When Life of Brian was released, I lived in Nottingham. The council in Nottingham had seen fit to ban the movie from their cinemas on the grounds of its supposed blasphemy, so I had to travel by bus to Loughborough to see the movie. Tensions rode high in the Mary Whitehouse camp. There was a TV “debate” in which Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark famously and pompously trashed the movie, eliciting a dignified response from Messrs Palin and Cleese, and which was equally famously lampooned by the Not The Nine O’Clock News team.
As a movie MPLOB is irreverent, crude and cheeky in equal measure, but what the po-faced worshippers failed to see was a movie primarily sending up mindless unthinking acceptance of religions, and indeed that there is very much about this subject that was worth sending up – and all but the most pious would see that it’s a screamingly funny movie, even 34 years on.
Perhaps the proves above all else that the religious take themselves way too seriously – by taking to the airwaves to denounce the movie merely proved its point about their own pomposity; by maintaining a dignified silence they would have have a far greater impact. The movie is right when Brian says his crowd of followers should go home and think for themselves rather than listening to what he says:
Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say. The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them! Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals! The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals! Brian: You’re all different! The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different! Man in crowd: I’m not… The Crowd: Shhh!
In essence, this, the third feature film in the Monty Python oeuvre, is, like the others, an extension of the sketch show format popularised in the innovative Flying Circus TV series (1969-74), linked by a common theme of the life of a character born at the the same moment as Jesus Christ and named, significantly for the Pythons, Brian.
Whatever your views on the subject matter, you always have the option to take at face value the Python team writing, which to my mind was operating at full power in this exquisitely funny movie. There are more memorable scenes and quotable lines in Life of Brian than almost any comparable movie. Just consider a few to see what I mean:
Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? Attendee: Brought peace? Reg: Oh, peace – shut up! Reg: There is not one of us who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans once and for all. Dissenter: Uh, well, one. Reg: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’s one. But otherwise, we’re solid. Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly! Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity. Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah! Followers: He is! He is the Messiah! Brian: Now, fuck off! [silence] Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord? Pontius Pilate: [Pilate is going to release a prisoner to the crowd] People of Jewusalum, [Everybody laughs at his speech impairment] Pontius Pilate: Wome… is your fwiend! [They laugh more] Pontius Pilate: To pwove our fwiendship, we will welease one of our wong-doers! Who shall I welease? Man in crowd: Welease Woger! [Everybody laughs, and begin to chant, “Welease Woger”] Pontius Pilate: Vewy well, I shall… Welease… Woger! [Everybody laughs] Centurion: Uh, we haven’t got a “Woger”, sir. Pontius Pilate: Oh, okay. We have no “Woger’! [They all laugh] Man in crowd: Well what about “Wodewick” then? [They laugh and chant “Welease Wodewick!”] Pontius Pilate: Vewy well! I shall welease… Wodewick! [the crowd laughs some more] Centurion: Sir, there’s no “Wodewick”. Pontius Pilate: Who is this “Wodewick” you speak of? Man in crowd: He’s a wobber! [they laugh] Man in crowd: And a wapist! [more laughter] Girl In Crowd: And a pick-pocket! [Everybody shakes their heads at her and say no] Pontius Pilate: He sounds a notowious cwiminal. Matthias: Look, I don’t think it should be a sin, just for saying “Jehovah”. [Everyone gasps] Jewish Official: You’re only making it worse for yourself! Matthias: Making it worse? How can it be worse? Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah! Jewish Official: I’m warning you! If you say “Jehovah” one more time (gets hit with rock) RIGHT! Who did that? Come on, who did it? Stoners: She did! She did! (suddenly speaking as men) He! He did! He! Jewish Official: Was it you? Stoner: Yes. Jewish Official: Right… Stoner: Well you did say “Jehovah. “ [Crowd throws rocks at the stoner] Jewish Official: STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW! STOP IT! All right, no one is to stone _anyone_ until I blow this whistle. Even… and I want to make this absolutely clear… even if they do say, “Jehovah. “ [Crowd stones the Jewish Official to death]
This is of course barely scratching the surface, and doesn’t even cover the crucifixion scene with Eric Idle singing the most renowned of Python songs, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – even the name of which brings a smile to the faces of 85+% of Brits. The scene has embedded itself deep in British culture, to the extent that I once got a Christmas present of a t-shirt with the name of the song.
Whatever the views of Muggeridge and the Bishops, this is a movie that tapped the mood and the funny bone of an entire nation, as few others have succeeded. Say “he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” to anyone 30+ and their face will light up in instant recognition. If this was a battle between established religion and the Pythons, the Pythons won hands down.
That takes rare creative skill and inspiration both in writing and performing, reminding us that the collaboration between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, the late Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam was a collective of some of the brightest comedy talents in a generation. But for the unfortunate Chapman, each went on to score great successes individually and in combinations.
While the six Pythons play multiple characters (as always), it is worth noting some of the excellent cameos by other comedy greats and personalities, such as Spike Milligan, Neil Innes, George Harrison (whose Handmade Films financed the picture), Chris Langham and Carol Cleveland (late of the MPFC TV show.)