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Monty Python's Life of Brian

An Irreverent Satire of Bibilical Epics, Python Style

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Life of Brian - Immaculate Edition

Life of Brian DVD

Handmade Films
Written, directed and played by the Monty Pythons at the top of their game, The Life of Brian is an exuberant, in-your-face sendup of religious and political pomposity. The 1979 movie is so politically incorrect it probably would not, or even could not, be made today. More's the pity.

It's rude, crude and utterly hilarious, unmistakably British in its comic sensibility. While I personally prefer the Python philosophy in The Meaning of Life, many see Life of Brian as the Pythons' cinematic masterpiece. The Pythons themselves call it as a "timeless epic that's only 93 minutes long." Good enough.

The Plot

Saying that a Python movie has a plot is stretching things a bit. The basic concept is this: Seems that not far from a certain stable in Bethlehem, another baby was born that same miraculous night. Not Jesus of Nazareth, but Brian. Brian of Nazareth. Who, it turns out, is not miraculous at all, and not even terribly bright.

The life of Brian (Graham Chapman) brings him into contact with the actual Messiah at the Sermon on the Mount, but so far back that the crowd is struggling to hear. "Blessed are the cheese makers?" "The Greek shall inherit the earth?" Brian and his mother give up and attend a nice stoning instead.

Young Brian, for love of the maiden Judith, falls in with a group of talky terrorists. He's sent to paint "Romans go home!" on the walls of Pilate's palace, gets captured in a botched kidnapping scheme, escapes and is somehow mistaken for the Messiah, and - spoiler alert - winds up with a whole bunch of folks in the big crucifixion scene at the end, complete with a sunny music-hall tune and a nailed-to-your-crosses dance number. Really.

Obviously, the plot is not the point. Life of Brian is actually nicely researched film that chronicles a dirty, miserable, oppressive time when people were ready to worship a shoe if they thought it would get them a better deal in the afterlife. It sends up the ponderous Biblical epics of the 1950s and '60s, along with the whole of Judeo-Christian history. It will make you laugh out loud and possibly take up Buddhism.

The Cast of 'Life of Brian'

Chapman plays Brian with an earnest innocence that makes the whole thing work. Terry Jones, as Brian's annoying and definitely un-virginal mother, also directed, and all the Pythons played multiple roles alongside a sturdy band of character actors they brought to Tunisia for the shoot.

Michael Palin is brilliant as a cured leper who's upset that he's lost his living as a beggar; as a kind-hearted Roman guard guiding people to their crucifixions like a solicitous flight attendant; and even better as Pontius Pilate with a speech defect, ordering that a prisoner be spared to please the crowd. "Welease Woderwick!" (No, he didn't even try to say "Barabbas.") Chapman gets a second role as Pilate's lisping Roman friend, Biggus Dickus.

John Cleese is stupendously funny as bureaucratic terrorist Reg, doggedly following Robert's Rules of Order, and as the bullying Centurion who corrects the Latin grammar in Brian's palace-wall graffiti. Eric Idle plays his usual array of smart-alecks and gets the big song at the end (which he wrote). However, one of Idle's characters, a Hitler-esque suicide squad leader, was cut from the film (see "backstory" below).

Terry Gilliam, the troupe's only American-born member and the source of its bizarrely entertaining animation, does a funny turn as a deaf jailer. Also the art director, he created the spectacular look of the film and its evocation of a crowded little desert town in a backwater of the Roman Empire, 33 A.D.

The Backstory

In a series of interviews in a 2007 DVD release ("the Immaculate Edition"), the Pythons discuss the controversy they knew the film would bring. Yet even they were shocked when, just as filming was about to start, British production company EMI yanked the funding. (The CEO finally read the script.)

Idle and producer John Goldstone went to the United States to try and find replacement funding, but the controversy spooked all the usual players. Finally, Idle went to his friend George Harrison (yes, that George Harrison), who agreed to fund the film.

It's hard to think of any Beatle having financial worries, but in a clip from the DVD extras, Harrison says he mortgaged his Hollywood house and his office to come up with the princely sum of $4 million. The resulting new production company, Handmade Films, went on to do several successful movies after Life of Brian.

The film opened first in the U.S., where controversy and protests only increased demand. Some states actually banned it, fanning the flames. Similar protests in Britain failed to sway the U. K. censors, who passed it uncut and deemed it appropriate for anyone aged 14 and up.

It was the Pythons themselves who made the creative decision to cut the Hitler-like character, who was arguing with Brian for racial purity among the Jews, and whose helmet bore Gilliam's squirm-inducing design of a yellow Star of David twisted into something like a swastika. Good call, guys.

'Life of Brian' - the Bottom Line

Monty Python's Life of Brian is side-splitting, original and thought-provoking. It's an excellent reminder that when it comes to religion and politics, people should think for themselves.

Recommended for You:

If you liked Life of Brian, you may like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Shot in the Dark, Blazing Saddles, or Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.

'Life of Brian' at a Glance:

Year: 1979, Color Director: Terry Jones Running Time: 93 minutes
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