With the clacking of two coconuts banging together, movie comedy changed for good. That sound, one that could easily be mistaken for the clopping of horse hooves, is a constant in the absolutely brilliant Monty Python and the Holy Grail, now celebrating its 45th anniversary.
The Monty Python comedy troupe had found great success in the United Kingdom with its sketch show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, but the group's gleeful riff on the King Arthur myth brought them worldwide fame and a fandom that spans generations.
Over the course of just 90 minutes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail unleashed comic anarchy upon the world. Impossible though it may be, let’s select the 15 best moments — anything from a visual gag to a whole section — from comedy’s Holy Grail to celebrate this holy 45th anniversary.
The opening credits
Like many older films, all of the credits for Monty Python and the Holy Grail appear before any of the action begins. So, of course, you see all sorts of credits listed here: the actors, the music, the costuming, the moose… choreography?
In keeping with the chaotic and wild spirit of the Pythons, the insanity starts before a word is even said, with the credits getting so crazy that the firms being tasked with making them keep getting sacked mid-credits. Finally, the credits come to a manic end with flashing colors, lots of mentions of llamas and raucous Spanish music on the soundtrack. Because why not?
'Bring out your dead'
The Middle Ages were a dark time in human history, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail doesn’t pretend things were too great. Early on in the film, we see a man going about his job: wheeling a cart around and asking the people in his neighborhood to “bring out [their] dead."
Anyone who’s been felled by the plague has to go, which seems both morbid and simple enough.
That is, except for one guy (John Cleese), who brings out a relative who’s... well, not quite dead yet.
“I’m getting better!” the old man feebly says, before Cleese pays off the man with the cart to knock the elderly man out for good. It’s a very dark bit, but hilarious all the same.
The Black Knight
In the first stretch of the 1975 classic, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) is a man just looking for some best friends. He’s got his trusty “horse” Patsy (Terry Gilliam), but he’s looking for men to take part in his Round Table and is open to anyone with the right guts.
At first, it seems like the Black Knight (Cleese) is just the man to join the group, as we first see him dispatch another knight quickly and bloodily.
However, the Black Knight is unwilling to even let Arthur pass, which leads to them fighting... until Arthur chops off one of the Black Knight’s limbs. And then another. And another. That doesn’t stop the Black Knight, not even after he’s lost all his arms and legs.
“I’ll bite your legs off!” he screams to no avail in this gory, goofy scene.
By the time Monty Python and the Holy Grail arrived in theaters, Camelot’s place in popular culture was undeniable.
President John F. Kennedy was known for loving the Broadway stage musical of the same name, which itself was adapted into a splashy, late-1960s movie musical.
For the Pythons, though, the idea of singing and dancing knights is the height of silliness. When King Arthur and his knights approach the castle, the film cuts to a big, brassy production number full of clapping prisoners, dancing strumpets, and more.
And then it cuts back to the king, who says, “On second thought, no. Camelot is a silly place.” Indeed.
Early on in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur has rounded up his Knights of the Round Table and he’s even chosen to skip Camelot. The task he’s been given by God is simple: find and retrieve the Holy Grail.
Even with his knights, King Arthur is happy to get more help, which is why he stops at another castle, only to find a snooty Frenchman who claims he already has a Holy Grail. He’s just winding up the British, of course, leading to one of the three or four funniest scenes in all of Monty Python’s filmography.
The Frenchman’s taunts escalate quickly, to the point where he launches live cows upon the British. Our heroes try their hand at a Trojan Horse-style surprise, but only fail and once again have to, as they shout, “run away!"
Tale of Sir Robin
Among every group of friends, there must be one who’s not quite as brave as the others. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that would be Sir Robin, portrayed by Eric Idle.
When all of the knights split up to find the Grail on their own, Robin is joined by his entourage, including a minstrel played by Neil Innes. The minstrel’s job is, at first, to buck up the knight, but he does so in such a direct and eventually grim way — in terms of describing what could happen to him should he face peril — that Robin gets scared. He gets even more terrified upon approaching a three-headed knight, barely able to escape their clutches as they squabble amongst themselves.
The minstrel’s tune has snarkily changed at the end: “Gallantly, he chickened out.”
Tale of Sir Galahad
Michael Palin was always the most boyish-looking member of the Pythons, a fact turned into a brilliant joke of sorts in the sequence where we find out what happens to Sir Galahad on his quest to find the Holy Grail separate of the rest of the Knights of the Round Table.
He seems to spot the impossible — an image of the Grail hovering over a castle on a rainy night — and is shocked to learn that the denizens of the castle are a massive group of winsome, beautiful young women who seem to want only one thing: for Galahad to have his way with them.
Galahad is unwilling at first, but as more and more beautiful blondes foist themselves upon him, he’s about ready to give into his urges... until Lancelot arrives, fights off the women, and saves Galahad from “almost certain peril."
