It was the simple story of a very naughty boy who gets mistaken for the Messiah. Somewhere along the line Monty Python's magnum opus was mistaken for a blasphemous parody of the Gospels. Hmmm, wonder why...
The Monty Python team was facing something of a crossroads in 1977. No longer a television outfit, they had to decide whether to work exclusively as a stage act or to try and build on the unexpected success of their second movie, Monty Python And The Holy Grail. On a weekend trip to Paris, they decided that their immediate feature lay in film. Having successfully taken the rise out of Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, they turned their attentions to the most famous written work in history: The Bible.
Life Of Brian began with a throwaway suggestion by Eric Idle that they should make a biopic of Jesus Christ – but the subsequent arguments about the script and the subject matter were just a prelude to the major financial, bureaucratic and theocratic problems that dogged the film’s production and release. The picture almost stalled at the pre-production stage when executive producer Bernard Delfont withdrew his support. A last-minute rescue by George Harrison’s HandMade Films freed the Pythons to prepare for the rigours of a lengthy shoot in Tunisia.
But it was when Life Of Brian reached the cinemas in 1979 that the real difficulties began. During its opening week in America the film was savaged by Jewish organisations, Muslims and every conceivable Christian group. In Britain it was denounced by clergymen and self-appointed moral crusaders such as Mary Whitehouse and Malcolm Muggeridge. Local authorities followed Swansea Council’s example and promptly banned screenings. Worldwide, Life Of Brian faced a level of hostility that wouldn’t be witnessed again until the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ.
Amid the furore, few people were prepared to acknowledge that Life Of Brian was not a blasphemous monstrosity. It tells the story not of Christ but of Brian Cohen, a coliseum usher whose attempts to free Judea from Roman rule lead to his being mistaken for the son of God. While Christ does appear at the start of the film (played by Performance star Kenneth Colley), his presence is tangential – the absurdities of organised religion are the film’s real target. As Eric Idle said at the time, “We have no quarrel with Mr Christ.”
Although it’s perhaps better seen as a series of sketches than a coherent narrative, Life Of Brian provides more brilliant moments and more laughs per minute than any film this side of This Is Spinal Tap. But more pertinently, the film is funniest when it is at its most biting. The sequence in which Brian’s newfound followers debate the significance of his lost sandal and discarded gourd is not only superbly written but also, as John Cleese remarked, allows you to witness “the entire history of religion in two and a half minutes.”
With its inspired mixture of sophisticated comedy (the Latin lesson) and low humour (Biggus Dickus), Life Of Brian regularly appears alongside Annie Hall and Duck Soup on critics’ list of classic comedies. And all these years after its original release, the religious fervour that greeted the film’s opening has slowly waned. Even the normally straitlaced Swansea Council eventually saw the funny side. In 1998.
Graham Chapman (actor/co-writer): After the success of Holy Grail we all went to Paris for a day and chatted about what the next movie would be about. We thought perhaps the knights could find the grail and we could take it from there. Then Eric came up with a monstrous suggestion.
Eric Idle (actor/co-writer/songwriter): I said, “Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory!” In fact, when we came to consider writing the script, it changed completely. We all reread the Gospels and realised we had no quarrel with Mr Christ.
Terry Jones (actor/co-writer/director): My feelings toward Christ are that he was a bloody good bloke, even though he wasn’t as funny as Margaret Thatcher.
Graham Chapman: The reason we wanted to write the movie was because we felt that churches had rather missed the central point of Christ’s arguments, which were that people should love one another. Instead they got diverted into joining little clubs, wearing different clothes and thinking of themselves as being “rather special”. We felt that this wasn’t very Christian at all.
Terry Jones: The first concerted writing session was in December 1976, and by the late summer of 1977, a first draft of immense and complex proportions had been assembled. Much of this material had to be dropped or else the movie would have lasted three and a half days.
Graham Chapman: A slimmed down two-and-a-half- hour version was put together in a concentrated two-week writing and water-skiing period in Barbados in January 1978.
Kim ‘Howard’ Johnson (Python biographer): The group decided to go off together on a working holiday in the Caribbean to finalise the script and the concepts.
Terry Jones : I unpacked and turned my transistor on for my first glimpse of Bajan culture to catch Forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn powerfully outlining the details of a rather personal emotional crisis.
Graham Chapman: Eric always wanted to be a pop star. It was his friendship with Mick Jagger that led to Mick showing up in the Caribbean while we were writing Brian.
Terry Jones: Keith Moon arrived and played Scrabble with Mike, John and Graham. Graham invited Des O’Connor and his family for dinner. It was really like an elderly gentlemen’s club.
Graham Chapman: It was an extraordinary evening in that we were in this lovely house and we finished up with nothing better to do than play charades. It was particularly memorable because Mick was given as his subject the blaxploitation movie Shaft In Africa. His portrayal of that movie was really quite graphic.
Michael Palin (actor/co-writer): The Caribbean was the first time that all the Pythons had been together for such a prolonged period in years.
Terry Jones: We all assembled in a room where Churchill and Anthony Eden sat and talked about whatever it is politicians discuss. We got down to writing and tore the script apart. It was very encouraging how freely everyone approached it.
Michael Palin: Ideas got thrashed out and worked through very fully and the script was much tighter as a result. The only snag with this extremely pleasant way of writing films is that unless you write everything as it happens it all merges into one continuum of swimming, work and eating.
Lord Bernard Delfont and EMI got cold feet for some reason – partly money, partly taste. I think mostly taste
Graham Chapman: Our initial thought was something along the lines of The Gospel According To Saint Brian and Brian was going to be the 13th apostle who was always late turning up for miracles.
John Cleese (actor/co-writer): We found that it didn’t work because the moment you got really near the figure of Christ, it just really wasn’t funny because Christ was wise and flexible and intelligent and he didn’t have any of the things that comedy is about – envy, greed, malice, avarice, lust, stupidity.
George Harrison (executive producer): Before HandMade got involved, Life Of Brian was being financed by EMI.
Michael Palin: Lord Bernard Delfont and EMI got cold feet for some reason – partly money, partly taste. I think mostly taste. He was worried about getting involved in a film that had imaginative content, and that he might possibly be called upon to justify his support for it in the next life. He was unwilling to take the risk with immortality. The offer of money was so firm that we had actually started on the film.
Terry Jones: In the spring of 1978, the backing that was meant to come from EMI was withdrawn.
Eric Idle: George Harrison said, “If you want the money, I’ll get it for you.” He wanted to see the movie, that was all.
Michael Palin: George Harrison is a wonderful patron. He will actually give you money because he likes what you do.
Eric Idle: I didn’t believe you could just pick up a film for £4 million. I didn’t know how loaded George was.
George Harrison: I pawned my house and the office in London to get a bank loan. That was quite frightening.
John Cleese: Pop people are great to get involved with because they grant you the freedom that they would want. We couldn’t have made the film anywhere in the world with as much creative control as we had with George.
Terry Gilliam (actor/co-writer/animation design): We shot the film almost entirely in Tunisia, on the sets where Franco Zeffirelli had shot Jesus Of Nazareth.
It was a lovely feeling – everybody just knew what they were doing and went about their tasks in a very efficient, unhurried way.
John Cleese: The Oasis, Tunis was the worst hotel in the world. I went to the front desk just after I got there and I said to the man in my appalling French, “Excuse me, there’s no glass in my room.” And he said proudly, “There are no glasses in any of the rooms.” So I said, “Well, I have a sore throat and want to take a pill.” And he said, “Get one from the bar.” That was the first two minutes there, and it went on like that with the two most malevolent breakfast waiters I’ve ever come across.
Graham Chapman: I enjoyed performing and appearing in Brian much more than I did the TV series.
John Cleese: There was an odd atmosphere about the first day and I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I suddenly realised that there was absolutely no sense of occasion. If anybody had walked onto the set, they could have thought it was the fifth week. It was a lovely feeling – everybody just knew what they were doing and went about their tasks in a very efficient, unhurried way.
Graham Chapman: I remember one moment of amazing embarrassment. The matter of genital exposure poses no particular problem to me, but there was a problem in that we had this crowd of Tunisian extras, half of whom were women. And Muslim women are forbidden by the Koran to see such things. So when I flung open the shutters, half the crowd ran away screaming. That had a profound effect on my psyche.
John Cleese: When I saw the rushes I was very struck that here we were, shooting the Latin lesson in the forum at midnight, in very real colours, just as though it were a proper adventure story, and the audience would be on the edge of their seats. I’d never seen a comedy scene played in this slightly forbidding, cool blue light. It’s much more like something out of a drama.
Terry Gilliam: The closer we came to doing actual stories with Python, the less room there was for animation.
Terry Jones: We were all saying, “We need some animation,” and then Graham said, “Why isn’t Brian rescued from the tower by a flying saucer?” We all thought that was a good idea.
I was dressed as Brian, shaken around a lot, then taxied back to my house for a few hours’ sleep before being put on another plane back to LA.
Kim ‘Howard’ Johnson: The flying saucer sequence was shot in Covent Garden. At the time, Graham was living in America, and for tax purposes he was only allowed 24 hours in England.
Graham Chapman: I arrived in the morning from LA and was driven straight to the studio. I was put into the box made up to resemble a spaceship. I was dressed as Brian, shaken around a lot, then taxied back to my house for a few hours’ sleep before being put on another plane back to LA. I wasn’t in England for more than 24 hours – and eight of those were spent in a box!
Father Patrick J Sullivan (Director of the Catholic Conference’s Office for Film and Broadcasting): It’s very difficult for anyone to explain away Life Of Brian’s final image – in which a string of crucified victims sing a nihilistic ditty suggesting that life is ultimately worthless. Having a song explicitly contrary to the Judaeo-Christian concept of man’s value juxtaposed against the very image of redemption – the cross – becomes something intolerable.
John Cleese: Four hundred years ago we’d have been burnt for Brian.
John Cleese and Michael Palin defend Life Of Brian on Friday Night, Saturday Morning:
Robert EA Lee (Chairman of the Lutheran Council): Cruse and rude mockery, colossal bad taste, profane parody – Life Of Brian is all of these. It is grossly offensive to those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and call themselves Christian. And it should be equally offensive to those who believe that religious faith should not be ridiculed or demeaned by overt and perverse sacrilege.
Eric Idle: Nothing so divides man as belief in the same God.
Terry Jones: The British Film Censor’s office was inundated with messages.
Michael Palin: The letters were hysterical. Someone called Allatt wrote to The Times saying he hadn’t seen the film but was against everything it stood for. We should have written back and said, “We’ve never met Mr Allatt but we don’t like him.”
We’re not anti-Semitic or racist. Life Of Brian is about people; it just happens to be set in Judea. We’re laughing at man, not God.
John Cleese: A lot people approach religious as a source of security. They parrot off a few phrases and then hang onto them for dear life. They need these phrases. If anyone tries to take them away, they suffer.
Rabbi Abraham Hecht (Former president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America): The film makes fun of the messianic concept which is basic to the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Especially offensive to religious Jews is the stoning scene in which our traditional reverence for the holy name of God is ridiculed and a bearded rabbi is satirised.
Eric Idle: We’re not anti-Semitic or racist. Life Of Brian is about people; it just happens to be set in Judea. We’re laughing at man, not God.
Michael Palin: They all thought the film was a vicious and blasphemous attack on Jesus Christ. But Life Of Brian is set in AD33. Christ is treated very respectfully.
Eric Idle: The Sermon on the Mount is really nice and the film doesn’t joke about it. It makes a joke about people. When it happened, people wouldn’t have gone, “Shhhh, this is the Sermon on the Mount.”
Graham Chapman: It is quite interesting that these various church organisations all felt comfortable complaining about the movie without having seen it. But that’s the prerogative of a bigot.
Michael Palin: There is not a great deal of religious satire in Brian, although there is some comment on organised religion. The religious critics in American told people not to go and see it, which was wonderful for the box office.
John Cleese: I think the movie might have gone into 200 movie house. Once the protest started, it went into 600. It is wonderful that, when people embark on a course of action, they can achieve something so totally counter-productive. One can only think they’re profoundly stupid – and these people are obviously not – or that they’re so enraged they’re incapable of thinking.
Kim ‘Howard’ Johnson: The day after the film premiered in Britain, Michael and John appeared on Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. They hated Brian, calling it “blasphemous”, “tenth-rate” and ” a miserable little film”.
The Bishop of Southwark spent the entire time castigating us as if we were the most loathsome dogs in London. After the show, he came over to us, gave us a broad smile and said, “Jolly good!”
Not The Nine O’Clock News – Life Of Christ: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asUyK6JWt9U
Michael Palin: The Bishop of Southwark spent the entire time castigating us as if we were the most loathsome dogs in London. After the show, he came over to us, gave us a broad smile and said, “Jolly good!” That’s exactly what we’re getting at in Life Of Brian – the hypocrisy of some people. I don’t object to people believing in religion, but I do have trouble with the clergy and people believing in organised religion. I’m wary of anyone imposing their morals on me.
Robert EA Lee: If you sweep away your scruples you could conclude that Life Of Brian is brilliant, highly comic and entertaining. It does satirise piety, and amid the laughs that are evoked – in spite of the offensive material – some truths are revealed.
John Cleese: It may sound surprising, but I think Brian is a religious film. I think all the messages in it are profoundly religious. It simply depends on what you mean by religious.
George Harrison: It’s only ignorant people – who didn’t care to check it out – who actually thought that it was knocking Christ. Actually, it was upholding him and knocking all the idiotic stuff that goes on around religion.
Eric Idle: George told me that he bumped into Bernard Delfont after Life Of Brian opened. He was reading a copy of Variety that contained the film’s box-office figures. George waved the paper at Bernard and said, “Thanks for backing out.” It was all very good-natured.
Graham Chapman: While we were filming a critic named Ian Johnson was shooting a ‘making-of’ documentary. While we did have a kind of control over the documentary, I think we went along with some trepidation. We were all very conscious of the fact that each of us had been asked how we felt about the others. At the end, we all looked at each other and understood the same truth at the same time – “Yes, I know you. I know your good points, your bad points, but the hell with all that because I like you.” That was a very nice moment.
Terry Jones: I was always interested in the progression from Holy Grail to Brian, the fact that with Brian we were actually able to make a story. In retrospect, the failure of that film is that we didn’t have enough confidence in the concept of the story. We sped it up so much – in that way we’ve always done with sketches – that it is actually too fast. I’d love to recut Brian to make it slower. I think it would work better.
John Cleese: I remember Life Of Brian as being an enormously happy experience because, by coincidence, we all had the same kid of views and feeling about the subject. And I think that’s our masterpiece. That’s what I’d like to be judged on.