By Amanda DeJong
During an interview shortly after the release of Monty Python’s first major production, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Eric Idle was asked, “What’s next?” He casually replied, “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.” Audiences throughout the English-speaking world were shocked by the statement, and considered it vulgar and tasteless; yet the resulting clamor scarcely anticipated what was ultimately to come. At the time, as Idle would later confess in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he was only joking. However, the Monty Python crew subsequently took the idea into consideration, and it became the brainchild for a project that took three years to complete. Life of Brian, Monty Python’s most controversial (and most financially successful) film elicited the wrath of Christian groups throughout the world in its depiction of Brian Cohen, an average man living at the same time as Christ, who is mistaken for the Messiah. Thousands picketed in the United States with signs claiming it to be an attack by Warner Brothers on Christianity. Despite the fact that explicit ties to Christianity exist throughout Life of Brian, the satire is actually directed at the inherent faults of all forms of organized religion, with particular emphasis upon the tendency of misguided followers to misplace priorities.
While some viewers may attempt to classify the purpose of Life of Brian as merely a comedic one in which the humor is based on shock-value, such an assumption ignores the true nature of comedy, especially when considering the pervasive use of satire throughout the film. Comedy has always been a foil for exposing life’s existing injustices, particularly within society, be it the early Chaplin slapstick which mocked middle class values or the more recent Kill Bill films made by Quentin Tarantino which highlight the absurdity of violence within the film industry. Even Shakespearean comedy subtly critiqued the standards of Elizabethan society. Thus, jokes often undermine a specific institution of humanity, generally one that is perceived as flawed or unjust, sometimes with the purpose of correction, at other instances only for injury. Satire, in particular, has the hidden intention to correct, or at the very least, to raise awareness.
Thus, when considering the comedy in Life of Brian, it is important to realize that certain institutions are intended to be the butt of the jokes. Due to the explicit ties made to Christianity throughout the film, it is easy to see that much of the humor is based in ridiculing some aspects of it. For example, while Brian Cohen, the main character, is certainly not Jesus, he is praised by fools as a Messiah, his mother is proclaimed as a virgin with anything but conclusive evidence, and his sporadic “miracles” result in teeming followers. The movie seems to stop just short of raising the question: What if Christians were following a fraud? However, a tactful evasiveness is maintained throughout the film, keeping it from asking this question explicitly. That the film is targeted at religious impulses is quite blatant. Stuart Hanscombe, who did a study on the connection between humor and philosophy, states in the journal Cogito that throughout Life of Brian “the humor derives …from religious folk psychology.”
In fact, some scholarly research even goes a step further, claiming that the core of the film is based in a connection between comedy and religion. In his article, “Can We Laugh At God?: Apocalyptic Comedy in Film” for the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Lamm categorizes Life of Brian as “apocalyptic comedy”, which he describes as comedy that is roughly philosophical, with an ultimate purpose of revelation. Lamm’s analysis of Life of Brian permits additional insight, as he states that, “Monty Python’s form of apocalyptic comedy ceases to laugh with the faithful… Monty Python cynically laughs at the laughers… Life of Brian tempts us to snicker philosophically, to hoot at pathetic humanity groping toward an illusory mythic telos.” Lamm furthermore claims that the human reaction to Life of Brian is tied to the nihilistic roots, pointed out by Nietzsche, imbedded within society, as it deals with subconscious societal views of Christianity. He then goes on to point out that this connection reveals unexplored attitudes pertaining not only to Christianity, but towards all forms of religion as well.
Therefore, in spite of the myriad connections to Christianity, the film’s critique applies to all forms of organized religion. Life of Brian accomplishes this feat largely through its ability to skirt the line between making direct connections to Christ and implying flaws in the institution. Furthermore, it seems that Life of Brian’s intention is not to attack and criticize only for the purpose of injury; instead it is attempting to ameliorate a common condition within society: blind faith and all its corollaries. For example, the famous scene in which Brian proclaims, “You are all individuals!” and the crowd replies in synchrony, “Yes! We are all individuals!” is an evident demonstration of how blind faith and a lack of concrete theological understanding can lead a religon’s practitioners astray from its intended message.
