Archive for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Death of the Arthur: Guinevere Off Course

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2023 by dcairns


The retitling, to emphasise stabbing over kissing, is like the mirror version of THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD getting retitled ROBIN AND MARIAN.

I can never quite believe Camelot’s stonework in this one. It seems like a grooved impasto of paint rather than carved stone. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite compel belief, like Cornel Wilde’s out-raj-us accent. It’s really a shame he doesn’t seem to taunt anyone in this film, it would make the MONTY PYTHON connection come shimmering to life.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve judged the film too hastily and harshly — the big battle with the Viking raiders has a slight plot purpose — when Lancelot returns, he has his slain pal carried on his tabard. Seeing this from a distance, Guinevere thinks he’s dead, and Arthur notices her excessive grief. The plot has thickened. Good acting by Wallace and Aherne, a couple of fine thesps.

Ron Goodwin’s romance music is nice — though it doesn’t touch his key works, 633 SQUADRON’s rambunctious theme, and the Miss Marple theme from the Margaret Rutherford films. He also scored the ’73 GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, which is relevant to our purposes.

The very unchivalric adultery is the talk of the court — Lancelot is tempted to slip away back to Brittany, but Guinevere urges him to visit her bedchamber before he leaves…

Conversation about falconry: we learn that Modred’s adorable little feathered friend is called Griselda, which makes her seem like a witch’s familiar, which might well be the case. Some versions of the saga make Modred/Mordrid/Mordred the son of Morgan le Fey, who is usually a sorceress, so he’s not far removed from black magic. But this is a disappointingly magicless Camelot, in which Merlin’s expertise is limited to knowledge of soap.

Griselda is my favourite character, and she’s only been in one shot.

The sex scene — it’s 1963 so there’s implied nudity with both characters in bed and who knows if anyone’s got one foot on the floor? — confirms my suspicions about Cornel Wilde, as producer, having a hand in the infamous “cunnilingus scene” in THE BIG COMBO, where Richard Conte descends out of shot and Jean Wallace continues to react fervently to some unseen stimulus — because they do the same thing here! True, Wilde has some unmuffled dialogue from below frame, but what’s happening in the gaps between sentences? Wallace’s equally fervid performance provides a hint. The image is fuzzy, veiled by the bed’s translucent canopy, but the implication is pretty clear. Joseph H. Lewis’s claim to have slipped the suggestive scene past Wilde on his day off looks weaker — I love JHL but he wouldn’t be the first director to steal credit for an idea.

It’s not at all clear why Lancelot has chosen to visit his love wearing full-length chainmail. I can’t decide if this is more or less loopy than the full plate mail rogering scene in EXCALIBUR. At least Uther was on his way into battle, so there was a reason for having it on (but perhaps not while having it off).

Some spirited action as the lovers are apprehended post fragrante delicto — L escapes, G is caught.

A pyre is built to burn Guinevere, and this is all so like the turn the plot takes in CAMELOT that I’m wondering how much of this is TH White, but no, it seems to be part of fairly early myths, just stuff I wasn’t familiar with (and not covered by Boorman).

Camelot has a hunchbacked, cackling bellringer, just to make things feel sufficiently classical.

Arthur, it turns out, is responsible for a law which says adulteresses must be burned — he’d like to make an exception, but this would destroy his claim to be a just king. The trouble with this is one is disinclined to sympathise today with any king who would make such a law. One feels King Arthur is supposed to be an admirable figure but this movie undercuts him at every chance. His cuckoldry is muchly of his own making — he throws Lance and Gwen together, particularly by barring her from hunting, which leaves the poor girl with nothing to do except invite the oral attentions of a gleaming Frenchman.

Jean Wallace at the stake — her performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of her performance in the bedchamber, moaning and perspiring at something below the edge of frame. Toothless yokels in fright wigs watch the show, gloating: it’s not absolutely clear why Camelot is a good thing if it provides shelter to these abominations. Wilde’s camera lingers on a Wilfred Brambell type with sideshow enthusiasm.

Lancelot rides in and rescues his girlfriend — I think it’s a mistake of the script to have him kill a loyal knight in his previous escape, rather than here, where it will amp up the dramatic stakes, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the most effective moment. And the lack of swordfighting here makes the rescue seem rather easy.

