'Monty Python's Life of Brian' - the Film
Created | Updated Dec 12, 2006
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After the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it was obvious that the team would be making another film. When questioned as to what that film might be, Eric Idle supplied a title: Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. Although that particular project went nowhere, the idea of doing a story set in Biblical times obviously appealed to the group. After trying out several ideas in which the main character was in some way linked to Christ, as a thirteenth apostle for example, the group encountered a problem: the life of Christ is very difficult to parody. Regardless of what one believes, the character of Christ and the things he says are fundamentally good1. Taking themselves to Barbados to finalise the script, the group moved away from linking the title character to Christ and made him simply a man who is born at the same time and who in later life is accused of being a Messiah.
While in Barbados, the group were approached by a representative from production company EMI, who agreed to put up $2 million to finance the film. Unfortunately, after filming had started, the head of EMI read the script and withdrew all their funding, leaving the Pythons in a very difficult position.
All the Gold I Could Eat
Funding for the film was eventually provided by George Harrison, who was a long-time Python fan and had also got to know Eric Idle a few years previously. Desperate to see the finished product, Harrison and business manager Denis O'Brien set up Handmade Films2, with Harrison providing the £2 million funding necessary to get Brian made.
There Was This Man, And He Had Two Servants...
The film tells of the story of Brian of Nazareth (played by Graham Chapman), who coincidentally happens to be born in the next manger along from Jesus, thoroughly confusing the three Wise Men.
In later years, Brian learns from his mother (Terry Jones) that he is the illegitimate son of Nortius Maximus, a Roman soldier. Rebelling against the Roman oppressors, Brian joins the 'People's Front of Judea'3 (PFJ) and sets about undermining the Roman occupation. During an abortive attempt to kidnap Pontius Pilate's wife, Brian is captured, but manages to escape under cover of Pilate's speech impediment. After almost accidentally exposing the PFJ, Brian finds himself masquerading as a prophet in front of a hostile crowd. After a false start, his improvised words of wisdom have the unforseen effect of convincing the local populace that he is the Messiah. Once more, Brian finds himself on the run. After distracting the crowd with a juniper-protecting heretic, Brian finally manages to spend some time alone with fellow PFJ member (and much more), Judith. Unfortunately, his ever-increasing band of devoted followers track him down and, despite his best efforts, refuse to go away and work it out for themselves.
Leaving the PFJ to organise his new business - treating those possessed by demons, curing the headache of the wife of a local dignitary, hiring a mount from a suspiciously Liverpudlian gentleman (a cameo appearance by George Harrison as Mr Papadopolous) - Brian tries to explain things to Judith, but the Romans have finally caught up with him and he is sentenced to be crucified. After Mr Cheeky has stolen his official pardon, Judith and the PFJ have decided that his martyrdom is a wonderful thing, his mother has rejected him, and even the dreaded Judean People's Front have failed to rescue him, there is nothing left for Brian to do but hang on his cross and look on the bright side of life...
And There Shall in That Time be Rumours of Things Going Astray
The original cut of Brian lasted for well over 2 hours, which the group felt was too long. After debating the possibility of releasing it in full with an interval, or releasing it in two parts, the decision was eventually taken to cut the film down to 90 minutes. This meant that several entire scenes had to be deleted. Among them were a scene featuring the shepherds in the next field, who were too busy talking about sheep to notice the miraculous happenings behind them, and an extension of the kidnap scene, featuring 6'9"-tall actor John Case (who appears in the final cut as Eric Idle's helper 'Bert' in the haggling scene) as Pilate's wife, who fights off the entire PFJ single-handedly.
The most controversial scene cut from the final version of the film featured 'King Otto', a fascist trying to establish a racially-pure Jewish state. Deleting this scene left something of a problem in that King Otto's suicide squad were visible lying around Brian's cross in the closing scenes of the film. The problem was solved by adding some new footage and dubbing over the original shot so that the suicide squad were now representatives of the 'Judean People's Front'.
Persecute! Kill the Heretic!
With its skirting of the Christian gospels and its attack on those who would distort religion for their own purposes and those who follow blindly without thinking for themselves, the Pythons were probably expecting some sort of reaction to their film. They were not, however, expecting the enormous backlash that Brian generated. The film was picketed by banner-waving protesters and was banned in some States in the USA and parts of Britain. Local councils would go out of their way to make it absolutely clear that they did not approve of the film and were banning it completely from their towns, before being informed that there were, in fact, no cinemas within their jurisdiction. The film was also banned on British television, before finally being shown on New Year's Eve, 1992, 13 years after it was first released.
He's Not the Messiah, He's a Very Naughty Boy
So is the film the 'attack on Christianity' that some religious leaders claim? Nowhere in the film does Brian claim to be the Messiah, and it is made perfectly clear that Brian and Jesus are different characters - Jesus appears briefly in the film, with a sincerely delivered sermon on the mount, which is misheard and misinterpreted by the listeners at the back. Brian, on the other hand, just keeps running away from his would-be followers, suggesting fairly strongly to the unbiased viewer that Brian isn't a Messiah and doesn't want to be a Messiah, just left alone.
Hurt My Foot, Lord
So what, or whom, is the film attacking? The targets of the film are the very people who are chasing Brian around, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 'Shoe, Sandal, Gourd' scene, which the Pythons have referred to as 'the history of religion in 2 minutes'. Although all his 'followers' accept that Brian is the Messiah, despite his best efforts to prove the contrary, the half-dozen loudest-voiced members of the crowd decide that their way of following the Messiah is the only true way, and the whole thing promptly decends into farce.
If Brian can be said to have a message, that message is a very simple one: think for yourself. Don't let anyone else tell you what to think, what to believe and how to believe it. Despite its simplicity this is a very powerful message, and maybe that is why some religious leaders felt the need to suppress it.