“…In spite of its seemingly commendable message, the film was widely picketed, and even banned in several countries in Europe.”
The film also targets those who accept any faith out of a desperate search for some sort of “panacea.” While religions are often intended as guidelines that aid in granting life with direction and purpose, it is not uncommon for an individual to perceive it as a promise of salvation, or even an assurance of certain happiness. Much to that person’s chagrin, he or she quickly comes to find that the new religion is not an automatic cure-all, and that, as most sincere religious practitioners will admit, faith rarely comes easily. This aimless religious wanderer frequently serves as the butt of many of Monty Python’s jokes. Brian’s group of followers, who jump on the bandwagon under the absurd assumption that Brian possesses the secret to eternal life, are such an example. Cleese’s famous line, in which he hails Brian as the Messiah, his claim grounded in the statement “I say you are the Messiah, and I should know: I’ve followed a few!” is a lucid case in point.
Yet, in spite of this seemingly commendable message, the film was widely picketed, and even banned in several countries in Europe. Thus it seems that while the message of the film was not intended to undermine Christianity, not all the members of the audience were capable of seeing through the farce. Which brings up the question: how effectively was the satire portrayed if its impact was not pervasive? While of course most movies deal with a variety of opinions ranging from censure to acclaim, when working in an arena as sensitive to flippancy as Christianity, should more discretion have been involved? According to Robert Hewison, author of the book The Case Against Monty Python, the years during which the Python crew was working on Life of Brian were of considerable turmoil and sensitivity. An article in the journal Gay News, which featured an article about a liaison between Jesus Christ and a Roman centurion, was under trial for blasphemy not long after the script for Life of Brian had been drafted. The affair caused quite a controversy, resulting in a politically charged and uneasy atmosphere that had little patience for anything that even bordered upon irreverence. If blasphemy pervaded the film, it would be blocked from ever reaching the screen. It seemed that getting the film through the censor board in the United Kingdom would be nearly impossible, unless absolute precaution was taken in distinguishing the film from blasphemy.
The film did indeed take several cautionary steps. Hewison writes that not only were a number of changes made regarding inappropriate language, but that they also informally submitted the script to a Canon of St. George’s, Windsor Castle, to get an idea of how the film might be received from a particularly religious perspective. The Canon, after reviewing the script, sent a reply stating that, “It seems clear that the script is not meant to be blasphemous, and that it is exacting the maximum comedy out of false religion”. In addition, one of the characters, Otto, who was supposedly a Samaritan with Nazi inclinations, was expurgated from the film on the grounds that it was offensive to contemporary Zionists, even at the cost of having to rewrite the ending of the film. Furthermore, the fact that Brian Cohen is specifically depicted as a separate entity from Jesus Christ, and thus not as an implicit symbol, reveals an intention to evade blasphemy. It is also important to note that in the central scene in which Jesus is presented, in his Sermon on the Mount, he is upheld in a favorable and biblically accurate light. The comedy in that scene, rather, mocks his audience, primarily in their crass reception of sacred and valuable instruction, whether it be Brian’s mother’s rude shout “Speak up!”, one listener’s absurd explanation of the phrase “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” or the squabble that ensues during the sermon.
“Is Mr. Schickel saying that we should have an occasional holocaust? Or is he saying that if we go for a stretch of time without a holocaust, at least we ought to engage the Monty Python players to do comedy based on Auschwitz?”