Uncanny scene where Gawain rides up to a castle and taunts Lancelot. This is backwards — the Frenchman ought to do the taunting, we all know that.

Another good bit of direct cutting (influence of nouvelle vague, already felt in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) — Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, but we cut directly to the END of the battle, with Gawain defeated and at knifepoint. I’m always happy to take my hat off to a bold elision. Lancelot says he’s going to give Gawain a message for Arthur — and in another bold cut, this one more CITIZEN KANE than LAWRENCE, Wilde cuts to Gawain delivering the message, the framing putting him at just the angle we saw Lancelot at (different distance from camera though), so that he appears as Lancelot’s mouthpiece or surrogate. Neat.

Lancelot’s offer is to surrender himself for punishment, while Guinevere leaves the country. Instead, Arthur lets them all leave, except Guinevere, who is to return to him and not get burned, which is slightly unaccountable except as sheer vacillation.

Four shots: Lancelot looks down from the battlements at a glass painting of Arthur’s camp added to a real (but rear-projected) coastal landscape. Merlin escorts Guinevere through an impressive crowd scene with a glass-painting castle at the top. Then, after all that trouble, the close shot of M & G is an unconvincing rear-screen process shot, no doubt for some practical reason which couldn’t be helped on the day, but which really lets the sequence down. Guinevere’s POV, dollying towards her destiny, Arthur’s darkened tent — it feels like the forward POV dolly towards the execution posts in PATHS OF GLORY, and I bet that’s what Wilde had in mind.

An ellipse too far? Arthur is slain by Modred offscreen, which ought to have been a juicy scene (the film is quite long, admittedly, but CAMELOT would be much longer). In fact, everybody’s dead or dying — Merlin, Adrienne Corri, even Gawain’s one-lunging it after a sticky battle.

Without that shocking regicide, the final confrontation loses a lot of emotional power, I feel. It’s a large scale affair, though. Shot with long shadows on the ground — they must have been scared of losing the light — one of the shadows looks to be the camera crew, but suitably disguised with shrubbery and whatnot — there are no Wilhelm screams but one ludicrous squawk gets repeated several times in this film. Some mildly complicated strategy is attempted but not explained, so I wasn’t too clear on it. A horse steps on a dead man’s leg — I hope he was a dummy. Another helmet gets cloven open.

Editor Thom Noble repeats a shot of a fallen horse thrice — first almost subliminal, then longer, then still longer. I guess he’s going for a MARIENBAD effect but it doesn’t quite come off.

In the midst of this, or rather out of the midst, Lancelot manages to get Modred alone and they have a speedy (slightly undercranked) duel, ending with another ambitious gore effect — L chops right into M’s shoulder. Cue Wilhelm squawk again. To get the effect, poor Michael Meacham has to wear an absurd third shoulder, like an American football player’s padding, for his co-star and director to sink a sword into. OK, I admit I laughed.

It’s not clear what the political ramifications of this shoulder-chop will be, but Guinevere becomes a nun. When Jean W says “When first I was at the convent at Glastonbury” Fiona misheard it as “concert at Glastonbury.” So, there’s a parting forever scene. It’s not not moving. Well, all right, it is not moving. It seems perfunctory, and Lancelot falls in with the idea of his lover marrying Christ a bit too readily — the filmmakers don’t want to do a blasphemy. Again, ROBIN AND MARIAN is a more powerful treatment of this kind of thing because it has a director downright hostile to religion. But I’m always amazed by how much that film moves me, since the love story was entirely secondary in importance to its director. Maybe the focus being elsewhere allowed it to come out more strongly, or maybe it was the actors, who were not available to Cornel Wilde.

SWORD OF LANCELOT has enough invention for a film one-quarter its length, and it’s not all good invention, but some of it is. So I now consider Wilde a worthwhile subject for further examination.

The Death of the Arthur: Ever get the feeling you’ve been Galahad?

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , on January 28, 2023 by dcairns

You’ve been in a state of high tension, haven’t you, for DAYS, since we left Sir Galahad up to his fleshy neck in quicksand.

