The Empty Balcony: Excalibur & Monty Python and the Holy Grail

VHS tapes, once upon a time, dominated the space below millions of televisions in American homes. They were in your house, a friend’s house, a family member’s house, stacked tall and deep in all sorts of cabinets upon which the TV was perched — cheap particle board constructions bought at the local big box with fake wood grain or flat black veneer, peeling up at the edges always. That awful furniture can still be found. The shapes have just changed a bit as tapes have disappeared and been replaced by DVD boxes.

The smart and conscientious viewer always had the tapes stored vertically, to stop gravity from working on the edges and speeding up fouling of the picture. There were commercial releases in there, more often than not outnumbered by the long play tapes bought from the drugstore packed with movies and television episodes recorded off the set. TDK, BASF, Maxell, Fuji, JVC. These brands were household names. On extended play, there could be three or sometimes even four movies crammed onto one tape. Good lord, there were even people that still had Beta.

A common ritual was crouching down on the floor and pulling out tape after tape and setting it aside on the carpet, mining one’s way to the back in search of something, anything, that was worth watching that evening. “Terminator. Yeah, that’s good, but I’m not in the mood. Stripes? Nah. Not tonight. What’s on this tape? Red Dawn, Mary Poppins, and A Clockwork Orange. Jesus, what sick schizophrenic put this triple bill together?”

There were all sorts of mismatches in the cabinet in my house growing up. Jaws/Logan’s Run. Papillon/For the Love of Benji. Apocalypse Now/The Miracle of Life. And the ever popular, wrist-cutting duo of The Deer Hunter and Sophie’s Choice.

I remember one tape quite well, the label written in blue ballpoint. Excalibur/Holy Grail. Two movies, a fitting compare and contrast, set up for straight through viewing without interruption as a very eclectic double feature, but one that at least made some sense.

Excalibur is a very shiny film. Glint is exaggerated throughout, from off of medieval armor, foil-covered castle walls, a wizard’s shiny head, and, of course, from the namesake sword itself. A cinematic retelling of the legend of King Arthur, Excalibur is a study in excess. All the knights are boisterous, speak in nothing but lofty proclamations, and never, EVER, take off their armor. The women are either nuns or incestuous schemers, and the peasants are all covered in mud.

Excalibur spans the life of King Arthur (Nigel Terry), from the night of his conception to his death at the Battle of Camlann. The most extensive act of the film focuses on the legendary search for the Holy Grail (which is, bizarrely, only referred to as the ‘grail’ in the film, it’s connection to Christian mythology largely excised, though still overt).

This was one of the favorite films of my youth, and that’s not because it’s childish or because I had no developed sense of taste. Rather, it’s just an easy story to follow. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are obviously bad. If there is one word that cannot be applied to Excalibur, it is nuance. Director John Boorman had no use for subtlety in making Excalibur, and no time for realism. In fact, realism would have gotten in the way of Arthurian legend. This is a film all about fantasy, and while it is a period piece, somewhat, the period it represents is that of myth.

The film is heavy-handed as it bashes the viewer over the head with cartoonish knightly honor and chivalry. Many of the characters are laughable when they deliver lines such as, “You have broken what could not be broken. Now, hope is broken.” Then there was this exchange between Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson, otherwise the standout performer of the film):

 

Morgana: Your eyes never leave me, Merlin.
Merlin: Can’t I acknowledge beauty?
Morgana: Can’t you acknowledge love? Perhaps you ache for what you’ve never known.
Merlin: Perhaps you lust for what you cannot have.

 

Excalibur demands that you take it seriously, which is a flaw in a film that is so far away from the world as we know it. But as long as the viewer ignores that demand and treats the film as an amusement park ride, it becomes safe to revel in its eccentricities. Despite the enduring nature of the Arthurian legend, Excalibur shows that it is not a timeless tale, that the people of middle England, or more accurately, the sensibilities of those who consumed the popular culture of the time, grow farther apart from the oversaturated moviegoer of this era with every passing year.

Or, as Monty Python postulate, it was all bullshit to begin with.

Although released six years before Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the perfect answer to the pomp of the former. Holy Grail spends a good deal of time eviscerating Arthurian legend, mining it deep for jokes both hit and miss. Surrounding this are well-laid gags playing upon the visually miserable existence of typical film peasants and perceptions of medieval ignorance and intolerance. And of course, the film would not be complete if the troupe did not engage in its usual feats of general mischief.

Like Excalibur, Holy Grail focuses on the search for Christ’s last cup, but where Excalibur shied from acknowledging Arthur’s divine right to rule as granted by a Christian God, even as legend, Holy Grail is not shy about taking on religious sensitivity. It revels in all sorts of humorous blasphemy, making the church as much a target of its wrath as Arthur or medieval life. Of course, coming from the era that it did, Arthurian legend is inseparable from medieval times and Catholicism.

Among the best scenes are a witch trial where flawed logic is used as a scientific basis for execution, and another where an argument ensues between Arthur and muck farmers about divine absolutism as opposed to autonomous collectivism. It takes true comedic genius to make that material funny.

Not everything is this heady. The confrontation with the Black Knight was a particular favorite when I was eight. The fact is, there are laughs for all senses of humor. And, lest Holy Grail appear a flawless film, there will be scenes that repel the viewer. But, the comedy is varied enough that a room full of people will find it impossible to agree on where the film excels and where it falls flat.

Graham Chapman plays the noble and clueless King Arthur, once again showing why he was so effective playing the straight man, casting angry and confused gazes at the madness going on around him. The rest of the Monty Python crew appear as numerous characters, sometimes even within the same scene, while Chapman largely sticks to playing Arthur.

Chapman is tasked with more screen time than Terry in Excalibur, and handles it well. Chapman is needed, in fact. He keeps the story grounded and reels it back in when things begin to get ridiculous. That doesn’t keep the film from stopping dead at the end, so much so that one wonders if the troupe forgot to write an ending, showed up on set the day the budget ran out, and just decided to put the first thing they could think of on film.

Despite the screeching halt at the end, the buildup to this masterful disappointment is among the funniest films ever made.

Nuts & Bolts: Excalibur was directed by John Boorman and stars Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Paul Geoffrey (Percival), Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Liam Nesson (Gawain), Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance), and Robert Addie (Mordred).

Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones shared the director’s chair for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. it starred Graham Chapman (mostly as King Arthur), John Cleese (French Guard, Lancelot, the Black Knight, Tim), Eric Idle (Sir Robin, Swamp Castle Guard, Concorde, Brother Maynard, Collector of the Dead), Terry Jones (Sir Bedevere, Prince Herbert), Michael Palin (Galahad, King of Swamp Castle), Terry Gilliam (Patsy, the Bridgekeeper, the Animator), Connie Booth (witch), and Carol Cleveland as Zoot and Dingo.