Monty Python's Life of Brian

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Monty Python's
Life of Brian
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Terry Jones
Produced byJohn Goldstone
Written by Monty Python
Music by Geoffrey Burgon
Cinematography Peter Biziou
Edited by Julian Doyle
Distributed by

Paramount Pictures (rare US VHS copies)

Columbia Pictures (current US distribution)
Release date
  • 17 August 1979 (1979-08-17)(United States)
  • 8 November 1979 (1979-11-08)(United Kingdom)
Running time
93 minutes [1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$4 million [2]
Box office$20.2 million [3]

Monty Python's Life of Brian, also known as Life of Brian, is a 1979 British comedy film starring and written by the comedy group Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin). It was also directed by Jones. The film tells the story of Brian Cohen (played by Chapman), a young Jewish man who is born on the same day as—and next door to—Jesus Christ, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.

A comedy film is a genre of film in which the main emphasis is on humour. These films are designed to make the audience laugh through amusement and most often work by exaggerating characteristics for humorous effect. Films in this style traditionally have a happy ending. One of the oldest genres in film – and derived from the classical comedy in theatre –, some of the very first silent movies were comedies, as slapstick comedy often relies on visual depictions, without requiring sound. When sound films became more prevalent during the 1920s, comedy films took another swing, as laughter could result from burlesque situations but also dialogue.

Monty Python British surreal comedy group

Monty Python are a British surreal comedy group who created the sketch comedy television show Monty Python's Flying Circus, which first aired on the BBC in 1969. Forty-five episodes were made over four series. The Python phenomenon developed from the television series into something larger in scope and impact, including touring stage shows, films, numerous albums, several books, and musicals. The Pythons' influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles' influence on music. Regarded as an enduring icon of 1970s pop culture, their sketch show has been referred to as being “an important moment in the evolution of television comedy".

Graham Chapman English comedian, writer and actor

Graham Arthur Chapman was an English comedian, writer, actor, author, and one of the six members of the British surreal comedy group Monty Python. He played authority figures such as the Colonel and the lead role in two Python films, Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979).


Following the withdrawal of funding by EMI Films just days before production was scheduled to begin, long-time Monty Python fan and former member of the Beatles, George Harrison, arranged financing for Life of Brian through the formation of his company HandMade Films. [4]

EMI Films was a British film studio and distributor. A subsidiary of the EMI conglomerate, the corporate name was not used throughout the entire period of EMI's involvement in the film industry, from 1969 to 1986, but the company's brief connection with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Anglo-EMI, the division under Nat Cohen, and the later company as part of the Thorn EMI conglomerate are outlined here.

The Beatles English rock band

The Beatles were an English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960. With a line-up comprising John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they are regarded as the most influential band of all time. The group were integral to the evolution of pop music into an art form and to the development of the counterculture of the 1960s. Their sound, rooted in skiffle, beat and 1950s rock and roll, incorporated elements of classical music and traditional pop in innovative ways. They also pioneered recording techniques and explored music styles ranging from ballads and Indian music to psychedelia and hard rock. As they continued to draw influences from a variety of cultural sources, their musical and lyrical sophistication grew, and they came to be seen as embodying the era's socio-cultural movements.

George Harrison British musician and lead guitarist of the Beatles

George Harrison was an English musician, singer-songwriter, and music and film producer who achieved international fame as the lead guitarist of the Beatles. Sometimes called "the quiet Beatle", Harrison embraced Indian culture and helped broaden the scope of popular music through his incorporation of Indian instrumentation and Hindu-aligned spirituality in the Beatles' work. Although the majority of the band's songs were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, most Beatles albums from 1965 onwards contained at least two Harrison compositions. His songs for the group included "Taxman", "Within You Without You", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something".

The film contains themes of religious satire that were controversial at the time of its release, drawing accusations of blasphemy, and protests from some religious groups. Thirty-nine local authorities in the United Kingdom either imposed an outright ban, or imposed an X (18 years) certificate, effectively preventing the film from being shown, since the distributors said it could not be shown unless it was unedited and carried the original AA (14) certificate. Some countries, including Ireland and Norway, banned its showing, with a few of these bans lasting decades. The filmmakers used such notoriety to benefit their marketing campaign, with posters in Sweden reading, "So funny, it was banned in Norway!" [5]

Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, or sacred objects, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.

Ireland Island in north-west Europe, 20th largest in world, politically divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a part of the UK)

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George's Channel. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth.

Norway Country in Northern Europe

Norway, officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic country in Northwestern Europe whose territory comprises of the western and northernmost portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula; the remote island of Jan Mayen and the archipelago of Svalbard are also part of the Kingdom of Norway. The Antarctic Peter I Island and the sub-Antarctic Bouvet Island are dependent territories and thus not considered part of the kingdom. Norway also lays claim to a section of Antarctica known as Queen Maud Land.

