As strange as it may seem, the classic comedy looked like a shaky bet to investors at the time. Monty Python turned to rock gods to finish the movie.
As one of the greatest comedy acts of all time, Monty Python contributed a handful of evergreen feature-length movies to complement the BBC series where their legacy was minted. It’s hard to imagine a world without Monty Python and the Holy Grail or any of their subsequent films, whose jokes have practically become common parlance. And yet despite its self-apparent greatness, it took something amazing to end up onscreen.
For all their success, the Pythons had a hard time convincing the powers-that-be to fund The Holy Grail. Its odd premise and their background as subversive sketch comedians meant an uphill climb when it came to securing the money to make the movie. Thankfully, they had an alternative that few others could rely on. When the going got tough, they called in rock stars.
The Holy Grail was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Monty Python’s Flying Circus which ran from 1969-1974. Their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was essentially a “best of” collection from the show, but this was different: a more or less coherent narrative sending up the story of King Arthur the in troupe’s typical absurdist style. While the show was staggeringly popular, transitioning to film seemed like a gamble.
The Pythons were truly an ensemble, for starters, which meant that there was no one “star” to claim the spotlight. Furthermore, their sketch comedy format lacked an easy hook for a movie. Recurring characters on their show were rare and limited to generic interchangeable figures like the Gumbys and the Pepper Pots. Contrast that with Saturday Night Live‘s movie endeavors, such as Wayne’s World or The Blues Brothers, which always focused on specific performers and characters rather than the whole group.
To top it all off, none of the Pythons had directed a movie before. While the two tasked with the job — Terry Gilliam and the late Terry Jones — both went on to become directors of note in their own right, Gilliam stated on the movie’s DVD commentary that they both learned by doing on The Holy Grail. All of which was enough to make traditional investors think twice.
Luckily, they had connections to help. The troupe had released a successful series of LP records on three different labels, which not only provided investment money themselves but opened doors to some of their other acts. As Python member Eric Idle explained in a 2021 piece for Rolling Stone, that included the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull’s frontman Ian Anderson: all of whom put up their own personal money for the endeavor. Surprisingly, it didn’t include ex-Beatle George Harrison, who famously backed their subsequent effort Monty Python’s Life of Brian and eventually helped them found HandMade Films.
Regardless, it was apparently a very touch-and-go process. In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Gilliam compared the troupe at the time to the protagonists in The Producers: desperately convincing their rich investors that they were a sure bet when they were anything but. And there were still budget cuts, though that sometimes led to bolts of comedic lightning such as banging coconut shells together instead of having horses. But besides having the funds to invest, rock musicians likely also possessed the sensibilities to see what the Pythons wanted to do better than more conservative investors would. Regardless, it let them make the movie, and the world is a little bit funnier because of it.
A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, Mania.com and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky numbers are 4, 9, 14, 16, 36, and 40.