Jarv’s Birthday Series: Life of Brian (1979)
Happy fucking Birthday to me. Yup, it’s day two in the Birthday Series, and this time it’s an unquestionable four out of four film and a masterpiece by any reasonable standard. Because of this, this will be by far the most difficult review that I’ve ever written. There is literally nothing of any interest to say about this film that hasn’t always been covered at great length by much worthier scribes than me. Nevertheless, it’s my fucking birthday and so I’m going to give it a shot.
The Life of Brian was Monty Python’s second film, after the magnificent Holy Grail. Which, now I think about it, has been completely and utterly ruined by geeks quoting it verbatim ad infinitum, and more appropriately, ad nauseam. As good as that film is, it isn’t a patch on Life of Brian. For the first film Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones shared the directing duties, and the experience was horrendous, so for Life of Brian, Terry Jones helmed it himself. The Pythons all played multiple parts and were supplemented by a plethora of other actors including Sue Jones-Davies as Judith. The story is a gleeful take on organised religion, and the film caused a massive furore on release. Britain, being the conservative (read: backward) country that it is completely missed the point of the film. The Pythons were accused of blasphemy, several councils banned the film, and it culminated in a skin-crawling public debate between Cleese and Palin defending the film and a Priest and Malcolm Muggeridge attacking it. If you ever see this debate, it’s humiliating for all concerned. Palin (legendarily one of the nicest men on television) completely loses his rag at Muggeridge (who hadn’t seen the film), and no-one comes out well from it.
The point is, the critics of Brian were completely in the wrong. By condemning the film en masse sight unseen they were actually proving the point: followers of organised religion are portrayed as sheep, and the film is an appeal for independent thought that they were totally and utterly incapable of. Brian even exclaims at one point that they don’t need to follow him, they’re individuals. If the great and the good that lined up to condemn it had actually seen the movie, then I find it extremely hard to believe that they would have cried sacrilege. Life of Brian, actually, specifically isn’t blasphemous: it clearly and noticeably isn’t about Jesus. Jesus does feature in it, briefly, and I suppose you could say Life of Brian is analogous to his life, but this is a long way from blasphemy.
I’ve specifically said that Life of Brian isn’t about Jesus, so what is it about? For the few people in the universe that haven’t seen it, this is the plot: Three not so wise men mistake Brian’s birth for that of Jesus (they realise the mistake fairly quickly). As an adult, Brian is a frustrated and lonely man. He falls in with a group of Israeli revolutionaries called The People’s Front of Judea and through a series of bizarre events gets mistaken for the messiah. His followers multiply in numbers, until he’s got a crowd of literally thousands following him and asking for his teachings. Eventually events reach a crescendo and Brian is crucified. This is deliberately a vague and brief plot synopsis as there is much more to the film than a mere distillation of the plot.
The joy of this film is in the individual scenes and performances. There are so many cracking jokes in this film that I don’t really know where to begin and for the most part are all incredibly famous. I don’t really need to waffle on about the sheer genius of Cleese’s grammar obsessed Roman Centurion, the Stoning sequence at the start, or the sheer hilarity of the “Biggus Dickus” scene and Palin’s Pilate with a speech impediment. I could quote “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” or “what have the Romans ever done for us”, but these scenes are all famous and for very good reason: they’re all absolutely hilarious and feature pitch-perfect performances.
This is a phenomenally clever film, it’s a comedy with a message and genuinely one of the greatest films ever produced by the UK. The Pythons are begging people to be independent; to show the higher functions that we’re capable of as a species and from the very first frame to the very last the film is about the idiocy of those that follow without thought, whether religious, political or moral. This is a film that absolutely stands the test of time, that blends anarchic comedy with savage satire and as a result it’s a film that I watch every time it’s on and find something new to appreciate in it.
Monty Python were famous for an anarchic and surreal type of comedy. The four series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features many absolutely stupendous sketches (I’ve always been partial to the Spanish Inquisition and The Dead Parrot) mixed amongst others that aren’t quite as successful. However, having to work within the discipline of a film with a narrative really bought the best out of them. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a strong element of absurd surrealism (see the Alien rescue during Brian’s escape or the Judean People’s Front crack suicide squad, for examples), but the constraints of the plot actually focus them and allow them to express themselves without losing the spirit of the series that made them famous.
Overall, this is a wonderful film, and it is rightly regarded as a classic. The Pythons would carry on for a while, notably with The Meaning of Life, but they never hit these heights again. Individually they all went on to other things, apart from Chapman who died of a horrible cancer/ stroke combination in the late 80’s. Watching this film again for this series made me wonder what could have been if they’d managed to stay together for a bit longer, or been a bit more prolific. I can’t recommend this film enough, I almost consider it to be essential viewing, and the central message of the film is as true now as it was then. As a result, I give it a maximum 4 Buddy Jesuses in front of Cavalry Hill out of 4 and I am genuinely looking forward to my next viewing.
Next up is the first absolute stinker on this list 1980’s execrable Xanadu, the film that was so shit that it gave rise to the Razzies, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to writing it up. They do say that it is better to have loved and lost than to listen to an Olivia Newton-John album, but that’s because everything is better than listening to her sing.
Until next time,
The full list in this series:
- 1978 – The Driver (3 out of 4)
- 1979 – Life of Brian
- 1980 –Xanadu
- 1981 – An American Werewolf in London
- 1982 – Class of 1984
- 1983 – Fire and Ice
- 1984 – Cal
- 1985 – Teen Wolf
- 1986 –Reform School Girls
- 1987 – Dirty Dancing
- 1988 – Married to the Mob
- 1989 – Millennium
- 1990 – Darkman
- 1991 – Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
- 1992 – Christopher Columbus: The Discovery(TBC)
- 1993 – Hard Target
- 1994 – Natural Born Killers
- 1995 – Desperado
- 1996 – Freeway
- 1997 – Mimic
- 1998 – Blade
- 1999 – Teaching Mrs. Tingle
- 2000 – Bring it On
- 2001 – Heartbreakers
- 2002 – Simone
- 2003 – My Boss’s Daughter
- 2004 – Exorcist: The beginning
- 2005 – The Cave
- 2006 – Invincible
- 2007 – War
- 2008 – Death Race
- 2009 – Der Baader Meinhof Komplex
- 2010 – Piranha 3D
- 2011- Conan the Barbarian