Galahad’s disappointment at having his fun evening ruined is both a perfect capper to a scene that’s all about teasing something unforgettable and the right kind of punchline in a movie that teases something unforgettable until its abrupt ending.
Knights Who Say Ni
Monty Python, as a comedy troupe, was always able to achieve a perfect blend between the intelligent and the absurd. There’s plenty of that balance being carefully struck in Holy Grail, nowhere better than in a scene where some of the Knights of the Round Table find themselves facing off against massively tall knights who say the nonsense word “Ni” loudly and somehow quite painfully.
Only after King Arthur and some of his knights find what the Knights Who Say Ni hold so dear — a very nice shrubbery with a path, of course — do they realize what these giant knights are weakest against: the word “it."
There’s no rhyme or reason to what makes this scene so ridiculously funny, but there’s something about the convulsions the knights go through when they hear the word “Ni” that’s funny beyond words.
'Not to leave the room even if you come and get him'
The Tale of Sir Lancelot begins with what should be a pretty simple, if slightly twisted setup: There’s a shrimpy prince (Terry Jones) who’s set to be married to a woman he doesn’t love thanks to the machinations of his father (Palin).
All the guards to the room have to do is stay there until the prince’s father returns. It really ought to be simple. But the guards (Idle and Chapman) are so easily confused that it takes a few minutes for the prince’s father to make his guidance clear.
The back and forth is of the same verbal wit and speed as something like Abbott and Costello’s iconic “Who’s on First?” routine, and it even gets a short reprise when Lancelot enters the room before he kills the guards.
Lancelot repeatedly running to the castle
A lot is going on in the Tale of Sir Lancelot, even before we see how he figures into the situation. He decides to come to the rescue of a fair maiden who’s been imprisoned against her will, in spite of not realizing that it’s actually a young prince who’s been imprisoned against his will.
Before he learns his mistake, we watch Lancelot approach the castle on foot, sword at the ready... again, and again, and again.
From the vantage point of two guards, he seems to be treading the exact same ground over and over, until he surprisingly runs right up to the guards and kills one before moving forward. There’s no clarification for the gag, which just makes it funnier.
Tim the Enchanter
Eventually, all of the Knights of the Round Table reunite, since none of them were successful in finding the Holy Grail on their own. After some rough weather, depicted through an animated interlude, the knights are met by a strangely coiffed and costumed character, one of many played by the inimitable John Cleese.
“I... am an enchanter,” the mysterious figure intones. “There are some who call me... Tim.”
The elongated pauses here are what makes Tim such a goofy figure, along with the way he imbues such ferocity into the introduction of a bloodthirsty rabbit who the knights doubt at their peril.
The bloodthirsty rabbit
Once the knights and King Arthur have met Tim the Enchanter, they’ve met all kinds of foes, from dangerous knights to witches to alluring women. But their worst foe appears to be the smallest: a cute white rabbit who seems perfectly nice until you get close to him and he goes for your jugular.
Literally. The fight scene between the rabbit and the knights is both outrageously bloody and hilarious.
The charm of Monty Python is best distilled in this scene: you either think it’s hilarious to watch adult men act terrified of a bunny rabbit, or you don’t.
Mixing up 3 and 5
One of the odder running gags of the last third of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is both simple and inexplicable: King Arthur is wholly unable to remember the number three.
When the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch is being lobbed at the bloodthirsty rabbit, he’s told to count to three and jumps immediately to five.
“Three, sir!” is the reply, but no matter how many times he’s reminded, Arthur keeps forgetting. Chapman mostly has to play the straight man as King Arthur, but in these brief, weird little bits where the king has seemingly lost his control of mathematics, he gets to indulge in some goofiness.
Animator with a heart attack
After our brave knights are beset upon by the cutest white rabbit to ever have a taste for blood, they’re only able to free themselves by blowing it up with the holiest of hand grenades.
Their troubles aren’t over yet, though — once inside the Cave of Caerbannog, they’re quickly attacked by an animated baddie known only as the Black Beast of Aaaaaaaauuuuuugggggghhhh.
The beast chases them back and forth, leading to another great visual gag that comes out of nowhere: As a narrator describes, the beast is killed off only when the animator of said beast (played by co-director Gilliam) falls dead of a heart attack. It’s a super-fast gag that works precisely because of its random, speedy nature.
'Answer me these questions three'
Before the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur can get their hands on the Holy Grail, they have to pass a challenge that’s as old as fairy tales themselves: crossing a perilous bridge only if they answer three questions correctly from a ghoulish-looking troll.
The first set of questions ends up seeming awfully easy, culminating with the troll asking Lancelot... what his favorite color is. But when the wimpy Sir Robin tries to take advantage of this, the third question turns out to be about another of the film’s running gags: the speed of the bird known as the swallow.
King Arthur is able to turn the question around on the troll to his advantage, making for a great punchline as well as a payoff to one of the film’s first scenes.