The trouble with quicksand as a cliffhanger is that, while the predicament is suspenseful, even frightening, the solution is generally laborious and unheroic — the hero has to be rescued by a sidekick, emerging mucky and clumping from the filth with a rueful expression. I’d like to see someone come up with a better solution than the friend with a stick, or rope, or vine. Maybe the hero could chuck a grenade a short distance away to BLAST himself loose? But this is hardly a suitable trope for Sir G, unless he has access to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

I have to admire the optimism of the music editor laying in suspense music as George Reeves is dragged from the mire. This is NOT exciting. By the time he’s basically sliding across shallow mud it’s not even dignified.

The mystery of WHO IS THE BLACK KNIGHT? develops slightly when his armour is found in a cave, and then there are some explosions. One of these reveals Excalibur embedded in the cave wall — the Sword in some Stone. The other reveals Merlin, teleporting in. He takes the sword and explodes off for parts unknown, leaving us all No Further Forward (which would make a perfect chapter title for any movie serial).

Back into the “enchanted forest” — which is just one enchanted tree, really. So naturally Sir Bors gets himself grabbed by it. To be fair, he was lured into clutching distance by a mirage of some food. Unlike Sir Galahad, Sir Bors manages to get free quite easily, and then has probably 1949’s only sword fight with a tree. Having an opponent who’s rooted to the earth should make the fight easier, in fact totally avoidable — just step out of range and taunt — but Sir Bors is more of a doughty plodder so he just stands his ground and hacks away at his wooden foe until it vanishes by jump cut.

Merlin’s regular explosions — “No more curried eggs for me” — and a shot that reveals him watching from a rocky outcrop — really are reminiscent of John Cleese’s Tim the enchanter — I wonder if one or other of the Python team saw this in their youth? Gilliam seems likeliest. The Python version is so dramatic it could just about pass muster in a serious flick, like EXCALIBUR.

New trap — Galahad and Bors find Excalibut again, stuck in a cliff face, and when they try to tug it out, they become magnetized or glued to it by Merlin’s spell. But nobody seems to have regarded this as good cliffhanging material — though our guys are literally hanging onto something stuck in a cliff, so Morgane le Fay dissolves into view to rescue them. She easily vanquishes Merlin, by saying “Begone!” He walks off sullenly, which is not quite the dramatic magical banishing I was expecting. I guess they were all out of pyrotechnics, or couldn’t use them near the dry Californian foliage.

Captured by outlaws, Galahad and Bors are left tied up, and then untie themselves, in the least exciting screen sequence ever recorded on celluloid.

The Black Knight’s delivery is pure Darth Vader, minus the asthmatic wheeze. I actually think less of James Earl Jones now that I’ve seen this, though to be fair, his dialogue always had to be timed to match Dave Prowse’s original on-set line readings, which, if you’ve seen his work as the Green Cross Code Man, you might expect to hamper any attempt at thespic dexterity.

Captured again, Galahad and Bors are tied to trees. Galahad manages to get one hand free. The outlaws, for all their camping skills, suck at tying knots.

“Modred” [sic] is a bad guy, that’s good to know. With a shifty Merlin, one wonders what other mythic outrages will be perpetrated. But I feel you can’t really do a whodunnit with a character called Modred in it. Also, he has a double-headed vulture on his doublet.

Pit and the pendulum style suspense! Well, pendulum, anyway. Instead of a whopping axed blade, we get a spiked iron ball, slowly swaying. I think it’d take a while to kill you, actually. In fact, I’m not even certain it WOULD kill you, if you’re wearing chain mail, which Galahad is. Still, as a cliffhanger, I’ll take it.

Once again, Bors comes to the rescue — and gets to say “Let’s hasten outta here!”

In the middle of a battle, my file of GALAHAD suddenly switches to some people in 1940s clothes sitting talking about secret weapons, evidently a scene from a different serial that’s gotten muddled in, and the most interesting thing that’s happened in more than three and a half hours:

Then GALAHAD starts up again. But now I have new hope — maybe there’ll be another surreal glitch? I can only pray for it. Anyone recognise these sofa people?

An obvious dummy falls off a cliff — always a favourite moment.

Bartog, the paunchy Robin Hood, gets gut-punched by Bors. Very satisfying moment. I’ve been staring at the unsightly way the guy’s belly hangs over his belt, and longing for someone to slug him there. Bors, who is much heavier is the perfect man to do it, so that it doesn’t seem fattist.