The film was a box office success, the fourth-highest-grossing film in the United Kingdom in 1979, and highest grossing of any British film in the United States that year. It has remained popular, receiving positive reviews. The film was named "greatest comedy film of all time" by several magazines and television networks, and it would later receive a 97% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "One of the more cutting-edge films of the 1970s, this religious farce from the classic comedy troupe is as poignant as it is funny and satirical." [6] In a 2006 Channel 4 poll, Life of Brian was ranked first on their list of the 50 Greatest Comedy Films. [7]

Rotten Tomatoes American review aggregator for film and television, owned by Fandango

Rotten Tomatoes is an American review-aggregation website for film and television. The company was launched in August 1998 by three undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley: Senh Duong, Patrick Y. Lee, and Stephen Wang. The name "Rotten Tomatoes" derives from the practice of audiences throwing rotten tomatoes when disapproving of a poor stage performance.

Channel 4 British free-to-air television channel

Channel 4 is a British public-service free-to-air television network headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It began transmission on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the station is now owned and operated by Channel Four Television Corporation, a public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which was established in 1990 and came into operation in 1993. With the conversion of the Wenvoe transmitter group in Wales to digital terrestrial broadcasting on 31 March 2010, Channel 4 became a UK-wide television channel for the first time.

<i>100 Greatest</i> (TV series) UK television series

100 Greatest is a long-running TV strand on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom that has been broadcasting since 1999. The "list show" programmes are generally public polls, and reflect the votes of visitors to the Channel 4 website. However, the results of some of the polls are determined by experts. The programmes are usually broadcast in the weekend schedule, in three- or four-hour blocks, throughout the year. They are also repeated on E4 on Saturday nights or on Sunday nights.


Brian Cohen is born in a stable next door to the one in which Jesus is born, which initially confuses the three wise men who come to praise the future King of the Jews. Brian later grows up an idealistic young man who resents the continuing Roman occupation of Judea. While attending Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, Brian becomes infatuated with an attractive young rebel, Judith. His desire for her and hatred for the Romans lead him to join the "People's Front of Judea", one of many fractious and bickering independence movements who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans.

Biblical Magi group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth

The biblical Magi, also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, were – in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition – distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.

Sermon on the Mount collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus

The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ, which emphasizes his moral teaching found in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the first of the Five Discourses of Matthew and takes place relatively early in the Ministry of Jesus after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, finished his fasting and meditation retreat in the desert, and begun to preach in Galilee. The name and location of the mountain is unstated; the Mount of Beatitudes is the traditional interpretation.

The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism, which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70). Zealotry was the term used by Josephus for a "fourth sect" or "fourth Jewish philosophy" during this period.

After several misadventures, and escaping from Pontius Pilate, Brian winds up in a line-up of would-be mystics and prophets who harangue the passing crowd in a plaza. Forced to come up with something plausible in order to blend in and keep the guards off his back, Brian repeats some of what he had heard Jesus say, and quickly attracts a small but intrigued audience. Once the guards have left, Brian tries to put the episode behind him, but he has unintentionally inspired a movement. He grows frantic when he finds that some people have started to follow him around, with even the slightest unusual occurrence being hailed as a miracle. Their responses grow in fervour and intensity, making it harder and harder for him to get away from them, yet because of the mob's excitement over the "miracles" they discover, they ultimately end up completely ignoring Brian himself. Judith is the only one who does not leave; Brian and Judith then spend the night together. In the morning, Brian, completely naked, opens the curtains to discover an enormous crowd, which proclaims him to be the Messiah, outside his mother's house. Brian's mother protests, telling the crowd that "He's not the Messiah; he's a very naughty boy," and, "There's no Messiah in here. There's a mess, all right, but no Messiah." All of her attempts at dispersing the crowd are rebuffed. Furthermore, once Brian addresses them, he also finds that he is unable to change their minds. His followers are completely committed to their belief in Brian's divinity. They immediately seize upon everything he says and does as points of doctrine.

Pontius Pilate Fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, c. 26–36 CE

Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from 26/27 to 36/37 CE. He is best known today for being the official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion. Pilate's importance in modern Christianity is underscored by his prominent place in both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. The Coptic and Ethiopian Churches venerate Pilate as a saint.

Miracle An event not explicable by natural or scientific laws

A miracle is an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being, magic, a miracle worker, a saint, or a religious leader.

Messiah Saviour or liberator of a group of people, most commonly in the Abrahamic religions

In Abrahamic religions, a messiah or messias is a saviour or liberator of a group of people. The concepts of moshiach, messianism, and of a Messianic Age originated in Judaism, and in the Hebrew Bible; a moshiach (messiah) is a king or High Priest traditionally anointed with holy anointing oil. Messiahs were not exclusively Jewish: the Book of Isaiah refers to Cyrus the Great, king of the Achaemenid Empire, as a messiah for his decree to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple.

The hapless Brian is unable to escape his unwanted "disciples"; even his mother's house is surrounded by an enormous, enraptured crowd. They fling their afflicted bodies at him, demanding miracle cures and divine secrets. After sneaking out the back, Brian is then finally captured and scheduled to be crucified. Meanwhile, yet another huge crowd has assembled outside the palace. Pontius Pilate (together with the visiting Biggus Dickus) tries to quell the feeling of revolution by granting them the choice of one person to be pardoned. The crowd, however, shouts out names containing the letter "r", mocking Pilate's rhotacistic speech impediment. Eventually, Judith appears in the crowd and calls for the release of Brian, which the crowd echoes, since the name also contains an "r". Pilate agrees to "welease Bwian". [8]

His order is eventually relayed to the guards, but in a scene that parodies the climax of the film Spartacus , various crucified people all claim to be "Brian of Nazareth" so they can be free and the wrong man is accidentally released. Various other opportunities for a reprieve for Brian are denied as, one by one, his "allies" (including Judith) step forward to explain why they are leaving the "noble freedom fighter" hanging in the hot sun, while his mother expresses regret for having raised him at all. Hope is renewed when a crack suicide squad from the "Judean People's Front" (not to be confused with the People's Front of Judea) come charging towards the Romans, but rather than fighting to release Brian or the other prisoners, they commit mass suicide as a form of political protest. Condemned to a slow and painful death, Brian finds his spirits lifted by his fellow sufferers, who cheerfully start singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." [9]


Several characters remained unnamed during the film but do have names that are used in the soundtrack album track listing and elsewhere. There is no mention in the film that Eric Idle's ever-cheerful joker is called "Mr Cheeky", or that the Roman guard played by Michael Palin is named "Nisus Wettus".

Spike Milligan plays a prophet, ignored because his acolytes are chasing after Brian. By coincidence Milligan was visiting his old World War II battlefields in Tunisia where the film was being made. The Pythons were alerted to this one morning and he was promptly included in the scene being filmed. He disappeared in the afternoon before he could be included in any of the close-up or publicity shots for the film. [10]



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 flippantly suggested that the title of the Pythons' forthcoming feature would be Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory (a play on the UK title for the 1970 American film Patton ). [11] This was after he had become frustrated at repeatedly being asked what it would be called, despite the troupe not having given the matter of a third film any consideration. However, they shared a distrust of organised religion, and, after witnessing the critically acclaimed Holy Grail's enormous financial turnover, confirming an appetite among the fans for more cinematic endeavours, they began to seriously consider a film lampooning the New Testament era in the same way that Holy Grail had lampooned Arthurian legend. All they needed was an idea for a plot. Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, while promoting Holy Grail in Amsterdam, had come up with a sketch in which Jesus' cross is falling apart because of the idiotic carpenters who built it and he angrily tells them how to do it correctly. However, after an early brainstorming stage, and despite being non-believers, they agreed that Jesus was "definitely a good guy" and found nothing to mock in his actual teachings: "He's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff", said Idle later. [12] After settling on the name Brian for their new protagonist, one idea considered was that of "the 13th disciple". [11] The focus eventually shifted to a separate individual born at a similar time and location who would be mistaken for the Messiah, but had no desire to be followed as such. [13]


Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta.
Reg: What!?
Stan: It's my right as a man.
Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg: You want to have babies?!?!?!
Stan: It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But you can't have babies.
Stan: Don't you oppress me.

—Dialogue from The Inalienable Rights scene, with Stan (Idle), Reg (Cleese) and Judith (Jones-Davies). [14]

The first draft of the screenplay, provisionally titled The Gospel According to St. Brian, was ready by Christmas 1976. [15] The final pre-production draft was ready in January 1978, following "a concentrated two-week writing and water-skiing period in Barbados". [16] The film would not have been made without Python fan former Beatle George Harrison, who set up HandMade Films to help fund it at a cost of £3 million. [17] Harrison put up the money for it as he "wanted to see the movie"—later described by Terry Jones as the "world's most expensive cinema ticket." [18]

The original backers, EMI Films, had been scared off at the last minute by the subject matter, particularly Bernard Delfont. [11] [17] The very last words in the film are: "I said to him, 'Bernie, they'll never make their money back on this one'", teasing Delfont for his lack of faith in the project. 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." [19] As a reward for his help, Harrison appears in a cameo appearance as Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount", who briefly shakes hands with Brian in a crowd scene (at 1:09 in the film). His one word of dialogue (a cheery but out of place Scouse "'ullo") had to be dubbed in later by Michael Palin. [20]


Ribat of Monastir, Monastir, Tunisia. According to Michael Palin, the very first scene they filmed for Life of Brian was the "stoning" scene along the outside wall of the Ribat. TUNISIE MONASTIR RIBAT 02.jpg
Ribat of Monastir, Monastir, Tunisia. According to Michael Palin, the very first scene they filmed for Life of Brian was the “stoning” scene along the outside wall of the Ribat.

Terry Jones was solely responsible for directing, having amicably agreed with Gilliam (who co-directed Holy Grail) to do so, with Gilliam concentrating on the look of the film. [21] Holy Grail's production had often been stilted by their differences behind the camera. Gilliam again contributed two animated sequences (one being the opening credits) and took charge of set design. However, this did not put an absolute end to their feuding. On the DVD commentary, Gilliam expresses pride in one set in particular, the main hall of Pilate's fortress, which had been designed so that it looked like an ancient synagogue that the Romans had converted by dumping their structural artefacts (such as marble floors and columns) on top. He reveals his consternation at Jones for not paying enough attention to it in the cinematography. Gilliam also worked on the matte paintings, useful in particular for the very first shot of the three wise men against a star-scape and in giving the illusion of the whole of the outside of the fortress being covered in graffiti. Perhaps the most significant contribution from Gilliam was the scene in which Brian accidentally leaps off a high building and lands inside a starship about to engage in an interstellar war. This was done "in camera" using a hand-built model starship and miniature pyrotechnics, likely influenced by the recently released Star Wars . Afterwards, George Lucas met Terry Gilliam in San Francisco and praised him for his work.

The film was shot on location in Monastir, Tunisia, which allowed the production to reuse sets from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977). [22] The Tunisian shoot was documented by Iain Johnstone for his BBC film The Pythons . Many locals were employed as extras on Life of Brian. Director 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.'" [19] Further location shooting also took place in Tunisia, at Sousse (Jerusalem outer walls and gateway), Carthage (Roman theatre) and Matmata (Sermon on the Mount and Crucifixion). [23]

Graham Chapman, suffering from alcoholism, was so determined to play the lead role – at one point coveted by Cleese – that he dried out in time for filming, so much so that he also acted as the on-set doctor. [10]

Rough cut and pre-screenings

Following shooting between 16 September and 12 November 1978, [16] a two-hour 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, losing a number of entire filmed sequences. [11]


A number of scenes were cut during the editing process. Five deleted scenes, a total of 13 minutes, including the controversial "Otto", were first made available in 1997 on the Criterion Collection Laserdisc. [24] An unknown amount of raw footage was destroyed in 1998 by the company that bought Handmade Films. However, a number of them (of varying quality) were shown the following year on the Paramount Comedy Channel in the UK. The scenes shown included three shepherds discussing sheep and completely missing the arrival of the angel heralding Jesus's birth, which would have been at the very start of the film; a segment showing the attempted kidnap of Pilate's wife (a large woman played by John Case) whose escape results in a fistfight; a scene introducing hardline Zionist Otto, leader of the Judean People's Front (played by Eric Idle) and his men who practise a suicide run in the courtyard; and a brief scene in which Judith releases some birds into the air in an attempt to summon help. The shepherds' scene has badly distorted sound, and the kidnap scene has poor colour quality. [25] The same scenes that were on the Criterion laserdisc can now be found on the Criterion Collection DVD.

The most controversial cuts were the scenes involving Otto, initially a recurring character, who had a thin Adolf Hitler moustache and spoke with a German accent, shouting accusations of "racial impurity" at people whose conceptions were similar to Brian's (Roman centurion rape of native Judean women), and other Nazi phrases. The logo of the Judean People's Front, designed by Terry Gilliam, [26] was a Star of David with a small line added to each point so it resembled a swastika, most familiar in the West as the symbol of the anti-Semitic Nazi movement. The rest of this faction also all had the same thin moustaches, and wore a spike on their helmets, similar to those on Imperial German helmets. The official reason for the cutting was that Otto's dialogue slowed down the narrative. However, 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." Idle himself was said to have been uncomfortable with the character; "It's essentially 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." [12] Michael Palin's personal journal entries from the period when various edits of Brian were being test-screened consistently reference the Pythons' and filmmakers' concerns that the Otto scenes were slowing the story down and thus were top of the list to be chopped from the final cut of the film. [23] However, Oxford Brookes University historian David Nash says the removal of the scene represented "a form of self-censorship" and the Otto sequence "which involved a character representative of extreme forms of Zionism" was cut "in the interests of smoothing the way for the film's distribution in America." [27]

The only scene with Otto that remains in the film is during the crucifixion sequence. Otto arrives with his "crack suicide squad", sending the Roman soldiers fleeing in terror. Instead of doing anything useful, they "attack" by committing mass suicide in front of the cross ("Zat showed 'em, huh?" says the dying Otto, to which Brian despondently replies "You silly sods!"), ending Brian's 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). Terry Jones once mentioned that the only reason this excerpt was not cut too was due to continuity reasons, as their dead bodies were very prominently placed throughout the rest of the scene. He acknowledged that some of the humour of this sole remaining contribution was lost through the earlier edits, but felt they were necessary to the overall pacing.

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 Fifth Legion to the headquarters of the People's Front of Judea, Reg (John Cleese) says "You cunt!! You stupid, bird-brained, flat-headed..." [28] 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." [12]

An early listing of the sequence of sketches reprinted in Monty Python: The Case Against by Robert Hewison reveals that the film was to have begun with a set of sketches at an English public school. Much of this material was first printed in the Monty Python's The Life of Brian / Monty Python Scrapbook that accompanied the original script publication of The Life of Brian and then subsequently reused. The song "All Things Dull and Ugly" and the parody scripture reading "Martyrdom of St. Victor" were performed on Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980). The idea of a violent rugby match between school masters and small boys was filmed in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). A sketch about a boy who dies at school appeared on the unreleased The Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album (1981).


An album was also released by Monty Python in 1979 in conjunction with the film. In addition to the "Brian Song" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", it contains scenes from the film with brief linking sections performed by Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. The album opens with a brief rendition of "Hava Nagila" on Scottish bagpipes. A CD version was released in 1997.

An album of the songs sung in Monty Python's Life of Brian was released on the Disky label. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was later re-released with great success, after being sung by British football fans. Its popularity became truly evident in 1982 during the Falklands War when sailors aboard the destroyer HMS Sheffield, severely damaged in an Argentinean Exocet missile attack on 4 May, started singing it while awaiting rescue. [29] [30] Many people have come to see the song as a life-affirming ode to optimism. One of its more famous renditions was by the dignitaries of Manchester's bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, just after they were awarded to Sydney. Idle later performed the song as part of the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. [31] "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is also featured in Eric Idle's Spamalot , a Broadway musical based upon Monty Python and the Holy Grail , and was sung by the rest of the Monty Python group at Graham Chapman's memorial service and at the Monty Python Live At Aspen special. The song is a staple at Iron Maiden concerts, where the recording is played after the final encore. [32]


For the original British and Australian releases, a spoof travelogue narrated by John Cleese, Away From It All, was shown before the film itself. It consisted mostly of stock travelogue footage and featured arch comments from Cleese. For instance, a shot of Bulgarian girls in ceremonial dresses was accompanied by the comment "Hard to believe, isn't it, that these simple happy folk are dedicated to the destruction of Western Civilisation as we know it!", Communist Bulgaria being a member of the Warsaw Pact at the time. Not only was this a spoof of travelogues per se, it was a protest against the then common practice in Britain of showing cheaply made banal short features before a main feature.

Life of Brian opened on 17 August 1979 in five North American theatres and grossed US$140,034 ($28,007 per screen) in its opening weekend. Its total gross was $19,398,164. It was the highest grossing British film in North America that year. Released on 8 November 1979 in the UK, [33] the film was the fourth highest-grossing film in Britain in 1979.

On 30 April 2004, Life of Brian was re-released on five North American screens to "cash in" (as Terry Jones put it) [34] on the box office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ . It grossed $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 $646,124 during its re-release. By comparison, a re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail had earned $1.8 million three years earlier. A DVD of the film was also released that year.


Reviews from critics were mostly positive on its release. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "the foulest-spoken biblical epic ever made, as well as the best-humored—a nonstop orgy of assaults, not on anyone's virtue, but on the funny bone. It makes no difference that some of the routines fall flat because there are always others coming along immediately after that succeed." [35] Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, writing, "What's endearing about the Pythons is their good cheer, their irreverence, their willingness to allow comic situations to develop through a gradual accumulation of small insanities." [36] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars, calling it "a gentle but very funny parody of the life of Jesus, as well as of biblical movies." [37] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times declared, "Even those of us who find Monty Python too hit-and-miss and gory must admit that its latest effort has numerous moments of hilarity." [38] Clyde Jeavons of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the script was "occasionally over-raucous and crude," but found the second half of the film "cumulatively hilarious," with "a splendidly tasteless finale, which even Mel Brooks might envy." [39] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post had a negative opinion of the film, writing that it was "a cruel fiction to foster the delusion that 'Brian' is bristling with blasphemous nifties and throbbing with impious wit. If only it were! One might find it easier to keep from nodding off." [40]

"Despite the numerous Biblical references, the film is not about Christ, but a nearly-messiah named Brian whose misfortune sees him worshipped by three wise but lost men, accrue disciples, and ultimately crucified for his efforts at pursuing a simple life. Funded by ex-Beatle George Harrison, and fiercely lobbied against on its release, this film has secured a place in cinematic history."

—Channel 4 entry for Life of Brian which ranked first on their list of the 50 Greatest Comedy Films. [7]

Over time, Life of Brian has regularly been cited as a significant contender for the title "greatest comedy film of all time", and has been named as such in polls conducted by Total Film magazine in 2000, [41] the British TV network Channel 4 where it topped the poll in the 50 Greatest Comedy Films, [42] and The Guardian newspaper in 2007. [43] Rotten Tomatoes lists it as one of the best reviewed comedies, with a 95% approval rating from 61 published reviews. A 2011 poll by Time Out magazine ranked it as the third greatest comedy film ever made, behind Airplane! and This is Spinal Tap . [44]

The BFI declared Life of Brian to be the 28th best British film of all time, in their equivalent of the original AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list. It was the seventh highest ranking comedy on this list (four of the better placed efforts were classic Ealing Films). [45] Another Channel 4 poll in 2001 named it the 23rd greatest film of all time (the only comedy that came higher was Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot , which was ranked 5th). [46] In 2016, Empire magazine ranked Life of Brian 2nd in their list of the 100 best British films, with only David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia ranking higher. [47]

Various polls have voted the line, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!" (spoken by Brian's mother Mandy to the crowd assembled outside her house) the funniest in film history. [48] [49] Other famous lines from the film have featured in polls, such as, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and "I'm Brian and so's my wife". [48]

Blasphemy accusations

Initial criticism

Richard Webster comments in A Brief History of Blasphemy (1990) that "internalised censorship played a significant role in the handling" of Monty Python's Life of Brian. In his view, "As a satire on religion, this film might well be considered a rather slight production. As blasphemy it was, even in its original version, extremely mild. Yet the film was surrounded from its inception by intense anxiety, in some quarters of the Establishment, about the offence it might cause. As a result it gained a certificate for general release only after some cuts had been made. Perhaps more importantly still, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to show it for fear of offending Christians in the UK. Once again a blasphemy was restrained – or its circulation effectively curtailed – not by the force of law but by the internalisation of this law." [50] On its initial release in the UK, the film was banned by several town councils – some of which had no cinemas within their boundaries, or had not even seen the film. 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 the Nationwide Festival of Light, a grouping with an evangelical Christian base, of which they knew nothing. [10]

In New York (the film's release in the US preceded British distribution), screenings were picketed by both rabbis and nuns ("Nuns with banners!" observed Michael Palin). [12] It was also banned for eight years in Ireland and for a year in Norway (it was marketed in Sweden as "The film so funny that it was banned in Norway"). [34] During the film's theatrical run in Finland, a text explaining that the film was a parody of Hollywood historical epics was added to the opening credits. [51]

In the UK, Mary Whitehouse, and other traditionalist Christians, pamphleteered and picketed locations where the local cinema was screening the film, a campaign that was felt to have boosted publicity. [52] 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.

Crucifixion issue

One of the most controversial scenes was the film's ending: Brian's crucifixion. Many Christian protesters said that it was mocking Jesus' suffering by turning it into a "Jolly Boys Outing" (such as when Mr Cheeky turns to Brian and says: "See, not so bad once you're up!"), capped by Brian's fellow sufferers suddenly bursting into song. This is also reinforced by the fact that several characters throughout the film claim crucifixion is not as bad as it seems, such as when Brian asks his cellmate in prison what will happen to him, and he replies: "Oh, you'll probably get away with crucifixion", and when Matthias, the old man who works with the PFJ, dismisses crucifixion as "a doddle" and says being stabbed would be worse. The director, Terry Jones, issued the following riposte to this criticism: "Any religion that makes a form of torture into an icon that they worship seems to me a pretty sick sort of religion quite honestly." [10] The Pythons also pointed out that crucifixion was a standard form of execution in ancient times and not just one especially reserved for Jesus. [53]

Responses from the cast

Shortly after the film was released, Cleese and Palin engaged in a debate on the BBC2 discussion programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, who put forward arguments against the film. Muggeridge and the Bishop, it was later claimed, had arrived 15 minutes late to see a screening of the picture prior to the debate, missing the establishing scenes demonstrating that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and hence contended that it was a send-up of Christ himself. [12] Both Pythons later felt that there had been a strange role reversal in the manner of the debate, with two young upstart comedians attempting to make serious, well-researched points, while the Establishment figures engaged in cheap jibes and point scoring. They also expressed disappointment in Muggeridge, whom all in Python had previously respected as a satirist (he had recently converted to Christianity after meeting Mother Teresa and experiencing what he described as a miracle). Cleese expressed that his reputation had "plummeted" in his eyes, while Palin commented, "He was just being Muggeridge, preferring to have a very strong contrary opinion as opposed to none at all." [12] Muggeridge's verdict on the film was that it was "Such a tenth-rate film that it couldn't possibly destroy anyone's genuine faith." In a 2013 interview on BBC Radio 4, Cleese stated that having recently watched the discussion again he "was astonished, first of all, at how stupid [the two members of the Church] were, and how boring the debate became". He added: "I think the sad thing was that there was absolutely no attempt at a proper discussion – no attempt to find any common ground." [54]

"We always stated Brian wasn’t blasphemous, but heretical. It wasn’t about what Christ was saying, but about the people who followed Him – the ones who for the next 2,000 years would torture and kill each other because they couldn’t agree on what He was saying about peace and love."

