The Pythons were on top of the world and falling apart. The first three series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had earned them an adoring fanbase and the opportunity to move to the big screen, but internal conflicts were threatening to tear the group apart.
John Cleese was reluctant to commit to more of the same with another series and Graham Chapman’s drinking was gradually becoming an unignorable problem. Nevertheless, they pressed on with the writing of The Holy Grail only to find that film companies were somewhat reluctant to leave the film in the hands of debut directors Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. The Holy Grail was almost lost before the quest had even begun.
In a typically absurd Pythonesque twist, funding arrived in the unlikeliest of forms. Stumping up £20,000 each were legendary rock bands Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis, making a painfully low final budget of £200,000. This financial limitation was a challenge for the Pythons, but it was one they rose to with typical ingenuity. In fact, it created one of the simplest and funniest gags in the entire film: King Arthur’s coconut shell horse. As Terry Gilliam later said: “We wanted to make real movies, not Python movies. If we’d had the money we would have had real horses [but] we had to get clever and thank god, because the coconuts saved our ass. It’s one of those things that’s, in retrospect, brilliant.”
Brilliant it may have been, but the final days of pre-production were more like hell on earth for the two Terrys. They’d found all of their desired castle locations, but a week before filming was due to begin the Department of the Environment for Scotland denied access, claiming the Pythons were “doing things that were not consistent with the dignity of the fabric of the building”. Terry Jones was furious: “These places had been built for torturing and killing people and you couldn’t do a bit of comedy? It was ridiculous”. In the end, they found a new location in time, but things only got worse from there…
“On the very first shot the camera breaks. On my very first directorial shot! So what do we do? We do all the wrong things” – Terry Gilliam
What they did was manage to get another camera working, albeit without sound, but there was a bigger problem just around the corner. That problem’s name was Graham Chapman.
“Graham was a drunken sot! This great, dignified character is actually blotto and he’s struggling to get through his lines” – Terry Gilliam
“We were filming the Bridge of Death sequence…but Graham just wouldn’t go near the edge and was shaking from head to foot, he was in a terrible state. I couldn’t understand it. […] It was only later that I realised he was getting the shakes; he’d taken himself off alcohol in order to play King Arthur and that was when I first realised this about him” – Terry Jones
The shakes, otherwise known as delirium tremens or DT, are an acute form of delirium prompted by withdrawal from alcohol consumption, and Graham had them bad. His memories of the day were painfully blunt: “I was playing King Arthur in a cold drizzle, and I realised I was letting my friends down, and letting myself down.” The lead actor, and a keen mountaineer to boot, was paralysed by his attempt to face his demons.
Chapman’s alcoholism was a major obstacle for the Pythons to overcome, but Gilliam’s artistic perfectionism infuriated many of the cast just as much. Cleese regularly ranted at Gilliam for treating the cast more like pieces of paper in animations than actual human beings, and even Michael Palin, AKA the nicest man in the world, reached his limit during the shoot. He was playing a ‘mud-eater’ in the background of a shot, and gamely crawled through the “filthy, stinking, pig-shitty mud” until he was asked to do an eighth take because he was visible in the shot.
Palin lost it. “‘What? You can see my back? What have you been doing all this time?’ And I went absolutely ape and threw myself in the air, landed in the mud and just wiggled my legs around, screamed and yelled for about five seconds. There was absolute silence and then John and Graham just led this spontaneous applause”. It’s fair to say that morale wasn’t at its highest during filming, but it was when the film first left the editing room that things got really bad…
“The first showing of Holy Grail was a total disaster” – Terry Jones
“People hated it. There were walk-outs” – Terry Gilliam
The initial reception was unanimously underwhelming, but the Pythons worked tirelessly to re-edit the film. According to Eric Idle, “there were thirteen screenings of The Holy Grail. We dragged it towards being funny” – and it paid off. Upon the film’s New York premiere, thousands of fans queued through the day to get in and suddenly, Monty Python had broken America.
Nearly 40 years on, the surviving Pythons take their final bow onstage, ending a legendary career that inspired countless comedy performers. Monty Python and the Holy Grail almost destroyed them with the burden of inexperience, alcoholism and constant mud, but against all the odds, it also earned them global success and a place in comedy history.
SOURCE: The very excellent The Pythons’ Autobiography by The Pythons by Bob McCabe