Monty Python's Life of Brian is a comedy film written and performed by the Monty Python comedy team, released on 17 August 1979 in the US and 8 November 1979 in the UK. It tells the story of Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman), a young man born on the same night and the same street as Jesus Christ.
The film was controversial due to its combination of comedy and religious themes. However, it has also been very popular with viewers: in 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted it the greatest comedy film of all time; in 2004, the same magazine named it the 5th greatest British film of all time; in 2006 it was voted the best comedy movie of all time on two separate polls conducted by the British TV channels Channel 4 and Five (channel); and on the Internet Movie Database, the film is consistently ranked among the top 250 films of all time, as well as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Cast and characters
- 3 Production
- 4 Themes and controversies
- 5 Lost scenes
- 6 Box office
- 7 Legacy
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Brian Cohen is born in a stable a few doors down from the one in which Jesus is born (a fact which initially confuses the Biblical Magi who come to praise the baby Jesus, as they must put up with Brian's boorish mother Mandy until they realize their mistake). Brian grows up to be an idealistic young man who resents the continuing Roman occupation of Judea, even after learning his father was a Roman Centurion (apparently called Naughtius Maximus who had also forced himself on Brian's mother before their brief relationship began, Mandy has some resentment towards him, not for raping her, but for promising her life of luxury and pleasure before abandoning her while pregnant) While attending Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, he becomes infatuated with the attractive young rebel Judith. His desire for Judith and hatred for the Romans lead him to join the People's Front of Judea, one of many factious and bickering separatist movements, who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans. The group's cynical leader Reg then gives Brian his first assignment as a rebel: an attempt at scrawling some graffiti ("Romanes eunt domus", poorly translated Latin for "Romans Go Home") on the wall of the governor's palace. This succeeds beyond his wildest expectations when he is caught by a passing Roman guard who, in disgust at Brian's faulty Latin grammar, forces him to write out the "corrected" message ("Romani ite domum") one hundred times.
When the guards change shifts at daybreak, the new Roman guards try to arrest Brian the "vandal". After a series of misadventures, the fugitive winds up accidentally taking the place of one of a motley group of mystics and prophets who harangue the passing crowd in a plaza. Forced to come up with something plausible in order to blend in, he babbles pseudo-religious nonsense which quickly attracts a small but intrigued audience. Once the Romans have left, Brian tries to put the episode behind him, but has unintentionally inspired a movement; after a night spent with Judith, he discovers that an enormous crowd has declared him the Messiah. Appalled, Brian is helpless to change the people's minds, but his every word and action are immediately seized as a point of doctrine, with any unusual occurrence being seen as a "miracle."
The Romans finally catch the hapless Brian and send him to be crucified. Pontius Pilate almost inadvertently pardons him, but in a moment parodying the climax of the film Spartacus (film), everyone being crucified claims to be "Brian of Nazareth", and the wrong man is released. Abandoned by anyone who might be able to help him, the actual Brian remains hanging in the hot sun, and is told by his fellow sufferers, in song, to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Cast and characters
The following is a list of all the characters given actual names in the script, or with a spoken role. All names and character descriptions are taken from the published script. Each Python (especially Terry Gilliam) also played various bystanders and hangers-on. The Pythons themselves are listed first (in alphabetical order) followed by the rest of the cast in order of appearance.
- Graham Chapman - Brian, Biggus Dickus, 2nd wise man
- John Cleese - Reg, Jewish official at stoning, Centurion of the Yard, Deadly Dirk, Burt, Arthur, 1st wise man
- Terry Gilliam - Another person further forward (at Mount), Revolutionary, Blood and Thunder prophet, Geoffrey, Frank, Audience Member, Crucifee, Jailer
- Eric Idle - Mr Cheeky, Stan called Loretta, Harry the Haggler, Culprit woman who casts first stone, Warris, Intensely dull youth, Otto, Jailer's assistant, Mr Frisbee IIIrd
- Terry Jones - Mandy, Colin, Simon the Holy Man, Bob Hoskins, Saintly passer-by, Alarmed Crucifixion Assistant
- Michael Palin - Mr Big Nose, Francis, Mrs A, Ex-leper, Announcer, Ben, Pontius Pilate, Boring Prophet, Eddie, Shoe Follower, Nisus Wettus, 3rd wise man
- Ken Colley - Jesus Christ
- Gwen Taylor - Mrs Big Nose, Woman with sick donkey, young girl
- Terence Baylor - Gregory, 2nd Centurion, Dennis
- Carol Cleveland - Mrs Gregory, Woman #1, Elsie
- Charles McKeown - Man further forward (at Mount), Stig, Blind Man, Guard #4, False Prophet
- Sue Jones-Davies - Judith Iscariot
- John Young - Matthias
- Neil Innes - Boris Feinburg
- Chris Langham - Alfonso, Guard #3
- Bernard McKenna - Stoner's Helper, Parvus, Guard #1, Sergeant
- Andrew MacLachlan - Another Stoner's Helper, Guard #2
- Spike Milligan - Spike
- Randy Feelgood - Man, Woman
- George Harrison - Mr Papadopoulos
- Charles Knode - Passer-by (Uncredited)
- Kenneth Colley - Jesus of Nazareth
Several characters are never named during the film but do have names which are used in the tracklisting for the soundtrack album and elsewhere. There is no mention in the film of the fact that Eric Idle's ever-cheerful joker is called 'Mr Cheeky', or that the terribly well-meaning Roman guard played by Michael Palin is named 'Nisus Wettus'.
