In early October 1979, while the Pope toured the United States to great acclamation, the number-one film at movie-house box offices all over America was Monte Python’s Life of Brian, a British parody of the life of Jesus Christ widely held to be the most blasphemous motion picture ever made. The scenes of popular enthusiasm which greeted the Pope, appearing largely in his ceremonial capacity, convinced many editorialists that something like a religious revival was on (or according to the normally skeptical George Will, “at least a quickening of sympathy for religious impulses”). Yet Catholic church attendance was declining sharply. The Catholic Church had lost half of the seminarians training for the priesthood in the past ten years. Opinion poll after opinion poll showed that up to 95 per cent of the Catholics in the cheering crowds had no intention of deferring to the Pope’s authority on many of the very matters on which he preached during his stay. It is, then, quite possible that the movie chosen for entertainment by film audiences during the Pope’s visit is a more accurate indication of the state of religious faith in America than the enthusiastic welcome of the bicentennial-celebration-like crowds along the Pope’s route.
The Catholic Conference’s Office for Film and Broadcasting (OFB) complained that a movie like Life of Brian would never even have been granted a seal under the film industry’s old production code, and that the rating board’s tacit approval of the movie (it granted an “R” and not an “X” rating) tells us a lot “about the perceptions of the film industry leaders as to where the country’s religious values really are.” It no doubt does. And, of course, these perceptions may be right.
It has been observed, perfectly accurately, that American comedy—in films, theater, television, and literature—has been dominated for many decades now by Jews. But Britain’s “Monty Python” group (Jones, Chapman, Cleese, Palin, Idle, and Gilliam) contains no Jews and is clearly made up of young men of Christian upbringing, producing entertainment for a predominantly Gentile audience. Interestingly, the British film producer, Lord Delfont, who is Jewish, backed out of Life of Brian “for fear of giving offense,” and the movie was finally funded by ex-Beatle George Harrison and a partner named Denis O’Brien. Lord Delfont’s fears were well-founded. Speaking for Jewish opinion, Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, called the movie a “crime against religion” and warned that its showing “could result in serious violence.” He was swiftly joined by Robert E.A. Lee of the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., who said the film was a “disgraceful and distasteful assault on religious sensitivity.” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York called it “an act of blasphemy,” and the Catholic OFB gave it a “C” (condemned) rating, meaning it was “forbidden” for American Catholics to see it. But Reverend Arnold Gonzalez of Los Angeles’s St. Vibiana Cathedral, although he too found the movie offensive and degrading, said he would not tell his parishioners to stay away. It might “actually bolster their faith,” he thought. “Sometimes things like this have a boomerang effect. I would send them to see it.”
Most of this angry criticism was trumpeted prior to the film’s release, in apparent anticipation of a hurricane of outrage. But when the film opened, the hurricane never really materialized. There was a tiny smattering of picketing for the first few days at a handful of odd localities throughout the country, but the pickets were ignored by gleeful crowds of young people who flocked into the theaters. There was no violence and there were no angry altercations. Following its national release in the “Bible Belt,” the film was quietly withdrawn after protest from seven movie houses, all in the deep South-some 2 per cent of the over 300 houses at which it was playing in the U.S. and Canada. Catholic organizations which two decades before had demonstrated furiously against an Otto Preminger film called The Moon Is Blue because a female ingenue in it said, “I’m a virgin,” were nowhere in evidence. It was as if a shadow line had been crossed, unnoticed by many of the country’s religious leaders. What had been shocking was shocking no longer. The plight of the leaders was reminiscent of that of a priest who wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer protesting against Billy Joel’s huge rock hit, Only the Good Die Young (five million albums sold), which contains lines like: “You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation / You got a brand new soul / And a cross of gold / But . . . you didn’t count on me / When you were counting on your rosary.” Didn’t the record company realize, the priest demanded in his letter, that these lines were offensive to Catholics? Then, suddenly veering and jettisoning his own proposition, he ended by writing, “The trouble is, Catholics aren’t even offended.”
A consecration of sorts for Life of Brian, if not from heartland America at least from the America of the supermarkets, was a spread in People magazine on Graham Chapman, who stars in the film as “Brian of Nazareth.” In one shot he is shown debonairly “walking on water” in swimming trunks in a pool in the Hollywood Hills. In a still from the movie we see him with his screen mother. The caption reads: “. . . Graham Chapman’s mother, Terry Jones (above, right), snarls ‘piss off’ when questioned about her virginity.”