In spite of these preliminary steps, when Life of Brian hit theaters in America, it was met with surprisingly clamorous protest. The film was actually taken off the screen in a number of states, including New York, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and California. While many condemnations of the film rested on a general misinterpretation of Life of Brian, some of the arguments raise interesting issues. One, for example, was raised by William F. Buckley, a columnist for the New York Post, in response to a review on the film by Richard Shickel of Time magazine, who stated that “[the film’s protest] will attract those who need it most: adults who have not had their basic premises offended, and thereafter have not examined, in too long.” Buckley’s reply stated, “We are told that all our basic premises need occasionally to be ‘offended’. Well, one of our basic premises is that people ought not to be persecuted on account of their race or religion. Is Mr. Schickel saying that we should have an occasional holocaust? Or is he saying that if we go for a stretch of time without a holocaust, at least we ought to engage the Monty Python players to do comedy based on Auschwitz? With characters marching into a gas chamber dancing, say, the mamba? Led by Anne Frank?” While Buckley’s exaggeration does perhaps go a little too far, his argument touches upon some inherent conflicts existing within the civil rights provisions established under the national government: namely, that which exists between the right to free speech and the protection of religious freedom.
However, Buckley’s reply seems to also reaffirm Schickel’s statement. Rather than denying Schickel’s accusation against protesters of blind faith, Buckley seems to argue for the protection of his right to follow any religion of his choosing, with utter conviction and yet without means of validation. For clearly, if Buckley feels that an alternate perspective threatens the state of his own religious beliefs, then his faith seems to exist on a rather precarious platform. Following the assumption that Schickel’s claim is true then, was the trend of misinterpretation a fault of the movie, or should the blame rest upon the members of the audience? The message was obviously not intended to desecrate the Christian faith. John Cleese, in an interview with John Hannah of People Magazine, said, “We’re not putting down anyone’s religion but the ways of following religion that completely miss the point of what it’s all about.” But if the entire purpose of their satire was to correct the flaws of blind believers whose spiritual focus is extravagant but slightly off the mark, and the only result is anger from the critiqued, does the film ultimately fail in propagating its objective? It is difficult to say. While many simply reacted to the film with dismay, some may have been prompted to serious critical questioning and eventually to a deeper conviction in their religious beliefs. It is even possible that the film could be regarded as a much needed purgative within a largely superficial society.
“It would be just as unjust to declare that the controversy surrounding Michelangelo’s David for its nudity was due to artistic indiscretion…”
Ultimately, while the number of people who protested the film was considerable, it seems unfair to claim that the controversy stemmed from Monty Python’s failure to express their intended message with the utmost clarity. It would be just as unjust to declare that the controversy surrounding Michelangelo’s David for its nudity was due to artistic indiscretion, or that misinterpretation of Salvador Dali rests in his use of the grotesque. The reception of a piece of art is beyond the control of the artist. While the film does quite blatantly ridicule the inconsistencies of an untested faith, it conscientiously evades any derision of the religious faiths themselves. Ironically enough, it harangues the “misinterpreters.” As stated earlier, Life of Brian “laughs at the laughers.” While the satirical film skirts a topic that is for many “too close for comfort”, it seems unlikely that Life of Brian caused any real harm or damage, for all of the controversy—some of which seems absurd in retrospect—surrounding it. After all, it’s only a joke.
About the Author:
Amanda DeJong is a sophomore from Shafter, CA majoring in Health and Humanity. She has a special passion for organic chemistry and Dutch landscape paintings and plans to eventually attend Pharmacy school.
Hannah, John. “Sounds Off: John Cleese.” People Magazine. Vol. 61 (May 10, 2004). p 33.
Hanscombe, Stuart. “Laugh? I Thought My Ink Would Never Dry: On the Relation Between Philosophy and Comedy.” Cogito. Vol. 13 (November 1999). pp. 207-217. 10/30/04. Available here.
Hewison, Robert. The Case Against Monty Python. New York. Grove Press Inc., 1981.
Idle, Eric. “Call It Crucifixion Lite.” Los Angeles Times. 25 April 2004. E12.
Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol 19 (Summer 1991): pp.81-90.