Looking on the Bright Side of ‘Life of Brian’ After 40 Years
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the finest examples of British comedy. The movie is considered a classic. One that is enjoyed by generations old and new. Nowadays, we can view the movie’s satirical take on religion through a comedic lens, as was originally intended. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case. I’m going to look back at how controversy impacted the release of this movie, including where it was banned and how this altered advertising. I’m then going to explore some interesting facts surrounding some of the most iconic scenes from Life of Brian.
Summary of Life of Brian
Monty Python’s Life of Brian, rather unsurprisingly, follows the life of Brian. You may be asking yourself, who is Brian? Well, Brian was born at the same time and place as Jesus Christ, merely one stable across. Not quite to a virgin mother, mind you. The movie follows Brian as he tries to find his place in life. From joining the People’s Front of Judea (and definitely not the Judean People’s Front) to being mistaken for a messiah, it seems he falls from one odd situation to another, encountering a range of goofy and hilarious characters along the way.
The movie includes the usual Monty Python group. This consists of Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Within Life of Brian, six cast members play a grand total of 40 roles. Of course, that’s not uncommon when it comes to Monty Python. The movie involves a range of comedy, from witty to downright ridiculous. Overall, it’s become an absolute classic and will likely remain well-rated for generations to come.
The Life of Brian Controversy
Today, most people can see Life of Brian for what it is: a satirical take on the Jesus story that serves to remind us of two important lessons. 1) Think for yourself and question everything. 2) Look on the bright side of life. If, along the way, we also learn about conjugating Latin verbs and the important technological advancements that the Romans brought the world, then that’s just a bonus!
However, the movie hit a few bumps during its release, mostly in relation to blasphemy laws. It’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t make fun of Jesus or his teachings. But, that’s not to say that it doesn’t take frequent jabs at blind faith, organized religion, and some of the more archaic practices of ancient believers. Jesus himself, however, is left unscathed. Eric Idle, one of the Pythons, even stated that the reason for this was, “He’s not particularly funny. What he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff.”
Banning Life of Brian
Interestingly, despite being a British comedy, the movie was actually released in the U.S. before the U.K. The Monty Python fanbase was certainly more focused in the latter of these countries. However, blasphemy laws were still in place in the U.K., and so it was a tactical measure to test the waters. Most audiences today can see the funny side, regardless of religious beliefs, but that hasn’t always been in the case. It certainly wasn’t in the late 70s.
In the U.K., the movie was banned by as many as 39 councils upon its release. Some of these bans would be lifted in exchange for raising the age certificate of the movie. Over the decades, all of these councils chose to lift the movie’s ban entirely. For Glasgow, the last council to do so, it took until 2009! This decision was still looked down on by “dozens” of protestors. Although, it’s worth mentioning that many of those responsible for originally banning the movie, and those protesting the lift of said ban, admitted to never having watched it.
Originally, Life of Brian was also banned for eight years in Ireland and for just one Norway. In truly Monty Python fashion, the advertising slogan for the movie in Sweden became, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!” Even today, it’s apparently offensive to screen the movie on Good Friday in some parts of Germany.
Interesting Facts about Iconic Scenes
Keeping to the message that the final moments of Monty Python’s Life of Brian gives us, let’s not dwell on the negative. Instead, let’s focus on the positives by exploring some of the truly iconic moments from the movie as we look at some interesting facts surrounding the filming process. There are so many great scenes from Life of Brian that I’d love to discuss. From the bearded women stoning the blasphemer to asking the question, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” However, I’m limiting this list to scenes with interesting facts attached to them.
Many people forget about the interesting opening credits that Monty Python movies contain. In a similar style to the Bond movies, they involve various illustrations that relate to the content of the movie. We see the names of writers, actors, producers, and more appearing to us in bizarre and intriguing ways.
Life of Brian even has its own music, which again is very reminiscent of the Bond movies. The music uses a similar brass and string accompaniment to those used by John Barry, who arranged the Bond theme for Dr. No. Sonia Jones sings the Life of Brian song, despite only being 16 at the time of recording. The lyrics for the song came from Monty Python’s own Michael Palin. They tell their own story of Brian’s life: from the moment of birth to adulthood:
“Brian. The babe they called ‘Brian’,
Grew, grew, and grew,
Grew up to be — grew up to be…
A boy called ‘Brian’-“
A teenager called ‘Brian’,
And his face became spotty.