But let us now examine Life of Brian, described by one of its authors as “a film about suburban England, cleverly disguised as a biblical epic with expensive sets and costumes.”
Before the credits: the night sky over Bethlehem. Three Wise Men on camels are silhouetted against the heavens, following a star. The Wise Men make their way through the deserted streets of an Oriental town, dismount at a stable, and magnificently attired, enter a manger, where they find the Virgin Mandy with her infant in a crib of straw. Announcing that they have come from the East to praise the infant, they are inhospitably received by Mandy (played in the tradition of the “dame” in British pantomime by a man) who declares. “You’re all drunk!” They give her presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, however, and she becomes silkily receptive, asking only, “What’s myrrh anyway?” She tells them the infant’s name is Brian and they worship him for a bit (“Oh, Brian, who are Lord over us all. . .”) and then they’re on their way, with Mandy calling after them jauntily, “Well, if you’re dropping by again, do pop in!” But the Wise Men return more quickly than she expects—in merely a few seconds—and snatch their presents back over her howled protests, proceeding hastily to the manger next door, where, bathed in a divine light, we see the true Mary and Joseph, with halos, bending over the crib of the Infant Jesus. And the main title sequence comes on, with the title song swelling up. “Brian . . . the babe they called Brian.”
So that much is settled. This is not the story of Jesus, you see, but of a Jewish lad named Brian Cohen who just happened to be born in the manger next door.
In the first scene after the titles, which takes place in 33 C. E., on Saturday afternoon at “about tea time,” we see Jesus (the true Jesus) preaching the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are those of gentle spirit. They shall have the earth for their possession.” But the camera pulls back and back through an enormous crowd, Jesus’ voice growing fainter, until we are on another hillside at the far rear of the throng, where we find the grown Brian of Nazareth (Chapman), clearly something of an innocent, and his mother Mandy (Jones), straining with the rest of the assemblage to hear Jesus’ words. “What did he say?” asks someone. “Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so special about cheesemakers?” To which a well-to-do Jerusalemite replies disdainfully, “It’s not meant to be applied literally, obviously it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Despite the message of peace being preached by Jesus, quarreling breaks out among the spectators. “Do you mind? I can’t hear a word he’s saying!” “Don’t ‘do you mind’ me! I’m talking to my husband!” Words lead to blows and Mandy, sick of it all, drags Brian off to a stoning, which promises to be much more fun. Here (in the scene which so offended Rabbi Hecht) a man is to be stoned to death for having uttered the sacred name, “Jehovah.” In the hurly-burly of restraining the eager stoners while explaining the crime, the judge-prosecutor lets the word “Jehovah” slip out and it is he who is stoned.
Strolling away afterward through Jerusalem, Brian and his mother (Mandy rambling on that all her meek-seeming son thinks about is sex) encounter an “ex-leper” (Michael Palin). A spry, nimble young man in perfect health, speaking ebullient cockney, he has just been cured of his leprosy by Jesus and is extremely put out. “One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next moment me livelihood’s gone!” he complains. “Not so much as a by-your-leave. [Imitates Jesus]: ‘You’re cured, mate. Sod you!’ Bloody do-gooder!” Brian suggests helpfully that he ask Jesus to make him a leper again. The ex-leper brightens, reflecting, “Just a bit lame in one leg during the week, something beggable—but not leprosy, which is a pain in the arse to be quite blunt, sir, excuse my French.” The passage ends with Brian lamenting, “There’s no pleasing some people.” To which the ex-leper replies, “That’s just what Jesus said!”
In a key scene that follows, the Virgin Mandy informs Brian of the delicate truth that his suspiciously absent father wasn’t Mr. Cohen but a Roman centurion. “Promised me the known world, he did,” she says. “A house by the forum, slaves, as much gold as I could eat.” Stung by the fact that he is not a pure-blooded Hebrew, Brian, compensating, joins the People’s Front of Judea, a nationalist-revolutionary movement dedicated to the overthrow of Roman rule. The bulk of the film is divided between Brian’s escapades as a revolutionary and those when, to his own discomfort, he is mistaken by the populace for the Messiah.