Spike Milligan had an unplanned cameo as a prophet ignored because his acolytes are chasing after Brian. By coincidence he was visiting World War II battlefields in Tunisia where the film was being made, turned up one morning, was promptly included in the scene that just happened to be being filmed, and disappeared again in the afternoon before he could be included in any of the close-up or publicity shots for the film.
There are various stories about the origins of Life of Brian. Shortly after the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Eric Idle suggested that the title of the Pythons' forthcoming feature would be Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory. It has been variously reported, however, that this idea was merely one of a number abandoned at an early brain-storming stage, when it became clear that a parody of Jesus' life just would not work "because he's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff..." According to the DVD commentary, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, while promoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Amsterdam, came up with a sketch in which Jesus' cross was falling apart because of the idiotic carpenters who built it and he angrily tells them how to do it correctly. Another idea considered was that of St. Brian, "the thirteenth disciple". The focus eventually shifted to a separate individual born at a similar time.
Writing began in December 1976, with a first draft completed by mid-1977. The final pre-production draft was ready in January 1978, following "a concentrated two week writing and water-skiing period in Barbados". The film would not have been made without George Harrison, who set up Handmade Films to help fund it, after the subject matter scared off the original backers, EMI Films. Terry Gilliam later said, "They pulled out on the Thursday. The crew was supposed to be leaving on the Saturday. Disastrous. It was because they read the script... finally." Harrison appears in a cameo role as Mr Papadopoulos, owner of "The Mount", who shakes hands with Brian.
The film was shot on location in Monastir, Tunisia, which allowed the production to reuse sets from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (film) (1977). Many locals were employed as extras on Life of Brian. Director Terry Jones noted, "They were all very knowing because they'd all worked for Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth, so I had these elderly Tunisians telling me, 'Well, Mr Zeffirelli wouldn't have done it like that, you know.'" Graham Chapman, an alcoholic, was so determined to play the lead role that he dried out in time for filming.
Following shooting between 16 September and 12 November 1978, a two-hour-long rough cut of the film was put together for its first private showing in January 1979. Over the next few months Life of Brian was re-edited and re-screened a number of times for different preview audiences before the final cut was complete, losing a number of filmed sequences entirely (see Lost scenes below).
Themes and controversies
Religious satire and blasphemy accusations
The film has been seen as a critique of excessive religiosity, a religious satire depicting organised and popular religion as hypocrisy and fanatical. The film's satire on unthinking religious devotion is epitomised by Brian's attempt to persuade an enormous crowd of his followers to think for themselves:
- Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, you don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!
- The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We're all individuals!
- Brian: You're all different!
- The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we ARE all different!
- Man in Crowd: I'm not...
- The Crowd: Shhh!
The film also implies that many cryptic "signs" from Jesus Christ were instead bizarre accidents which people interpreted as religious (as when Brian loses his shoe and his over-zealous followers declare it to be a sign).
The representation of Christ alongside comedy proved controversial. Protests against the film were organised based on its perceived blasphemy, not the least of which because the film ends with a comical song sung by the victims of a mass crucifixion ("Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"). On its initial release in the United Kingdom, the film was ban (law) by several town councils – some of which had no cinemas within their boundaries, or had not even seen the film for themselves. A member of Harrogate council, one of those that banned the film, revealed during a television interview that the council had not seen the film, and had based their opinion on what they had been told by a Christian protest group, of which they knew nothing. In New York City, screenings were picketing by both rabbis and nuns ("Nuns with banners!", contends Michael Palin) while the film was banned outright in some U.S. states. It was also banned for eight years in the Republic of Ireland and for a year in Norway (it was marketed in Sweden as 'The film so funny that it was banned in Norway'). The film was not released in Italy until 1990, eleven years after it was made. It was not shown in Jersey until 2001 (despite having been shown on several occasions prior on Channel 4 - a British TV network available in Jersey); the Bailiff of Jersey, Frank Ereaut's government, wanted it to be watched only by adults, even though the BBFC rated it History of British film certificates.