—Terry Jones speaking in 2011. [13]

The Pythons unanimously deny that they were ever out to destroy people's faith. On the DVD audio commentary, they contend that the film is heretical because it lampoons the practices of modern organised religion, but that it does not blasphemously lampoon the God that Christians and Jews worship. When Jesus does appear in the film (on the Mount, speaking the Beatitudes), he is played straight (by actor Kenneth Colley) and portrayed with respect. The music and lighting make it clear that there is a genuine aura around him. The comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear his statements of peace, love and tolerance ("I think he said, 'blessed are the cheese makers'"). [55] Importantly, he is distinct from the character of Brian, which is also evident in the scene where an annoying and ungrateful ex-leper pesters Brian for money, while moaning that since Jesus cured him, he has lost his source of income in the begging trade (referring to Jesus as a "bloody do-gooder").

James Crossley, however, has argued that the film makes the distinction between Jesus and the character of Brian to make a contrast between the traditional Christ of both faith and cinema and the historical figure of Jesus in critical scholarship and how critical scholars have argued that ideas later got attributed to Jesus by his followers. Crossley points out that the film uses a number of potentially controversial scholarly theories about Jesus but now with reference to Brian, such as the Messianic Secret, the Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus the revolutionary, and having a single mother. [56]

Not all the Pythons agree on the definition of the movie's tone. There was a brief exchange that occurred when the surviving members reunited in Aspen, Colorado, in 1998. [57] In the section where Life of Brian is discussed, Terry Jones says, "I think the film is heretical, but it's not blasphemous." Eric Idle can be heard to concur, adding, "It's a heresy." However, John Cleese, disagreeing, counters, "I don’t think it's a heresy. It's making fun of the way that people misunderstand the teaching." Jones responds, "Of course it's a heresy, John! It's attacking the Church! And that has to be heretical." Cleese replies, "No, it's not attacking the Church, necessarily. It's about people who cannot agree with each other." [57]

In a later interview, Jones said the film "isn't blasphemous because it doesn’t touch on belief at all. It is heretical, because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself." [58]

21st century

"Life of Brian is an extraordinary tribute to the life and work and teaching of Jesus – that they couldn’t actually blaspheme or make a joke out of it. It is a wonderful satire on the way that Jesus’s own teaching has been used to persecute others. They were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus.“

—Theologian Richard Burridge. [55]

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 (alluding to an early scene where a group of women disguise themselves as men so that they are able to take part in a stoning). Although the screening was a sell-out, some Christian groups, notably the conservative Christian Voice, were highly critical of the decision to allow the screening to go ahead. Stephen Green, the head of Christian Voice, insisted that "You don't promote Christ to the community by taking the mick out of him." The Reverend Jonathan Adams, one of the church's clergy, defended his taste in comedy, saying that it did not mock Jesus, and that it raised important issues about the hypocrisy and stupidity that can affect religion. [59] Again on the film's DVD commentary, Cleese also spoke up for religious people who have come forward and congratulated him and his colleagues on the film's highlighting of double standards among purported followers of their own faith. [12]

Some bans continued into the 21st century. In 2008, Torbay Council finally permitted the film to be shown after it won an online vote for the English Riviera International Comedy Film Festival. [60] In 2009, it was announced that a thirty-year-old ban of the film in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth had finally been lifted, and the subsequent showing was attended by Terry Jones and Michael Palin alongside mayor Sue Jones-Davies (who portrayed Judith Iscariot in the film). [61] [62] However, before the showing, an Aberystwyth University student discovered that a ban had only been discussed by the council and in fact that it had been shown (or scheduled to be shown) at a cinema in the town in 1981. [63] [64] In 2013, a German official in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia considered the film to be possibly offensive to Christians and hence subject to a local regulation prohibiting its public screening on Good Friday, despite protests by local atheists. [65] [66]

Political satire

The film pokes fun at revolutionary groups and 1970s British left-wing politics. According to Roger Wilmut, "What the film does do is place modern stereotypes in a historical setting, which enables it to indulge in a number of sharp digs, particularly at trade unionists and guerilla organisations". [67] The groups in the film all oppose the Roman occupation of Judea, but fall into the familiar pattern of intense competition among factions that appears, to an outsider, to be over ideological distinctions so small as to be invisible, thus portraying the phenomenon of the narcissism of small differences. [68] Ironically, similar such disunity fatally beleaguered real-life Judean resistance against Roman rule. [69] Michael Palin says that the various separatist movements were modelled on "modern resistance groups, all with obscure acronyms which they can never remember and their conflicting agendas". [70]

The People's Front of Judea, composed of the Pythons' characters, harangue their "rivals" with cries of "splitters" and stand vehemently opposed to the Judean People's Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee, and the Judean Popular People's Front (the last composed of a single old man, [71] mocking the size of real revolutionary Trotskyist factions). The infighting among revolutionary organisations is demonstrated most dramatically when the PFJ attempts to kidnap Pontius Pilate's wife, but encounters agents of the Campaign for a Free Galilee, and the two factions begin a violent brawl over which of them conceived of the plan first. When Brian exhorts them to cease their fighting to struggle "against the common enemy," the revolutionaries stop and cry in unison, "the Judean People's Front!" However, they soon resume their fighting and, with two Roman legionaries watching bemusedly, continue until Brian is left the only survivor, at which point he is captured.