The film’s pattern is a classic one in burlesque of any revered literary or theatrical form: the introduction of utterly realistic, modern, even pettily modern characters and motivations into the traditional genre, thereby robbing it of its mysteries and exposing its conventions to the light of modern thinking. This was Cervantes’s technique for mocking medieval romance in Don Quixote, and the approach is still serviceable. The Monte Pythons are not only modern, of course, but quintessentially British. Pontius Pilate is played as an aristocratic London society twit; the other characters, if more plebeian, are done with accents equally specific. When Brian develops an erotic liaison and is discovered by his mother in bed with a naked female Judean revolutionary, Mandy cries, “Leave that Welsh tart alone!” Whereas, naturally, it is not the Judean revolutionary who is Welsh, but the actress, Sue Jones-Davis.
The members of the Monte Python group—all five of whose leading performers are graduates of either Oxford or Cambridge—have been swearing up and down to anyone who will listen that their film is not intended as a travesty of the life of Christ. “My feelings toward Christ,” says Terry Jones, who directs and plays the Virgin Mandy, “are that he was a bloody good bloke, even though he wasn’t as funny as Margaret Thatcher.” The original intention, they admit, back when the project was called Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory, was to deal with Jesus more directly. But when they had reread the Gospels and commentaries and historical studies they decided that Jesus himself wasn’t very good material for comedy. They tried out the idea of Jesus attempting to reserve a table for the Last Supper, saying, “Book it in the name of the Lord,” and being told he could have only two tables for four people and one for five, but rejected it as “too easy,” too slight. They next considered making the story of the thirteenth disciple, who arrives too late to see Jesus turn the water into wine, and misses the Last Supper because his wife is having people in to dinner that night, but rejected this, too.
It seemed that as long as they stayed close to Jesus, the comic pickings were too thin (and the blasphemy, perhaps, too stark). Also, says John Cleese (who plays “Reg,” leader of the People’s Front of Judea, as well as Pontius Pilate’s chief centurion): “The Bible story itself just doesn’t wash. Too many loose ends and inconsistencies, especially about Jesus Christ. At Sunday School, we learned that he was the meekest of men, but he raised holy hell in the temple, virtually demolished the place.” (To which he adds, “And what about the time Mary comes to him and says, ‘I am your mother,’ and he says, ‘Piss off, I have no mother, no family’? This is a picture of a man who’s totally alienated from his mum!”) So Jesus, except for his brief appearances an an infant and in the Sermon on the Mount, was dropped from the story entirely in favor of this other Jew born in the manger next door.
It must urgently be pointed out, however, that although the Monte Python group’s attitude toward Christianity is highly irreverent at the very least, Life of Brian contains appreciably more mocking of faddish radicalism and Third World “national-liberation movements” than it does of religion. In a secret meeting of the anti-Roman People’s Front of Judea, leader Reg thunders, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” To which, in fairness, the thin voice of a fellow member pipes up, “The aqueduct?” Reg grudgingly acknowledges that the Romans did build an aqueduct. But this is followed by another exception: sanitation. And another: the roads. Still others follow: irrigation, medicine, education, health, public baths, public order. “All right, all right,” sulkily grants Reg, but still acting as if his argument is a great crowd winner, “But apart from the aqueduct and better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a fresh-water system and baths and public order, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Or again: when Brian seeks to join the militant People’s Front of Judea, the members confess darkly that the only people they hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front. And the Judean Popular People’s Front. And the People’s Front of Judea. “Wait a minute,” a member objects. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea.” “Are we?” says the other. “I thought we were the Popular Front. Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?” “He’s over there,” says Reg, and they all turn to a lone Hebrew sitting by himself on the nearby seats of a Roman amphitheater and cry, “Splitter!”
The group also runs into the feminist problem even as they phrase a resolution: “It is the inalienable right of every man. . . .” A member named Stan interrupts, “Or woman.” “Or woman,” Reg continues, “to rid himself—” Stan interrupts again, “Or herself.” “Or herself,” Reg resumes, “thank you, brother.” “Or sister,” Stan says. “Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan, you’re putting us off!” they cry. “Why are you always on about women?” “Because I want to be one,” says Stan petulantly, “I want you to call me Loretta.” The members are finally reduced to addressing each other as “sibling” and the session ends with the group agreeing that, although Stan can’t have babies, it should demand that the Roman oppressor recognize his right to have babies.
Or yet again: when it comes time to plot a terrorist kidnapping, the group plans to snatch Pontius Pilate’s wife, giving Pilate forty-eight hours to “dismantle the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist State” before they begin cutting off bits of Mrs. Pilate and sending them back every hour on the hour, while declaring adamantly that the Romans bear “full responsibility when we chop her up and that we shall not submit to blackmail!”
Now the fact that it concentrates so much of its fire on left-wing ideas about imperialism, feminism, and terrorism, doesn’t mean that Life of Brian does not also proceed from a highly irreligious attitude. It does. For example, the film’s last scene, which has shocked Christian churchmen the most, shows Brian and a number of other undesirables crucified in a parody of a Busby Berkeley musical production number, with all those on crosses tapping their feet to the music and singing, “Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Of course, the Romans did in fact crucify countless people—six thousand along the Appian Way after the Spartacus rebellion alone. But to most Christians, Christ’s was the only crucifixion, and in any case Brian’s life resembles that of Jesus rather more than that of Spartacus: born in Bethlehem; in a manger; a “Virgin” for a mother (much is made of this, a voice from an assembled crowd crying, “If it’s not a personal question, are you a virgin?” To which Mandy replies,“‘If it’s not a personal question.’ How much more personal can you get! Piss off!” and the crowd comments in unison, “She is. Yeah. Definitely”); a career as a (reluctant) prophet; the doing of a miracle; devoted followers, who hail him as the Messiah; arrested by the Romans; Pontius Pilate giving the Jerusalem mob the choice of a prisoner to free; and finally the crucifixion. In addition, when Brian preaches he speaks in a clear and obvious parody of Christ’s specific sermons and parables as given in the Christian Gospels (“Consider the lilies . . . have they got jobs?”).
Further, when Brian, fleeing from his fanatic followers, loses his sandal, the followers immediately split into different camps. Some say the sandal is a “sign” and they should treasure it, do reverence to their sandals. Others proclaim that they should do as Brian, and cast off their sandals. They argue as to whether it is a shoe or a sandal. One says they should wear one shoe and carry one, following his example in this way. Some choose to revere his gourd, and call themselves Gourdenes, to distinguish themselves from the Sandalites and the Shoe-ites. A heretic is persecuted. When Brian disappears for a moment, they all cry, “He’s been taken up! . . . [spotting him scurrying away] No, there he is.” (Referring to all the wrangling and dissension and splitting into contend in parties. Jones, the director, says, “It’s a bit like a three-minute history of the Church.”)
The great British comic actor Spike Milligan, in a brief cameo performance as a Hebrew divine, calls out, “Let us pray!” to the milling, turbulent throng. Eyes closed and arms raised, he calls a second time, “Let us pray.” But when he opens his eyes for a peek he sees that the motley horde, rushing along after Brian, has left him standing alone and, with no one to pray but himself, he walks off sheepishly. Finally cornered by the crowd shouting, “Hail, Messiah!” Brian cries desperately, “I am not the Messiah. Will you please listen? Honestly!” To which the crowd replies, “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” At last, absolutely disgusted, Brian explodes, “All right! I am the Messiah! . . . Now fuck off!” There is a long pause before a leading member of the crowd asks reverently, “How shall we fuck off, O, Lord?” (“We’ve got to maintain a certain level of offense,” says Python Terry Gilliam blithely. “Otherwise we’re just entertainers; it’s one way of proving to ourselves that we’re not just in it for the money.”)
Yet irreligious though all this undoubtedly is, even those passages in the film which concern Brian as a reluctant Messiah contain much political comment. When a tumultuous crowd gathers outside his mother’s house, Brian appeals to it, “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 mindless crowd thunders in unison, “Yes, we’re all individuals.” Brian cries, “You’re all different!” Again the crowd thunders, “We’re different. . . . Tell us more.” Much distressed, Brian pleads, “No, no! That’s the point! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. . . . You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!” To Brian’s despair, once again the crowd thunders in perfect unison: “Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves.”
In keeping with the superimposing of political and religious comment, John Cleese, a leading member of the Python group, says: “I often wonder how we came to adopt such a morbid, masochistic religion as Christianity. . . . Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, what bullshit. The man was a renegade. . . . That’s why they strung him up. He was a revolutionary.”
