Ni! Ni! Ni! In honor of the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s quest for the Holy Grail, here are a few facts you may not have known about the legendary comedy.
1. THE NAME “MONTY PYTHON” DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING.
The name of the highly influential comedy troupe made up of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin was made up by the group when they were commissioned to make their BBC comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Numerous non-sequitur names were considered before that, including “Owl Stretching Time,” “The Toad Elevating Moment,” “A Horse, a Spoon, and a Basin,” and “Bumwacket, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot.” “Flying Circus” only stuck because the BBC informed the group they had printed their programming schedules with the name already and it couldn’t be changed. When they wanted a name to go before that, John Cleese suggested something slithery like “Python,” while Eric Idle came up with the name “Monty” to suggest a sort of drunken British stereotype.
2. THE OPENING CREDITS WERE MEANT TO SPOOF INGMAR BERGMAN’S FILMS.
The group ran out of money for an opening title sequence, and could only afford simple white text title cards over black backgrounds. Wanting to take advantage of the space without having to pay any money, Palin suggested adding the joke of increasingly absurd fake Swedish subtitles about a moose over stoic music as a way to send up the snooty foreign films they loved.
3. THERE ARE MULTIPLE DIRECTORS.
According to the credits, the movie is directed by 40 Specially Trained Ecuadorian Mountain Llamas, 6 Venezuelan Red Llamas, 142 Mexican Whooping Llamas, 14 North Chilean Guanacos (Closely Related to the Llama), Reg Llama of Brixton, 76000 Battery Llamas From “Llama-Fresh” Farms Ltd. Near Paraguay, and Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones.
It marked the first time Gilliam and Jones directed a feature film, and the pair were given directing duties simply because they were the only ones out of the group who wanted to direct after the group decided not to hire their Flying Circus and And Now for Something Completely Different director, Ian MacNaughton. Gilliam in particular has gone on to have a highly successful career directing films like Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO TAKE PLACE IN MEDIEVAL AND MODERN TIMES.
The film technically takes place in 932 A.D. but features modern characters anachronistically intruding on the hilarity. In the group’s original story idea there was going to be a more distinct setting with Arthur searching for the Holy Grail in both medieval and modern London, and in the end he and the Knights of the Round Table were to have found the Grail at a “Holy Grail Counter” at Harrod’s department store.
Gilliam and Jones suggested keeping the movie in the Middle Ages because Jones was interested in the time period (he would go on to write several books on the subject) and Gilliam was inspired by a trilogy of movies by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini that took place in medieval times.
5. THE COCONUT JOKE CAME OUT OF NECESSITY.
The running joke of the knights riding around on invisible horses with the sound of the horses’ hooves clopping coming from their squires’ clapping coconuts together came from the fact that the group didn’t have enough money in the budget to afford actual horses. The group came up with the coconut idea from an old BBC radio practice of using coconut halves as sound effects for horses.
6. ALL OF THE CASTLE INTERIORS ARE ACTUALLY ONE CASTLE.
During pre-production, Gilliam and Jones had scouted and secured a series of authentic medieval shooting locations throughout Scotland. But two weeks before production began the filmmakers found out that the National Trust had banned the comedy troupe from shooting in any national historical sites because, according to Gilliam, “we wouldn't respect ‘the dignity of the fabric of the building,’ where the most horrible tortures, disemboweling had gone on!”
Forced to scramble to find a place to shoot the movie, the two Terrys secured two privately owned castles to shoot all of castle interiors and most of the exteriors. Castle Aaargh is actually Castle Stalker, which is located on the west coast of Scotland. The rest of the castles are actually Doune Castle (located about 30 miles north of Glasgow) shot from different angles.
Funny enough, just as the character of Patsy says, Camelot is only a model. It was a 12-foot high cutout of a castle, and Gilliam and Jones used forced perspective as a quick cheat during wide-angle shots to make it seem like an actual location.
7. THEY HAD A ROUGH FIRST DAY OF SHOOTING.
Gilliam and Jones, the two rookie directors, had a rude awakening when they showed up to work on the movie. On the first take of the first shot during the very first day of filming in Glen Coe, Scotland for the Bridge of Death sequence over the Gorge of Eternal Peril, their camera broke. It was the only camera the production could afford. When they managed to get the camera working again, the sync sound wouldn’t work, so they could only shoot non-dialogue close-ups until they got the camera fixed.