In the UK, Mary Whitehouse and other campaigners launched waves of leaflets and picketed at and around cinemas that showed the film, Irony boosting the publicity. Leaflets arguing against the film's representation of the New Testament (for example, suggesting that the Wise Men would not have approached the wrong stable as they do in the opening of the film) were documented in Robert Hewison's book Monty Python: The Case Against. Shortly after the film was released, Cleese and Palin engaged in a debate about it on the BBC2 discussion programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning, in which Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, put the case against the film. Muggeridge and the Bishop had arrived 15 minutes late to see a screening of the picture prior to the debate, missing the establishing scenes which demonstrated that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and hence contended that it was a send-up of Christ himself. Cleese has frequently said that he enjoyed the debate, since he felt that the film was "completely intellectually defensible", and it is also one of the few times where the normally good-tempered Palin gets noticeably irritated. The debate itself was then sent up the following week in a sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News, entitled "General Synod's Life of Christ.", where Rowan Atkinson portrayed a bishop who had produced a film about the life of a John Cleese-like individual named Jesus Christ in a world where everyone worshipped Cleese and his works. Mel Smith played an intellectual protesting against it.
One of the most controversial scenes was Brian's Crucifixion; most Christian protestors said that it was mocking as it was supposed to be when Jesus suffered and forgave sins and they turned it into a "Boys Day Out" (such as when Mr Cheeky turns to Brian and says: "See, It's not so bad when you get up here") and into a further sing-song. Director Terry Jones said in an interview as a reply to this scene: "Any religion that makes a form of torture into an symbol that they worship seems to me a pretty sick sort of religion quite honestly".
The Pythons contend on the audio commentary (DVD) that the film is Christian heresy because it lampoons the practices of modern organised religion, but that it does not blasphemously lampoon the God that Christianity worship. When Jesus does appear in the film – as he does on two occasions, in the stable and speaking the Beatitudes (Gospel of Matthew 5:1-48) – he is portrayed according to Christian beliefs and distinct from the character of Brian. The comedy occurs as members of the crowd mishear his statement "Blessed are the peacemakers…": "I think he said, 'Blessed are the cheesemakers'". Later, there is some debate on whether "the Greeks" should inherit the earth.
The film continues to cause controversy; in February 2007 the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Newcastle upon Tyne held a public screening in the church itself, with song-sheets, organ accompaniment, stewards in costume and false beards for female members of the audience to wear (alluding to a scene in the film where a group of women disguise themselves as men so that they are able to take part in a stoning). Whilst the screening was a sell-out, some Christian groups, notably Christian Voice (UK), were highly critical of the decision to show it. The Revd. Jonathan Adams, one of the church's clergy, defended the showing of the film, saying that it did not mock Jesus, and that it raised important issues about the hypocrisy and stupidity that can affect religion. Stephen Green (Christian Voice) of Christian Voice, however, insisted that "You don't promote Christ to the community by taking the mick out of him".
The film also pokes fun at revolutionary groups opposing the Roman occupation of Judea, who are in fact more at odds with one another, trying to out-do each other in charisma and infamy, and calling each other "splitters" – examples include "The Judean People's Front", "The People's Front of Judea", and (with only one member) "The Popular Front of Judea". According to the DVD commentary, this part of the story is a satire on the multiplication of ineffectual left-wing parties in Britain during the 1970s: these revolutionary groups would splinter every few weeks, and be angrier at each other than they were at the British government.
Romani ite domum
The scene features John Cleese as a centurion and Graham Chapman as Brian, at that stage a would-be member of the People's Front of Iudaea Province. To prove himself worthy to be a member of this rather ineffectual group, Brian has to daub an anti-Roman slogan on the walls of the Pontius Pilate's Palace in Jerusalem under cover of darkness. He has just finished when the centurion sees him and grabs him by the ear. Brian is terrified and clearly expects to be killed on the spot. However, Cleese plays the centurion as an irascible Latin master, and instead of killing him he corrects Brian's sloppy Latin grammar (at sword-point).
"What's this, then?" Cleese says. "Romanes eunt domus? People called Romanes they go the house?" Brian is forced to remember the correct forms for each word as if he were a delinquent student. Under Cleese's direction, Chapman eventually gets the correct forms: Romani (the second Latin declension vocative plural of "Romans"), ite (the imperative plural form of the irregular verb eo, ire, meaning "to go") and domum (the accusative case of destination for "home"). "Now", says Cleese, "lines (punishment)! And if it's not done by sunrise I'll cut your balls off." Brian does so, and becomes a hero to the People's Front of Judea.
