Monty Python rose to prominence with their BBC sketch series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it was their second feature film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that cemented their reputation as comedy pioneers. A parody of Arthurian legend, Holy Grail is still considered a classic more than 40 years after its release. Though it went on to become a massive success, the film was made on a shoestring budget, and the experience of making it was notoriously grueling.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed on location in rural Scotland at and around a 14th-century castle in Doune. But they just so happened to shoot the movie outdoors during a particularly rainy period in April. The film’s tiny budget meant that their fake armor had to be made of wool, which quickly became wet and uncomfortable to wear.
In 2015, the Pythons reunited at the Tribeca Film Festival for a screening to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Holy Grail. John Cleese explained the challenges of shooting such a low-budget film in those conditions:
It was a miserable experience! You got up in the morning, you got up on the hillside, it started to rain immediately because it was April and it was Scotland. And the rain came down, we had so little money there were four umbrellas on the whole set, and this nasty chain-mail which was knitted string would start getting damp, by 9 o’clock you were cold and wet. And then at 6 o’clock when the first assistant said, "Wrap," there was this rush for the cars, because there was only enough hot water for 40% of the people at the hotel, so there was this scramble to get back. It was a miserable, miserable time!
But Monty Python co-founder Eric Idle acknowledges that the struggle was worth the result in his appropriately titled book, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
"Sometimes when you're making good work, you don't have enough money. It's uncomfortable and difficult and muddy, like The Holy Grail," Idle said. "It will turn out to be very good in the end because we didn't have enough, so you're inventing all the time."
Although it went on to gross over $5 million at the box office, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was made on a budget of only $400,000. The film was financed in large part by investments from about 10 different rock bands, including Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull. According to Idle, each group contributed about 10,000 British pounds to the project.
"I mean it was Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull - they all pitched in money so we could make the film," Idle said.
But the upside to the unusual method of financing meant that the comedy group didn’t have studio executives breathing down their necks.
"The good news about them was that they didn't want the money back," Idle added. "They don't care and they don't interfere. They don't say 'Oh no, there should be a scene over here with someone with another head.' They are the best backers."
One of the silliest recurring jokes in the film is that King Arthur travels around on a make-believe horse. He is followed by his squire, Patsy, who clicks coconut shells together to mimic the sound of a real horse. But this wasn’t written into the original script. Instead, it was improvised when the production found it couldn’t afford real horses.
An amusing sight gag in its own right, the coconut schtick also inspired the scene in which King Arthur is forced to explain to a skeptical castle guard how he got a coconut in the first place.
“If we’d had the money we would have had real horses [but] we had to get clever and thank God, because the coconuts saved [us],” Terry Gilliam recalled. “It’s one of those things that’s, in retrospect, brilliant.”
As Cleese told Seth Meyers in 2018, “Necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes you don’t have much and you have to improvise. That’s sometimes when the very best ideas come through.”
Pythons Gilliam and Terry Jones directed the film together, but there was trouble from the outset.
“On the very first shot the camera breaks,” Gilliam recalled. “On my very first directorial shot! So what do we do? We do all the wrong things.”
While they were able to get a replacement camera, they had to shoot without sound that day. Without much experience directing feature films, Gilliam and Jones were left with no choice but to roll with the punches and improvise. While the process may have been clumsy and messy, the directing team got the job done.