Back in the days when church groups were a lot more influential than they are now, Monty Python’s groundbreaking satire on religion ‘The Life of Brian’ ruffled more than a few feathers. In it, a boy called Brian is born on the same day as, and next door to, Jesus Christ, and is mistaken for the Messiah, despite his mother’s protestations that “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
Although it seems to be a relatively gentle satire in light of more savage recent broadsides at the concept of organised religion such as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s smash hit musical “The Book of Mormon”, it was very daring for the time. No fewer than 39 local authorities in the UK imposed an outright ban or an X (18)certificate, which effectively prevented it from being shown in those areas as the distributors stated that it could not be shown unless it was unedited and carried the original AA (14) certificate. In some countries, including Norway and Iceland, it was banned outright for several decades.
For many films, censorship of this kind would have been financially disastrous, but the publicity surrounding the bans only served to fuel its runaway box-office success. In 1979, it was the fourth-highest grossing film in the UK, and the highest-grossing British film in the United States. It was a hit with critics too, and several TV networks including Channel 4 and publications such as Total Film magazine and The Guardian have named it “the greatest comedy film of all time”.
The film featured all the stars of the original Monty Python series including Graham Chapman in the title role (as well as two others), and John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin playing several different parts each. They were joined by superstar cameos from the likes of Neil “The Rutles” Innes as a weedy Samaritan, Spike Milligan as “Spike” and former Beatle George Harrison as Mr. Papadopoulos.
While the former Beatles guitarist played a very minor and uncredited role in the film, it couldn’t have been made without him. Struggling for funding after initial backers EMI Films pulled out over concerns about the subject matter, George Harrison set up a new film company “HandMade Films” at a cost of £3 million simply because, in his own words, he “wanted to see the film”. It was a last-minute rescue – EMI pulled out two days before shooting was due to start, which was also incidentally the first time they had read the script, which had been deliberately kept under wraps by the creators.
Unlike its predecessor, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, The Life of Brian was directed by Terry Jones rather than Terry Gilliam after clashes between the two on the previous movie. Gilliam did however contribute two of his trademark animated sequences and several background paintings and sets for the film, the most spectacular of which was a starship bound for interstellar war that Brian inadvertently lands in, a Star Wars pastiche that drew praise from no less than George Lucas himself.#
The enduring success of The Life of Brian has spawned many spin-offs, including a hit LP, a #1 single (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”), a comedy musical oratorio called “Not the Messiah(He’s a Very Naughty Boy”, and even an online Monty Python Slot game, which you can find out more about at movieslots.co.uk.