In subsequent scenes in the film various Roman legionary can be seen cleaning it all off.
A number of scenes were cut from the movie after filming. Most of these were lost in 1998 when they were destroyed by the company that bought Handmade Films. However, a number of lost scenes (of varying quality) were shown in 1999 on Paramount Comedy Channel in the UK; it has not been disclosed how these scenes were saved or where they came from, presenter Jonathan Stephen Ross merely claiming they had been found "in a black bin bag".
The scenes shown included the shepherds' gathering, which would have been at the very start of the movie; a segment showing the kidnap of Pilate's wife (a huge mountain of a woman played by John Case); a scene introducing Otto, leader of the Judean People's Front (played by Eric Idle); and a scene in which Pilate's wife alerts Otto to Brian's capture. The shepherds' scene has badly distorted sound, and the kidnap scene has poor colour quality. All can now be found on the Criterion Collection DVD.
The most controversial cut was the scenes involving Otto, the leader of the Judean People's Front Crack Suicide Squad, who had a thin moustache and spoke with a German accent. Otto was to have been a recurring character. The logo of the Judean People's Front was a Star of David with a small line coming from each point as in a Swastika. The official reason for the cutting was that Otto's dialogue slowed down the narrative; however, Terry Gilliam, writing in The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons, said he thought it should have stayed, saying "Listen, we've alienated the Christians, let's get the Jews now". Eric Idle was said to have been uncomfortable with the character; he said that Otto could be perceived as "a pretty savage attack on rabid Zionism, suggesting it's rather akin to Nazism, which is a bit strong to take, but certainly a point of view". The only scene with Otto that remains in the film is during the crucifixion scene. Otto arrives with his squad, sending the Roman soldiers fleeing in terror. Instead of doing anything useful, they commit mass suicide in front of the cross, ending Brian's last hope of rescue. They do however show some signs of life during the famous rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" when they are seen waving their toes in unison in time to the music.
Otto's scenes, and those with Pilate's wife, were cut from the film after the script had gone to the publishers, and so they can be found in the published version of the script. Also present is a scene where, after Brian has led the Legio V Macedonica to the headquarters of the People's Front of Judea, Reg (John Cleese) says "You cunt!! You stupid, bird brained, flat headed..." The profanity was overdubbed to "you klutz" before the film was released. Cleese approved of this editing as he felt the reaction to the four-letter word would 'get in the way of the comedy'.
Life of Brian opened on August 17, 1979 in five North American theatres, and grossed an impressive US$140,034 ($28,007 per screen) in its opening weekend. Its total gross was a strong US$19,398,164. It was the highest-grossing British film in North America that year. In addition, the film was the fourth highest-grossing film in Britain in 1979.
On April 30, 2004, Life of Brian was re-released on five North American screens to "cash in" (as Terry Jones put it) on the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It grossed US$26,376 ($5,275 per screen) in its opening weekend. It ran until October 2004, playing at 28 screens at its widest point, eventually grossing US$646,124 during its re-release. By comparison, a re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail had earned US$1.8 million three years earlier. A DVD of the film was also released that year.
Spin-offs include a script-book The Life of Brian of Nazareth, which is backed by MONTYPYTHONSCRAPBOOK... (The printing of this book also caused problems, since there are rarely-used technical laws in the UK against 'blasphemy' dictating what can and cannot be written about religion - the publisher refused to print both halves of the book, and original prints were by two companies).
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was later re-released with great success, after being sung by British Football (soccer) fans. The increase in popularity became evident in 1982 during the Falklands War when British sailors, injured in an Argentine attack, started singing it. Indeed, many people have come to see the song as a life-affirming ode to optimism. The song was also adopted by Manchester Unitedsupportersin the early 1990s as a chant, presumably as an ironic comment on their teams' relative lack of success at that time. The chant was soon dropped when United went on to have success later in the decade.
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is also featured in Eric Idle's Spamalot, a Broadway musical loosely based upon Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and was sung by the rest of the Monty Python gang at Graham Chapman's memorial service and at the Monty Python Live At Aspen special.
An album of the songs sung in Monty Python's Life of Brian has been released on the Disky label.
