‘I’m not the Messiah!’Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV had been anarchic, intelligent, vulgar, brave and occasionally very, very funny. The Circus team were not always en pointe with the jokes and sketches they created, but, importantly, when they were good, they were blisteringly good, which is why a solid handful of phrases and sketches have become the kind of thing comedy geeks recite to each other as badges of recognition whenever they meet up. In a sense, without ever intending to, they created a clutch of comedy shibboleths, that would help redefine what future generations actually thought of as funny.
‘Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!’
‘What? Well what sort of a chance does that give me?! Alright then, I AM the Messiah!’
‘He is! He is the Messiah!’
‘Now, FUCK OFF!’
‘…How shall we fuck off, O Lord?’
When it came to their movies, the Pythons had more scripting discipline – the idea of a movie being about something, and using the characters’ journeys through that something to find other funny things, worked more consistently than the total freedom a sketch-show format afforded them.
After tackling the British obsession with history and its use to self-aggrandise in The Holy Grail, the Pythons struck controversial comedy gold with the story that famously began with the tagline ‘Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory.’
The point about The Life of Brian, as has been made ad nauseum, is that it’s not what people think it is. It’s not a parody of Jesus Christ’s reported life in the Gospels. Why that rarely matters is that it is a satire on exactly the kind of people most likely to miss the point and get upset about it. It’s a satire about people’s quest for something miraculous to lift their experience of life out of the ordinary, and how they’re frequently prepared to turn their backs on individuality and logic in a quest to maintain their convictions in a faithful direction. Why the Pythons were on a hiding to nowhere defending the film was because the argument ‘Your God’s all right, it’s you we’re laughing at’ is never likely to win you friends and influence people, mostly because, as Douglas Adams might have said, ‘largely, it’s not the gods themselves who have a problem with it.’
For those who’ve never seen The Life of Brian, the set-up is mind-bogglingly simple. Jesus wasn’t the only baby born that night in Bethlehem. In a stable just down the street, Brian Cohen took his first breaths. Growing to manhood as an unexceptional frustrated Jewish mama’s boy under Roman occupation, he craves the opportunity to make a difference (and also, pretty badly, to get laid by a female revolutionary named Judith), and joins a rebel band to fight the power. For massively contrived reasons including a quick trip around the solar system with aliens (don’t ask) – Brian finds himself addressing increasing crowds of people, all of whom are determined that he’s the fabled Messiah. His message of self-determination is mostly ignored as his followers freely and wildly interpret insignificances as miracles and schisms in the Doctrine of Brian quickly develop. However, he’s dragged off to crucifixion not for his rabble-rousing or because the crowd turn against him but because of his involvement with the People’s Front of Judea. Cue one of the oddest, most mordant endings to a movie in history, as a bunch of crucified men sing the now-famous Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.
While The Life of Brian is distinctly a satire on the illogicalities of thought and deed to which the quest for hope rooted in the miraculous can lead otherwise perfectly rational people, it does what most great comedies do, finding the funny in situations along the way that resonate with things outside the main theme. While they’re by no means confined to the Romans, it’s in these sub-thematic scenes that The Life Of Brian really makes good use of the warriors of Imperial Rome.
In many ways, the Romans are the rationalists of the movie, the ones who pass comment on the religious fervours of their conquered people. The first time the screen is devoted to the Romans, it’s to give a hopeless head shake and an eye roll after the crowd has stoned its own high priest to death for the crime of saying ‘Jehovah.’ The comedy of the scene is sublime, highlighting how inherently difficult it is to worship a god who demands you be stoned to death for saying his name, but the Roman reaction is the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ pay-off, the authorial ‘How mad are these people?’ nod to the audience, to make sure we get it.
Not that the Romans have it all their own way – that would not by particularly Python. Their commitment to a nice bit of ultra-violence is speared in the arena scene where, with arms and legs and miscellaneous body parts being picked up, the legend on screen tells us this has been the ‘Children’s Matinee.’ Perhaps the best Roman element in the movie though is John Cleese as everyone’s Latin teacher throughout history – catching Brain the would-be revolutionary daubing the slogan ‘Romans Go Home’ on the palace wall, rather than simply stabbing him to death, he takes him back to every viewer’s nightmare lesson, and the teacher who would demand you work out why and how you were so very wrong about everything you thought you knew, then set you impossible homework with dire consequences for failure. On one level, it’s a comment about how almost fanatically complicated a language Latin is or was, but on another, it connects everyone in the audience with their inner schoolchild, irrespective of their hell-lesson, and gives them a grotesque to laugh at after the fact, that point of connection with their childhood and the terror of evil teachers rendered therapeutic through the Roman centurion and his grammar-imperialism.
The same is true of the admittedly rather laboured gags at the expense of Pilate and his friend Bigus Dicus. While there’s a degree of semi-obvious and perhaps uncomfortable laughter at the fact of this pair’s speech impediments, what becomes clear is that the joke is actually on pompous authority figures. In a way, the laughter these two Romans generate is equivalent to picturing your boss naked while they try to discipline you. It’s their utter self-importance that’s pricked by an obvious impediment, leading us to laugh whenever we encounter such pomposity in the real world – a lesson the Pythons themselves were to need in the wake of religious condemnation of the film.
The Romans are used as commentators again when Matthias, the would-be stoning victim, dismisses crucifixion as not terribly serious – again, it’s Cleese’s centurion who, having failed to get a reaction to his descriptions of horrible death, can only remark ‘You’re weird,’ another touch of rationalism meeting religious fervour head on.
The movie pokes fun at all sorts of other targets – the committee structure, men’s determination to discuss ideas to death in meetings, the lengths to which men will go to get the object of their desire into bed, the insanity of dividing your strength over relatively unimportant doctrinal issues – “Splitters!” (an issue that may well still be of relevance in this year’s US election), and, yes, the absurdities to which having a deity-based concept of hope can lead rational people – ‘He is telling us to take off one shoe, and have the other be upon our foot!’ ‘No, no, he is telling us we must gather shoes together in abundance!’ ‘Forsake the shoes, follow the gourd!’ Does it make a mockery of the beliefs for which people have fought and died over a couple of millennia, and are still fighting and dying today? Only to the extent that such discord based on doctrinal difference is probably inherently ridiculous, and – like the pomposity of the leading Romans here – is well overdue for a solid pricking.
The Life of Brian is probably the most coherent of the Python movies. Like Holy Grail and Meaning of Life, it has its shibboleths, its scenes and lines that can be recited among devotees. But it also has quite simple, endearing messages and the added bonus of being more consistently funny than either of the other movies – and also more funny than much of the Pythons’ TV work.
The Romans in The Life Of Brian are everyone’s boss, everyone’s evil teacher, everyone’s over-friendly bureaucrat, so they give us plenty of targets to laugh at. But they’re also the movie’s rationalists, its focal points to allow us to throw religious fervour into its proper perspective.
Irreverent, funny, and still relevant – in fact, possibly more relevant today than when it was released, but hopefully by now less shocking to everyone except precisely the people it’s aimed at, The Life of Brian is Python at its satirical peak. Hallelujah, praise Brian, and watch it again today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk