'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' - the Film
Created | Updated Dec 12, 2006
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The Meaning of Life was the last of the Monty Python films and, indeed, the last ever Python project featuring all six of the team1. As such, it represents the end of a significant era in British television and film comedy.
'What's that for?'
'That's the machine that goes "Ping"'
'That means your baby is still alive.'
After the success of Life of Brian, the Python team intended to produce another film quite quickly. Unfortunately, it took them a long time to agree on exactly what the film should be about. Even a group retreat to Jamaica didn't seem to help things much, and they were on the point of going home and giving up. One morning, Terry Jones came down to breakfast and told the others that they had almost enough material for a film, and restated his idea that the film should be a life story. Eric Idle is the one credited with the leap from that idea to the concept of a film about the meaning of life, and the film was saved.
Growth and Learning
Once the theme of the film had been established, the Pythons started writing again, filling out the film to the necessary length. The Meaning of Life is often referred to as a 'sketch film' - a collection of unrelated items - in a similar vein to their first film, And Now For Something Completely Different. The 'meaning of life' concept does, however, give the film a loose connecting thread; nowhere near as coherent as the story in Brian, but there is the feeling that the film is going somewhere, as a group of six fish guide the audience through the seven Pythonesque ages of man:
Birth - A brilliant satire on what medical sociologists call 'the medicalisation of birth'. That is, the idea that control of birth is taken away from the most important person - the mother - and given entirely to medical professionals. Indeed, the mother is informed that she is 'not qualified' to do anything during the procedure. This is followed by the 'Third World' equivalent, in which babies are delivered by the stork to an enormous Catholic family in the North of England, and everybody sings 'Every Sperm is Sacred'.
Growth and Learning - After a parody of an English public school2 morning service, a headmaster and his wife teach a very bored group of schoolboys about sex.
Fighting Each Other - A violent rugby match segues neatly into a World War I battlefield, where the soldiers realise that they may never see their respected commanding officer again, and decide to throw a party for him. This is followed by a welcome reappearance for Graham Chapman's Colonel character from the Monty Python's Flying Circus days, and Michael Palin barking orders to a group of soldiers with better things to do. This leads into a parody of the film 'Zulu' and the search for an officer's missing leg.
Middle Age - Before we get to this section, we are interrupted by 'The Middle of the Film', and a very surreal game of 'Find the Fish'. Middle age itself concerns Mr and Mrs Hendy, who have been married so long that they need help with their over-dinner conversation whilst on holiday.
Live Organ Transplants - Not the most traditional of the seven ages of man, but a great excuse for a lot of blood and guts. More importantly, this section contains Eric Idle's incredible 'Galaxy Song', a tuneful and scientifically accurate tour of the universe. This links into a section in which the board-members of a large corporation are distracted from their discussion of the meaning of life, firstly by 'everyday trivia', and then by an attack from Terry Gilliam's short film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, of which more later.
The Autumn Years - Probably the film's most celebrated, and infamous, sequence. It opens with another Eric Idle song, 'The Penis Song', as not sung by Noel Coward. Then Mr Creosote - the world's fattest man - arrives, vomits over everything, and finally explodes after eating a 'wafer-thin mint'. Glorious! In more reflective mood we progress to Part VIb - The Meaning of Life. A French waiter leads the camera out of the vomit-covered restaurant and into the countryside, purporting to know the meaning of life. Needless to say, he doesn't. Aggressively so.
Death - Firstly, Graham Chapman is chased off a cliff by a group of almost-naked women for the offence of 'first degree making of gratuitous sexist jokes in a moving picture'. Then we cut to a windswept moor, where a very traditional, Ingmar Bergmanesque Death arrives at an elegant dinner party and proceeds to inform the guests that they have all died of food poisoning from the salmon mousse, causing the hostess great embarrassment, not to mention confusing Michael Palin's wealthy American lady, who claims 'I didn't even eat the mousse' (one of the few genuinely improvised lines anywhere in the Monty Python canon). Finally, we end up in Heaven, where it is Christmas every day, complete with a tacky cabaret and the Terry Jones/Eric Idle composition, 'Christmas in Heaven'.
