Blessed are the cheese makers! It’s a miracle Monty Python’s The Life of Brian got made. It’s the film that started as a joke, had its funding pulled a week before production and was met with the fury of nearly every religious institution when it was released in 1979. Here’s a primer for how this hilarious religious satire came together.
Following the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, journalist pestered the Pythons about what they were going to do next. Eric Idle joked their next film would be called ‘Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory’. The Pythons were still writing sketches while the prospects of doing another film were increasing with the financial and critical success of Holy Grail. Idle and Terry Gilliam wrote a sketch about Jesus’ crucifix falling apart due to poor carpentry with him angrily showing them how to fix it. They decided Jesus was too good, and there was not much to mock in his teachings because they were decent, peaceful ideals. The idea then shifted to a thirteenth apostle named Brian who misses all the crucial moments in Jesus’ life, which then evolved into the concept of a person born who is mistaken for the messiah.
Beatles with benefits
A week before production began, the producers, EMI Films, got spooked by the subject matter and pulled out. Luckily, the Pythons had a fan willing to fund their film: George Harrison. The former Beatle sold his home in London to help raise the $4 million budget needed. Harrison formed the production company Hand Made Films (that would later produce the films: Time Bandits, Withnail and I, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 127 Hours) and oversaw the financial side of Life of Brian. Look out for Harrison who cameos in the film as Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount".
Doctor Chapman, I presume?
Graham Chapman and John Cleese fought over who should play Brian. The role eventually went to Chapman because the Pythons agreed Cleese would work better playing various ensemble roles – the six main cast members play 40 different characters. Chapman upheld their faith in him by sobering up. Chapman’s alcoholism caused major problems during the Holy Grail shoot because he was so scattered he couldn’t remember his lines that delayed the production. Not only did Chapman play the lead in Life of Brian but he also acted as the set doctor having studied medicine before pursuing a career in comedy.
When Life of Brian was released it was met with furious protests and many screenings were picketed by angry mobs claiming the film was sacrilegious. In a strategic move, the Pythons released the film in America first because they knew it’s where it would cause the most controversy – and free publicity – but they would be safe because America didn’t have blasphemy laws like in the U.K.
“He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!”
When the film was finally released in the U.K it got banned in several towns and council districts. Norway banned the film on the grounds of blasphemy which then allowed the film to be promoted in Sweden as, “the film that is so funny it was banned in Norway!” Ireland upheld its ban on the film until 1987 while a council in Devon withheld their ban until 2008. A town in Wales holds the record for the longest ban on Life of Brian of 30 years. The ban was lifted when a former cast member turner mayor, Sue Jones-Davis, decide it was time for the film to be shown. Terry Jones and Michael Palin attended the town’s premiere in 2009.
Monty Python's The Life of Brian airs on SBS this Saturday night at 8:35pm.