Classic British Films #4: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)


Monty Python’s Life of Brain is a 1979 British comedy from the Monty Python team, about a young Jewish man, Brian, who is born on the same day and next door to Jesus. As he grows up, Brian is mistaken for the Messiah, and the film takes a comic look the life of Brian who is trying to live the life of an ordinary man whilst being hailed as the Messiah.

The Monty Python team consists of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gillian, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. The Pythons had their surreal comedy sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. Aswell as their TV show, they made four films. The Life of Brian, their third film, is now considered one of their greatest achievements as the Python team.

The idea for the film came from a joke; when promoting their film The Holy Grail in 1964, reporters would often ask what their next project would be, and Eric Idle jokingly said ‘Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory’, which the group then continued to use when asked the question. However, the Pythons began to eventually consider how they could write a film around such a theme and make it into a successful comedy. With this, one of the greatest comedies ever produced was born.

The Pythons decided not to parody Jesus Christ or his teachings directly, but instead decided to lampoon the society at the time, who are all looking for a leader to follow, and the hypocrisy of them following someone who doesn’t want to be a leader. Due to the themes of the film, the Pythons had some issues with getting funding for the film, and eventually were provided with finance from Beatle George Harrison, for the simple reason that he wanted to see the film. The film was shot in Tunisia, with Python members Terry Jones directing and Terry Gilliam as set designer. Jones and Gilliam had previously shared directing duties on The Holy Grail.

As the Pythons would play almost all of their characters, dressing up as different people and often as woman, The Life of Brian is no exception. Chapman is the only character in the film to play one role, that of Brian, and is excellent at doing so, mostly because Brian is the straight man among all the crazy characters and weird situations he becomes entangled in. Another very noticeable character in the film is that of Brian’s mother, played by Terry Jones. The character is now very well noted for the famous line ‘He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy!’ But all of the Pythons are excellent in their various roles in the film.

Not surprisingly, the film was very controversial on its release, and banned in several countries, including Ireland for eight years, Norway for one year and throughout several UK councils. Many screenings in the UK and US were also picketed by Christian groups. It is famously said that the Python team all had to write out their will before attending a US screening for fear that they may be assassinated! Despite the controversy, The Life of Brian is now most defiantly a Classic British film, and on its release in 1979, it became the highest grossing British film in the US released that year, and the fourth highest grossing British film to be released in the UK in 1979.

John Cleese and Michael Palin took part in a TV debate shortly after the film’s release, with satirist and Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge, and the Bishop of Southwark, Arthur Stockwood. The TV debate became very famous for showing all four men trying to keep their cool whilst debating both sides of the argument, and the Bishop ending the debate on “Well you’ll get your 30 pieces of silver, I am quite sure.” Ouch.

The legacy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian is now defiantly established, and the famous Python song Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, which appears at the very end of the film, is now a legendary song in its own right. Despite all of the controversy surrounding it, The Life of Brian is still a very funny film. It is clearly pointed out that the film is not a depiction of Christ, and instead is a religious and political satire shown through the unique and surreal humour that the Python team are famous for.

Sadly, Graham Chapman will be the Python missing from their forthcoming UK tour owing to his premature death in 1989 at the age of 48. However, to see all of the Pythons in their glory, and this brilliant performance by Graham Chapman, you need not look any further than The Life of Brian.

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About writingsuzanne

History graduate. Freelance writer and reviewer. Passionate about film, theatre and music (film soundtracks!).
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