What we have in Life of Brian, then, is a strain of satirical comedy that is largely absent from American comedy: the tradition of what might be called “Tory wit,” reaching back to Congreve and Swift and all the way forward to Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. American comics of the younger generation, when their work has any political content at all, direct their barbs almost exclusively at conservative authority figures (the film Animal House and the TV show Saturday Night Live are two examples). To be sure, British satirical comedians, including the Monte Python group, regularly let fly at establishment figures as well: royalty, aristocracy, the House of Lords, almost any Briton who has the presumption to ascend to cabinet rank. The difference is that in Life of Brian, as in British comedy generally, the Left is far from sacrosanct. Where in American comedy are the parodies of the Jane Fondas and Bernadine Dohrns and Angela Davises and Abbie Hoffmans and Bella Abzugs and Cesar Chavezes—not to mention the Stokely Carmichaels and Rap Browns? While the noble Idi Amin still ruled Uganda, Britain’s John Bird recorded a hilarious parody of him (“. . . wantin’ to get to the point because I already overdue for a couple of shootin’s and a bit of the old toenail pullin’!”). American entertainment, however, still operates under severely pious inhibitions in the area of race as well as politics.
Americans tend to think that irreligiosity and anti-clericalism are incompatible with a Tory-type sensibility, but that they can coexist comfortably is clear not only from the example of England but also from France, the great precursor nation for irreligiosity in entertainment. In 1871, at the birth of the Third Republic, the Catholic Church made the grave mistake of opposing the new republican form of government in favor of the monarchy, earning the bitter enmity of the triumphant new regime and exposing the Church to a generation of the most unrelenting attacks from the men who controlled the entire apparatus of the new state, men of wealth, power, and a fervent nationalism—but “republicans.” A young lawyer named Georges Clemenceau was one of the most ardent and aggressive leaders of this anti-clerical movement.
Decade after decade of this harrying of the Church, in the press, in the schools, in the theater, even in the celebrated Encyclopédic Larousse—a devastating instrument de combat in its day—produced a society in which anti-clericalism and irreligiosity have been so absorbed into the national consciousness that an anti-clerical joke in the music hall is often the easiest laugh an entertainer can get. A few years ago one of Paris’s greatest and most respectable theaters gave a sumptuous production of Oscar Panizza’s legendary The Council of Love, in the first act of which a choleric God, a bossy Virgin Mary, and a comically neurasthenic Jesus Christ sit about fretting over Pope Alexander Borgia’s libertine ways. After a conference with the Devil they decide to give Alexander, and mankind, syphilis. Similarly, in a French music hall, with Christ hanging from a basketball backboard on stage, I have seen a basketball thrown through the crown of thorns as if it were the hoop, to the guffaws and cheers of the audience.
During the opening years of the Third Republic there were a number of social conservatives who, free thinkers themselves, feared that, the Church being a force for social cohesion, its weakening would weaken the fabric of society at large. (This ran counter to another analysis, however, according to which as religion waned, nationalism would gain as a cohesive force.) In any event, since the same anti-clerical Georges Clemenceau—become “The Tiger,” the inspirational leader of the nation at war—maintained the cohesion of French society with a will of iron even during the frightful carnage of the Great War of 1914-18, the notion that anti-clericalism is inimical to patriotism has not been much heard of in France.
Unlike the French experience, irreligiosity in the United States and Britain has not been the result of the concerted onslaught of a strong political party but simply of the gradual withering away of religious faith. Hence the success of Life of Brian. But its flippant attitude toward religion has concealed from many the fact that the film skins alive some of the more fashionable notions of the modish Left. If Christianity is desanctified, by Life of Brian, so are the PLO and the IRA. And audiences are laughing.
Interestingly, this view of Jesus as a secular rebel brings Cleese, at least, into rough accordance with a traditional Jewish view of Jesus, a view that has in recent years been supported by a number of works of Christian scholarship, particularly Professor S.G.F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots and The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, Although the Monte Pythons maintain that Brian of Nazareth is not Jesus of Nazareth, and that Jesus is not Brian, it would be surprising if this view of Jesus as a political rebel didn’t shape the Pythons’ comic story of the Jew born in the manger next door. And it is curious to think of the Monte Pythons, entertainers responding to the secular spirit of the times, and Professor Brandon, proceeding from biblical scholarship (but also not unaware of the social changes of the 20th century), arriving at congruent pictures of Jesus—divine or not—as a nationalist insurgent.