Witch trial scene from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, National Film Trustee Co., 1975)
A still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, National Film Trustee Co., 1975)
Stories & Ideas

Sun 01 Nov 2020

Monty Python and the Holy Grail – "And therefore… a witch!"

Edit Line Film Pop culture
Blake Howard

Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute

Well, she has got a wart.

Within seconds of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), one cannot help but legitimately laugh out loud. We are introduced to King Arthur (Graham Chapman) pretending to ride a horse through the English countryside, with his trusty valet Patsy (Terry Gilliam) following along as a private Foley studio creating the clatter of hooves with two halves of a coconut. In 1975, The Beatles of British comedy, Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin) decided that the Arthurian legends were some fertile ground for their particular brand of absurdist nonsense by way of incisive class satire. Thus, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was conceived on a break between the third and fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Holy Grail sees King Arthur assemble the Round Table Knights before being tasked with finding the grail, by God no less.

On King Arthur’s early search for Knights, he comes upon an angry mob, attempting to burn a witch (Connie Booth) at the stake. The Knight/Magistrate, in his nonsensical musical accent, asks to take a look. When Booth’s witch gets brought to him she straightforwardly tells the Knight/Magistrate that she’s not a witch and that the mob has dressed her like one, even by forcing her to wear a false nose (that looks very much like a colour drained carrot on a string). Of course in the deranged and muddied peasant horde are the instantly recognisable faces of Idle, Cleese, Jones and co. The Knight/Magistrate inspects the nose, sees that it’s false and the mob admits to the fact that they too made her wear the hat, but that’s all – she is most definitely a witch.

Monty Python is creating their micro version of The Crucible, playwright Arthur Miller’s metaphor for McCarthyism using the Salem witch trials. It’s challenging to describe how perfect this kind of rationalisation of witchery plays. We’re meant to accept an Arthur who doesn’t have a horse, whose been interrogated about where his valet got those coconuts? We’re meant to casually accept this mob rationalisation after Arthur casually fights off the infamous Black Knight – who after his arm is lopped off, deflects that it’s a flesh wound. It’s just another perfect calibration of penetrating and ridiculous; walking in step with layer upon layer of absurd contradiction. It’s the Python instinct to infuse these setups for hope and rationality in this satirical scenario; before they take great perverse pleasure in the ludicrous and pervert the entire line of rational questioning. The mob’s desperation for this witch hunt and exasperation at any of the questions from the Knight/Magistrate as to the validity of their prisoner’s witchy qualities continues to be hilarious. The more they’re confused by his logic, you realise that you’re pulling a similarly confounded expression. Set up for hope, NONSENSE NONSENSE NONSENSE, “And therefore?... A witch!”

– Blake Howard

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This essay was written for Edit Line

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