Fighting Each Other
As with Life of Brian, Terry Jones directed Meaning of Life, with Terry Gilliam working on the animations. At the same time, Terry G was also working on a short film of his own, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, telling the story of a group of elderly English accountants who overthrow their American oppressors and sail their building to take over the New World. The piece was originally meant to be a 3-minute animated sketch within the main film but, when Terry G decided to use real actors instead of cartoon ones, the problems began. The 3-minute piece grew to 5 minutes, to 6 minutes, and ended up at 17 minutes long. Initially, the group tried to slot it into its place in the middle of the film, but it was obvious that this wasn't going to work. Eventually, the decision was taken to show it as a supporting feature before the main film, with a brief appearance later on. The rest of the team were not terribly happy with this, feeling that the start of the film would have had a stronger impact without it. In particular, the opening hospital scene never fared as well with preview audiences who saw it after Terry G's short as with those for whom it was the first thing they saw. By this time, of course, it was too late, and The Crimson Permanent Assurance will always be the opening act of Meaning of Life.
While the group were not terribly happy with Terry G and his pirate film, the oldest source of antagonism within the team - John Cleese's logical, analytic mind versus Terry Jones' emotional commitment - had finally mellowed out. Particularly during the writing and filming of 'Mr Creosote', when John and Terry J were the only ones around, their relationship was far less strained than it had been in the Flying Circus days.
Filming Meaning of Life was a different experience for the whole team, as it was shot mainly in a studio, with them going home at the end of each day's work, in contrast to the 'living on location' experiences with Holy Grail and Life of Brian. This comfort factor, the idea that it was all too easy, has been suggested as one of the reasons why the film lacks the same devoted following as Grail and Brian.
On its release, the film was reasonably successful, managing to earn back its $80 million budget. The film was also awarded the Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Within the group, as always, opinion was divided. John felt that the final product was not as good as it could have been; Terry J felt it was one of the best things they ever had done...
Live Organ Transplants
What Meaning of Life certainly doesn't lack is its share of gory, rude or otherwise controversial moments. The song 'Every Sperm is Sacred', for example, was a fairly damning attack on the Catholic Church's anti-contraception policy. This is followed by live sex education for a class of schoolboys, mockery of the British Army, gratuitously nude women chasing a man over a cliff, the live organ transplant of the section title, and, of course, the foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, vomiting, exploding Mr Creosote.
The film's most controversial moment, however, occurred off-camera. The team were in Glasgow, Scotland, filming the battle scene for their Zulu parody. The extras claimed they were never told they would be dressed as Zulus and refused to charge up a cold Scottish hill wearing loincloths, claiming that they were being typecast. Sadly, the scene had to be filmed the next day using white actors wearing black make-up.
The Autumn Years
The Zulu scene, of course, did make it into the final version of Meaning of Life, but there are two odd little sequences that didn't.
The first of these is 'The Adventures of Martin Luther', a very strange sketch about a sex-crazed Martin Luther who claims to be interested only in spoons. It was originally designed to follow a scene where a Yorkshire Protestant gentleman discusses condoms with his increasingly enthusiastic wife, but was quietly dropped in the final edit.
The second deleted scene features regular Python actress, Carol Cleveland, as a waitress in the hotel where the Hendy's have their stilted dinner conversation. In the scene, the waitress loads their table up with junk, asks them if they want any food with their meal and finally supplies them with a 'Super Inns Skin' condom.
The penultimate scene in the film is set in Heaven, and there is a stunning moment when the characters from the Death sketch enter the grand ballroom to find that every other character in the film, from Zulu warriors to ragged children to nude women, is also there. There is indeed a thread running through this 'sketch film' - death. Is that then the 'meaning of life'?
No, of course it isn't. The meaning of life is 'people aren't wearing enough hats'. Obviously.
As mentioned at the start, Meaning of Life was the last time the group produced anything as Monty Python. Whether by accident or design, the very end of the film seems to hammer this point home. After complaining about the 'video-sated public' and their attendance in cinemas, Michael Palin's female announcer casually declares 'here's the theme music' and a television showing the opening credits from the second series of Flying Circus floats off into the distance. The End.