With the success of Eric Idle's musical retelling of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, called Spamalot, Idle has recently announced that he will be giving Life of Brian a similar treatment. The oratorio, called Not the Messiah, was commissioned to be part of Luminato, the Toronto Festival of Arts, Culture and Creativity, in June 2007, and was written/scored by Idle and John Du Prez, who also worked with Idle on Spamalot. Just as Life of Brian was meant as a spoof of the life of Jesus, Not the Messiah is a direct spoof of Handel's famous oratorio Messiah (Handel). It runs approximately 50 minutes, and will be conducted at its World Premiere by Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian, who is Idle's cousin.
Not the Messiah will receive its U.S. Premiere at Caramoor Center for Music and Arts in Katonah, New York during the International Music Festival. Cousins Peter Oundjian (Caramoor's Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor) and Eric Idle joined forces once again for a double performance of the oratorio in July 2007.
Appearances in other media
- In the British sit-com Shelley (TV series), protagonist James Shelley, addressing God in an apologetic manner, says "Sorry I laughed at Life of Brian".
- In the Rowan Atkinson sketch "The Devil", from Rowan Atkinson Live in Belfast (1982), the crowd of people awaiting entrance to Hell includes "everyone who saw Monty Python's Life of Brian... Ah, yes, I'm afraid He can't take a joke after all..."
- Atkinson also appears in a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, in which a bishop who has made a scandalous film called "The Life of Christ" is raked over the coals by a representative of the "Church of Python", claiming that the film is an attack on "Our Lord, John Cleese" and on the members of Python, who, in the sketch, are the subjects of Britain's true religious faith.
- Naughtius Maximus, the supposed name of Brian's father which is given by his mother Mandy, is also the name of a Malaysian hip hop band.
- In the Bible-critical episode of Bullshit!, "The Bible: Fact or Fiction?", Penn jokes after having told about the numerous other "messiahs" by the time of Jesus, that Monty Python's The Life of Brian was probably more historically correct than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
- A BBC TV series What The Romans Did For Us, written and presented by Adam Hart-Davis and first broadcast in 2000, takes its title from John Cleese's rhetorical question "What have the Romans ever done for us?" in one of the film's most famous scenes. Hart-Davis has subsequently presented a number of similar series about other periods in history using the same formula for the title (What The Tudors Did For Us etc.).
- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair in his Prime Minister's Question Time of 3 May 2006 made a shorthand (and mistaken) reference to the political groups "Judean People's Front" or "People's Front of Judea" lampooned in Life of Brian. This was in response to a question from the MP David Clelland, asking "What has the Labour government ever done for us?" – itself a parody of John Cleese's "What have the Romans ever done for us?"
- In parts of Northern Ireland graffiti can sometimes be seen supporting the "PFJ" (and sometimes denouncing the "JPF") this is a parody of the widespread graffiti in support of real life Loyalist paramilitary organisations.
- A statue of the Roman Emperor Nerva in Gloucester, England was defaced with the words "Romani ite domum", probably in homage to the movie.
- In the DC comics project Kingdom Come, the two Mad Jailers of the Crucifixion scenes with Nissus Wettus appear on Apokolips, drawn by Alex Ross as part of the peasant crowd.
- Episode 11 of the My So-Called Life TV show is entitled "Life of Brian". It continues the story seen in previous episodes, but from the point of view of a secondary character, Brian Krakow, just like Brian in the Monty Python movie could be considered a "secondary character" in the life of Jesus Christ.
- On New Year's Day 2007, UK television station Channel 4 dedicated an entire evening to the Monty Python phenomenon during which an hour-long documentary was broadcast called The Secret Life of Brian about the making of The Life of Brian and the controversy that was caused by its release. The Pythons featured in the documentary and reflected upon the events that surrounded the film such as the run-in with Mary Whitehouse and the debate with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. This was followed by a screening of the film itself.
- Brian McFadden, ex-member of boy band Westlife, did a TV programme about his life called The Life of Brian.
- The PC video game Rome: Total War contains a reference to the film in the description of the aqueduct city improvement, stating "What did the Romans do for us?...This, that's what!"
- In the Mighty Boosh episode 'Journey to the Centre of the Punk' Vince's white blood cells say "We are all vince" after which one says "I'm not"; a parody of the "Yes we are all individuals" line.
- Channel 4 (1 January 2007). The Secret Life of Brian.
- From Fringe to Flying Circus by Roger Wilmut. Methuen Publishing Ltd; New edition (8 July 1982). ISBN 978-0413507709.
- Hewison, Robert. Monty Python: The Case Against. New York: Grove, 1981. ISBN 0-413-48660-5. This book discusses at length the censorship and controversy surrounding the film.
- Life of Brian film script
- Keith Short - Film Sculptor Image of giant feet sculpted for this film
- Criterion Collection essay by George Perry
- Graffiti vandal strikes in Gloucester
- Python In My Pocket
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