8. THE BOOK OF THE FILM IS A FAMILY AFFAIR.
The insert shots of the Book of the Film were shot on Gilliam’s living room floor. The fingers turning the pages belong to Gilliam’s wife, Maggie Weston, a makeup artist who worked on Flying Circus and would go on to work on some of her husband’s films like Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (for which she earned an Oscar nomination in 1990).
Gilliam himself was the gorilla hand, which he bought at a local London joke shop. Sir Not Appearing in This Film is a baby photo of Michael Palin’s son, Thomas.
9. THE BLACK KNIGHT SEQUENCE CAME FROM AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STORY TOLD TO JOHN CLEESE.
Cleese was inspired to write the Black Knight scene from an elementary school story he remembered about two Roman wrestlers. During an extremely intense and scrappy match, one wrestler finally tapped out only to discover that his opponent had died during the struggle, meaning he had posthumously won the match.
The moral of the story was that if you don’t give up you couldn’t possibly lose, which was an idea Cleese hated, so he lampooned the quasi-sadistic tale in the movie with supposedly noble knights.
10. PINK FLOYD, LED ZEPPELIN, AND GENESIS INVESTED IN THE FILM.
The film’s initial budget of approximately £200,000 was raised by convincing 10 separate investors to pitch in £20,000 apiece. Three of those investors were the rock bands Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis, who were persuaded to help the Monty Python group after Tony Stratton-Smith, head of Charisma Records—the record label that released Monty Python’s early comedy albums—asked them to contribute.
11. THE FRENCH SOLDIERS WERE BASED ON REAL HISTORY.
Cleese had the idea for the taunting French soldiers after something he read in a history book about medieval troops whose sole purpose was to taunt opposing enemies before battle. He combined that with the Roman practice of catapulting dead or rotting animals into castles to draw enemies out as well as the practice of dropping feces on enemies who attempted to storm castles.
12. THE EXTRAS IN THE MOVIE WERE EITHER STUDENTS OR TOURISTS.
To get extras for the wedding scene between Prince Herbert and his bride, the producers simply asked tourists visiting Doune Castle if they’d like to appear in a movie. Anybody who agreed was given basic medieval clothes and told to join in the insanity.
Arthur’s army at the end of the movie was made up entirely of 175 students (shot from various angles to make it seem as if there was double that number) from Scotland’s University of Stirling. According to a casting call sent to the school by the production, each student was paid £2, and got free transportation, food, and “an abundance of crazy antics” for a single day’s work.
13. IT HAD A UNIQUE PREMIERE SCREENING AT THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL.
Someone called in a bomb threat to the theater playing Monty Python and the Holy Grail during its premiere at Cannes, which forced festival workers to evacuate the theater just after the opening credits. People were expecting hijinks from the Pythons, and some audience members even reportedly thought the evacuation was part of the movie.
14. MICHAEL PALIN PLAYS THE MOST ROLES, WHILE GRAHAM CHAPMAN PLAYS THE LEAST.
The Pythons originally wanted to play every role in the movie until they realized that wasn’t feasible. Still, every member of the group plays multiple roles, with Palin playing a grand total of 12 different characters: Sir Galahad, the soldier who argues about swallows in the opening scene; Dennis the repressed peasant; a mud villager; a singing Camelot knight; the right head of the Three-Headed Knight; the King of the Swamp Castle; a wedding guest at Swamp Castle; Brother Maynard’s assistant; the main Knight who says “Ni”; a French taunting knight; and the narrator.
Graham Chapman has the fewest number of characters, appearing as four different people: King Arthur, the voice of God, the hiccupping guard, and the middle head of the Three-Headed Knight.
15. THE IDEA FOR THEIR NEXT MOVIE CAME FROM HOLY GRAIL’S PROMOTIONAL TOUR.
According to the Pythons, the one question that was asked the most on the promo tour for Monty Python and the Holy Grail was what their next movie would be. When asked the question while screening Holy Grail in Paris, Eric Idle jokingly answered by saying, “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.”
The other Pythons ended up actually liking the idea, and they eventually made their next movie in 1979 called Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which was about a man named Brian who is mistaken for the Messiah because he was born on the same day in the manger next door to Jesus Christ.
Blu-ray special features
The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons