MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL just may be the film I've sat through more times than any other and it remains a favorite since I first saw it back in 1976. It would not be an exaggeration to say I've seen it perhaps a hundred times over the past thirty-some-odd years, and I know it inside and out, its every frame a major formative influence on my warped sense of humor (and the MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS television series even more so). So last night I broke out my DVD of the film and watched it all the way through for the first time in about two years — this time with entertaining commentary from John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin — and while watching it I contemplated its content and realized that when released in the States in 1975 it was granted a PG rating by the MPAA, a rating that labeled it as only slightly more potentially objectionable than such fare as BENJI or PINOCCHIO IN OUTER SPACE. Looking at the current state of the American film ratings system I am willing to bet that if submitted today MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL would most likely be handed an R rating, restricting its audience with the warning, "No one under seventeen admitted without parent or guardian."
That realization shocked me, especially since I'd been an avid fan of the movie since I was eleven, but the more I thought about it the more plausible it seemed. The movie is rife with profanity, but significantly no Eff-bombs, however there is mention of erotic spanking and oral sex — something the MPAA is rather squeamish about outside of an "adult" context — and with the restoration of a brief excised "meta-commentary" bit there's now use of the word "pussy" to specifically refer to the vagina (or, more accurately, a castle full of vaginas and the lovlies who possess them). I'm not certain, but I think you can get away with calling somebody a pussy as a pejorative denoting cowardice in a PG or PG-13 movie, but I don't think it can fly as an anatomical slang term in a non-R-rated film. Considering how conservative yet arbitrary the MPAA is these days, it's anyone's guess. (If anyone has an answer to this question of "pussy" usage, please write in.)
The film is also justly famous for its over-the-top and utterly ludicrous displays of violence, most memorably the bit where King Arthur (the late, great Graham Chapman) engages in ridiculous mortal combat with the Black Knight (John Cleese). The fight is clumsily choreographed (which only makes it sillier) and when all is said and done Arthur has reduced his arrogant foe to a limbless, blood-spewing torso.
By the standards of 1975 comedy cinema it was a shocking sequence, but it was so totally removed from anything even resembling reality that it could not possibly offend anyone in the audience, save for those with no sense of humor or an appreciation of the utterly absurd. Surprisingly, the preamble to this scene struck me as far more brutal than the Black Knight getting whittled down piece by piece as he defiantly continues to goad Arthur into continuing the fight; when we first meet the Black Knight, he's fighting an unidentified opponent and vanquishes the guy by chucking his sword through his enemy's head, resulting in an inhabited helmet transfixed by perhaps four feet of Damascus steel. Fake blood spews from both the entry and exit points of the grievous wound and the opponent falls dead to the forest floor, at which point the Black Knight braces his foot upon the sundered helmet and uses the leverage to free his weapon. That bit of business puts the lie to the legion of knights-in-armor epics that depicted bloodless combat, and its clumsy lack of both grace and martial finesse speaks volumes in terms of savagery. And yet it's fucking hilarious, so go figure.
Sir Lancelot's (John Cleese) rampage through Prince Herbert's (Terry Jones) wedding party is another bit of spectacular and loony carnage, this time with a good guy knight indiscriminately hacking and slashing his way through dozens of innocent people while on the way to rescue what he mistakenly assumes is an imprisoned princess. Not only does he devastate the crowd during his initial charge, he does so yet again on his way back down the stairs, leaving the guests and the bride in an amusing state of bloodied befoulment. And while the whole group of Lancelot's victims rally to sing with Prince Herbert despite what one would assume to be states of serious-to-fatal levels of injury, one can't help but marvel at Lancelot's gung-ho and head-first leap into a full-on state of berserker fury. Sure it's a comedy but it's still pretty damned violent, and if translated to a "straight" medieval yarn it would not have been an inaccurate depiction of the kind of sociopathic violence doled out by the so-called-Christian Crusaders.
But nothing (in my opinion, anyway) stands for MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL's wondrous fusion of savage violence and ludicrous humor like the killer rabbit. A cute, fluffy little bunny that when provoked launches like a leporine torpedo and attacks its perceived enemies with a ferocity equaling that of a chainsaw wielded by a badger drunk on Jagermeister, this is one seriously unexpected monster.
Flying through the air with alarming speed — an effect achieved with an hilariously bogus puppet on a wire — the tiny Easter parade refugee latches onto the throat of one of Arthur's knights and bites the man's head off like it was a soggy stalk of asparagus. the sight of which gives the remaining knights about a minute's pause before they rush forward to engage it in futile head-on combat. In short, the knights get their asses totally kicked by a very wee and very vicious bunny, one that can only be defeated by employing the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and every time I witness it I laugh my ass off. That said, the sequence is quite gory (see the above photo), and it was a real jaw-dropper when first encountered.
So with all that evidence to take into account, coupled with the MPAA's current state of stringency, I say MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL would get an R if released today. And keep in mind that classics like PSYCHO and ROSEMARY'S BABY have been re-rated to an R for recent DVD release, despite both having run for over three decades in nearly uncut form on non-cable TV. Just something to think about...