Other scenes have the freedom fighters wasting time in debate, with one of the debated items being that they should not waste their time debating so much. There is also a famous scene in which Reg gives a revolutionary speech asking, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" at which point the listeners outline all forms of positive aspects of the Roman occupation such as sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public health and peace, followed by "what have the Romans ever done for us except sanitation, medicine, education...". Python biographer George Perry notes, "The People's Liberation Front of Judea conducts its meetings as though they have been convened by a group of shop stewards". [72]



Spin-offs include a script-book The Life of Brian of Nazareth , which was printed back-to-back with MONTYPYTHONSCRAPBOOK as a single book. The printing of this book also caused problems, due to rarely used laws in the United Kingdom 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. [73]

Julian Doyle, the film's editor, wrote The Life of Brian/Jesus, a book which not only describes the filmmaking and editing process but argues that it is the most accurate Biblical film ever made. In October 2008, a memoir by Kim "Howard" Johnson titled Monty Python's Tunisian Holiday: My Life with Brian was released. Johnson became friendly with the Pythons during the filming of Life of Brian and his notes and memories of the behind-the-scenes filming and make-up. [74]


With the success of Eric Idle's musical retelling of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, called Spamalot , Idle announced that he would be giving Life of Brian a similar treatment. The oratorio, called Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) , was commissioned to be part of the festival called Luminato in Toronto in June 2007, and was written/scored by Idle and John Du Prez, who also worked with Idle on Spamalot. Not the Messiah is a spoof of Handel's Messiah . It runs approximately 50 minutes, and was conducted at its world premiere by Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian, who is Idle's cousin. [75] Not the Messiah received its US premiere at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York. Oundjian and Idle joined forces once again for a double performance of the oratorio in July 2007. [76]

Other media

In October 2011, BBC Four premiered the made-for-television comedy film Holy Flying Circus , written by Tony Roche and directed by Owen Harris. The "Pythonesque" film explores the events surrounding the 1979 television debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning between John Cleese and Michael Palin and Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, then Bishop of Southwark. [77]

Rowan Atkinson lampooned the pompous behaviour from the bishop Mervyn Stockwood in the TV debate a week later in a sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News RowanAtkinsonMar07.jpg
Rowan Atkinson lampooned the pompous behaviour from the bishop Mervyn Stockwood in the TV debate a week later in a sketch on Not the Nine O'Clock News

In a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, a bishop who has directed a scandalous film called The Life of Christ is hauled 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 objects of Britain's true religious faith. This was a parody of the infamous Friday Night, Saturday Morning programme, broadcast a week previously. The bishop (played by Rowan Atkinson) claims that the reaction to the film has surprised him, as he "didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition." [8]

Radio host John Williams of Chicago's WGN 720 AM has used "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in a segment of his Friday shows. The segment is used to highlight good events from the past week in listeners' lives and what has made them smile. [78] In the 1997 film As Good as It Gets , the misanthropic character played by Jack Nicholson sings "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" as evidence of the character's change in attitude. [79]

A BBC history series What the Romans Did for Us , written and presented by Adam Hart-Davis and broadcast in 2000, takes its title from Cleese's rhetorical question "What have the Romans ever done for us?" in one of the film's scenes. (Cleese himself parodied this line in a 1986 BBC advert defending the Television Licence Fee: "What has the BBC ever given us?"). [80]

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his Prime Minister's Questions of 3 May 2006 made a shorthand reference to the types of political groups, "Judean People's Front" or "People's Front of Judea", lampooned in Life of Brian. [81] [82] This was in response to a question from the Labour 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?"

On New Year's Day 2007, and again on New Year's Eve, 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. This was followed by a screening of the film itself. [10] The documentary (in a slightly extended form) was one of the special features on the 2007 DVD re-release – the "Immaculate Edition", also the first Python release on Blu-ray.

Most recently, in June 2014 King's College London hosted an academic conference on the film, in which internationally renowned Biblical scholars and historians discussed the film and its reception, looking both at how the Pythons had made use of scholarship and texts, and how the film can be used creatively within modern scholarship on the Historical Jesus. [83] In a panel discussion, including Terry Jones and theologian Richard Burridge, John Cleese described the event as "the most interesting thing to come out of Monty Python". [84] The papers from the conference have gone on to prompt the publication of a book, edited by Joan E. Taylor, the conference organiser, Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python's Life of Brian, published by Bloomsbury in 2015. [85]

See also

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