assuredly perish. The ad won a delighted Muriel an award for best radio entertainment commercial of 1979.

The day after the London opening, Cleese and Palin famously appeared on a late-night BBC2 discussion programme hosted by Tim Rice, himself no stranger to religious controversy as the lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar. Their inquisitors were Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Both harangued Brian from the outset calling it "a squalid little film" and "tenth rate"; no amount of measured argument on the Pythons part would dissuade the pious double act of their firmly held belief that Life of Brian mocked Christ.

Michael Palin recalls, "We had done our homework, thinking we were going to get into quite a tough theological argument, but it turned out to be virtually a slanging match. We were very surprised by that. I don't get angry very often, but I got incandescent with rage at their attitude and the smugness of it."

As the debate reached its conclusion, Stockwood, dressed grandly in a purple cassock and pompously fondling his crucifix in a way that was devastatingly lampooned by Rowan Atkinson a week later on a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, delivered his parting shot of, "You'll get your 30 pieces of silver."

Cleese sums up the affair best, observing dryly, "I always felt we won that one by behaving better than the Christians."

When Life of Brian opened across Britain in the new year, the battle lines altered dramatically and Python became a victim of regional censorship. "There was a loophole in the law," Palin recalls. "Local authorities had power over certain cinemas through health regulations, and they used this extraordinary clause to ban Monty Python because it was unhealthy. I don't know if they thought it would spread diseases in cinemas."

Life of Brian ended up being banned in Harrogate, parts of Surrey, east Devon (where councillors refused even to watch it, arguing, "You don't have to see a pigsty to know that it stinks") and Cornwall (where, after one screening, a local councillor rather overstated the case by arguing for all the participants in the film to be locked up in Broadmoor).

Gilliam noted, "In Britain, it was banned in different towns; what that meant was that people in those towns organised charabancs and went to the neighbouring town where it was showing. But in the States they banned it in the Bible Belt area and nobody went. You see, the British can't be controlled and the Americans can... that's what we learnt over that."

Life of Brian remained banned in Swansea until 1997, when it was permitted to be shown in cinemas in aid of Comic Relief. Informed of the ban's lifting, Idle told the press, "What a shame. Is nothing sacred?"

© 2002 (reprinted with permission)

 

Month Python delivers a scathing, anachic satire of both religion and Hollywood's depiction of all things biblical with their second film. The setting is Judea 33 A.D., a time of poverty and chaos, with no shortage of messiahs, folllowers willing to believe in them, and exasperated Romans trying to impose some order. At the center of it all is Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a relactant would-be messiah who rises to prominence as a result of a series of absurd and truly hilarious circumstances providing ample opportunity for the entire ensemble (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Chapman) to shine in multiple roles as they mock everyone and everything from ex-lepers, Pontius Pilate, the art of haggling to crazy prophets, Roman centurions, and crucifixion.