Some passable plotting: Bartog, a prisoner, refuses to reveal where the kidnapped Guinevere is held. Galahad disguises himself in the Black Knight’s armour to get the dope. Funny how, when this Arthurian romance isn’t behaving like a western, it’s basically an espionage drama. Cloak and dagger with actual cloaks and daggers.

Suddenly, Merlin is on Galahad’s side. For no reason. Galahad has to find the Lady of the Lake, who will give him Excalibur to give to Arthur. However, he will “face many perils” because she’s going to appear somewhere completely inaccessible. Because she’s a bitch.

The “many perils” prove to be some vines. See! George Reeves deliberately entangle himself in them! Like Jerry Lewis with a fire hose or Bela Lugosi with octopus tentacles. And then See! George Reeves maliciously thump the vines with his sword after he’s gotten free, like Basil Fawlty berating his stalled car with a branch. Chivalric peevishness of the highest order!

Happy ending! Bad guys defeated, Excalibur and Guinevere and Camelot returned to Arthur, who will clasp one, embrace another and live in the third. Work it out for yourselves. Merlin says “If my actions were strange, they were meant only to prove Modred a traitor and Galahad a true knight.” He had an interesting way of doing it, trying repeatedly to get G for George killed. I feel like it was probably unusual for serials to make absolutely no sense, so the makers of TAOSL are innovators in their own inept, feckless way.

Then, in order to end on a comical “they all laughed” original Star Trek type cheese-fest, Morgane makes Sir Bors explode and rematerialise hanging helplessly in the air, a dopey Harkonnen, while everyone mocks him. Bors, who has been Galahad’s only loyal friend throughout this strenuous four-hour ordeal. But he’s fat, so it has to be done.

Maybe I should have been watching The Adventures of Sir Lancelot instead? Or anything else at all? Lance was a 1956 UK TV show featuring such idols as Edward Judd and Derren Nesbitt. The list of directors, including Arthur Crabtree, Lawrence Huntington, George More O’Ferrall and Bernard Knowles, is a veritable Who’s That? of filmmaking talent.

The Death of the Arthur: Sleepy Time Galahad

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , on January 20, 2023 by dcairns

Well, Galahad’s ring of invisibility proves to be a bust. When he tries to use it, he’s under attack from this Black Knight character (who has all his limbs, unlike the helmeted torso of the same name in MONTY PYTHON), who is wielding the stolen sword Excalibur. We get a noise as of radio interference and the sword glows with an animated halo effect, like Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN-MADE MONSTER, and then Galahad quite simply falls over.

Elsewhere in this episode, Merlin paves the way for another Cleese character, Tim the Enchanter, by appearing and disappearing with the aid of explosions. It’s standard panto trickery, but the PYTHON scene retroactively makes it comical. The Pythons rendered quite a few things hard to take seriously, from Arthuriana to the Spanish Inquisition.

Galahad and Bors continue to get capture, escape, and get captured again. Bors is untiringly supportive of Galahad, and Galahad never misses a chance to fat-shame his chunky sidekick. It’s a vivid reminder of how obnoxiousness was the norm in the middle ages nineteen-forties.

The rewriting of Merlin as a baddie is an atrocity of course. It may be a result of postwar conservatism in the US, resulting in a suspicion of intellectuals and other wizards, bearded men generally. Or, it may be that this is all a trick, Merlin testing the young Galahad with a series of Herculean feats the young would-be knight and future Superman must perform.

Check out the stellar sound work in this exciting battle. They’ve got, I think, some genuine clashing swords FX produced on the day of filming by the stunties whacking at each other, and they’ve enhanced it I think with a library record of general purpose aggressive ironmongery. But at a certain point someone’s discovered they need more than just blade striking blade — these are knights in armour, after all (though it’s mostly chainmail). So they’ve got a bunch of pots and pans and are sort of randomly clattering them about, perhaps on a blanket they make a kind of hand-held trampoline out of. Once you notice it, you can’t unnotice it.

Here’s a GREAT bit of slapstick magic from later in the same Donnybrook:

If only the serial had more of this fine stuff.

As a cliffhanger goes, you can’t beat quicksand (well, you can’t beat hanging off an actual cliff, but if the scenery falls short of mountainous, quicksand is a decent fallback option). This might be oatmeal or something rather than quicksand proper, but is that really any more desirable if you’re wearing full armour?

One hour of this muck to go. I WILL finish it soon!