Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on the BBC way back in 1969. To call it “ground-breaking” is an understatement. The absurdist humor, strange bits of animation, ridiculous situations, and straight-faced delivery all added up to some of the most influential comedy ever. What is amazing to me is that even 40-some years later, the Python show still feels fresh and new. There has never been, and probably never will be anything quite like them.
While doing promotion for their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), which satirized the legend of King Arthur, an annoyed Eric Idle responded to a question about what their follow-up was to be by blurting out the title “Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory.“ It was meant to shut the reporters up, but ended up becoming Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The blistering response it was met with provides the subject matter of Holy Flying Circus (2011).
Writer Tony Roche and director Owen Harris tell the story of the controversy surrounding Life of Brian in the most “Pythonesque” manner imaginable. Technically, the movie is a “docudrama,” but that term is completely inadequate for what has been accomplished here. The closest thing I can compare Holy Flying Circus to is Eric Idle’s send-up of The Beatles (in the guise of The Rutles), All You Need is Cash (1978). But even a comparison to that great solo-Python effort falls short of the mark.
For those who are unfamiliar with Life of Brian, it is basically a spoof of Christianity. It tells the story of Brian, who was born in the stable next to Jesus. The film certainly pokes fun at various aspects of the religion, but is definitely not blasphemous. Although there are plenty of jokes in it, this movie is not anti-Christian by any means. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are violently opposed to anything resembling humor about their god.
I am sure that the members of Python knew that they would ruffle some feathers with Life of Brian. But I don’t think that anyone could have expected the fury it ignited. If Holy Flying Circus just recreated those bizarre events, it would be a great picture. But by presenting the whole scenario in a manner worthy of the Pythons themselves, the movie achieves its own brilliance.
There are so many specific references to the Monty Python brand of comedy that I hardly know where to begin. So many of their trademark bits are reproduced that one could easily just lose the plot and feel like they were watching a long-lost episode for the first time. Some examples include references to the iconic cartoon work of Terry Gilliam, plenty of cross-dressing sequences, surreal flashbacks, and just about everything else that made the show so great.
The finale of Holy Flying Circus is the appearance of John Cleese and Michael Palin on the British TV show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. They were set up in a “debate” against the moralizing media figure Malcolm Muggeridge, and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Cleese and Palin were effectively shouted down by these two bullys, who reveal themselves to be horrible people in the process. The whole situation was so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that it really happened. But it did, and Holy Flying Circus does a fantastic job of recreating it.
Acorn Media has just released Holy Flying Circus in the United States, in a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. Extras include a “making of” segment, deleted scenes, outtakes, and production stills. All of this is intriguing, and the 20-minutes of various outtakes are often hilarious. For Monty Python fans, the film itself is a must. I have never seen anything that captures the spirit of those comedy legends quite the way Holy Flying Circus does.