Yes, his face became spotty,
And his voice dropped down low”
When Roman centurions capture Brian and bring him before Pontius Pilate, it creates one of my personal favorite scenes in the movie. Played by Michael Palin, Pilate has a speech impediment that leads to various levels of confusion as the characters struggle to understand what he’s saying.
When Brian claims he is Roman, Pilate asks for the name of his father, to which Brian responds, “Naughtius Maximus”. This leads John Cleese’s centurion character to erupt with laughter, while Pilate fails to understand the humorous side to the name. What follows is a conversation about his very great friend in Rome called Biggus Dickus.
The reactions by the surrounding centurions only add to the hilarity of this scene, and there is a good reason for that. The extras were fully aware of the script and knew exactly what Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman would be saying, but several simply couldn’t contain their laughter. Rather than cutting, Michael Palin stayed in character and continued on with the scene, allowing the outbursts to become part of the movie.
“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
It would be impossible to discuss Life of Brian without mentioning this particular scene. Having been mistaken for a messiah and amassed a following, Brian wakes up to discover that a crowd is waiting eagerly outside his house. Brian’s mother, played by Terry Jones, approaches the window to announce to the crowd that Brian isn’t the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.
This scene contains more jokes than I can mention here. Some are less obvious than others, like Brian’s mother referring to his love interest, Judith, as a “Welsh tart”. This is in reference to the Welsh actress (Sue Jones-Davies) rather than the Middle Eastern character of Judith. Other jokes are more easily noticeable, like when Brian tells the crowd, “you’re all individuals” and, “you’re all different!” The majority of the crowd respond with, “yes, we’re all individual!” and, “yes, we are all different!” Apart from one man who says, “I’m not!”
An interesting fact about this scene comes slightly earlier when Brian opens the window and is completely naked. Addressing the crowd, Brian’s nudeness is completely on-show, so to speak. After the first take, the director, Terry Jones, pulled Graham Chapman to one side to mention a slight problem. Chapman wasn’t circumcised, but the character of Brian certainly would be, given the era and location the movie is set in.
There are many uses for a rubber band. Apparently, we can add ‘altering the appearance of male genitalia’ to that list.
Romans, Go Home!
Another scene that feels representative of Monty Python humor takes place when Brian sets out to commit an act of vandalism. He creeps through the night with some red paint and begins to write a specific message on a nearby wall: “Romanes eunt domas”, which he believes translates as, “Romans, go home”. Unknown to Brian, three centurions are approaching behind him, with a soundtrack playing that is similar to the Jaws theme.
Rather than immediately arresting Brian, the lead centurion (played by Cleese), decides to educate him with a Latin lesson. He immediately highlights the incorrect wording by translating Brian’s vandalism as meaning, “People called Romanes, they go…the house.”
What follows is quite literally an explanation on how to correctly write the phrase, “Romans go home”. The centurions leave Brian with the high school punishment of writing out the correct version 100 times.
What’s interesting about this scene is that it connects quite closely to the life of one of the Pythons in particular: John Cleese. We, of course, see Cleese during this scene, but it might interest you to know that he was actually a Latin teacher for a few years after he’d finished school. So, he is very familiar with the correct way to tell Romans to go home.
Another fun fact relates to the walls themselves. At the filming location, locals consider the walls to be sacred in nature, and so for obvious reasons painting directly onto them is simply out of the question. Instead, they placed fake walls in front and used them instead. One unexpected consequence of this was black smudges all along the sacred walls. Worried that it wasn’t going to come off, they returned one night and painted over the smudges to make it seem more like the original color, which is a strange parallel to the very scene they’d been shooting.
There’s no denying that Life of Brian ruffled some feathers along the way. However, I’m sure we can all agree that we’ve been left with an excellent comedy. Given that one of the movie’s most iconic scenes involves the stoning of a blasphemer, there’s a certain symmetry in people being so outraged by the movie as to demand that its ‘blasphemous message’ be outright banned. In my view, I don’t think we’ll ever get movies that have the same type of comedy as Monty Python could pull off. Luckily, the movie is readily accessible!
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