Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

I wonder if, at this point, it's possible to redeem Monty Python and the Holy Grail from its fans. I wonder if it's even necessary. The people who love Holy Grail do not, after all, break its meaning. They do not violate decency. They do not use it as an excuse to befoul other movies. All they do - and I should probably definitely make it clear, "they" definitely means "including myself, the author of this review" in this case - is to make the film not very funny.

The thing is, we all knew (at least, all of us likely to be reading internet reviews of movies that came out in 1975) and some of us were, that person who could readily quote any of the outstanding lines or routines that the Pythons - Graham Chapman,  John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin - populated their heavily post-modern, surrealist piss-take on the King Arthur legends with. For the right kind of comedy lover, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been transformed, through repetition and familiarisation, into comfort food. This is of course the worst possible fate for the vicious absurdity of Monty Python, which loses all the sharpness of its bite and the ingenuity of its imagination as it grows too domesticated. The same fate has largely befallen the original television show Monty Python's Flying Circus, and it has reached its bony finger out towards the later film Monty Python's Life of Brian, but I think it's fallen on Holy Grail the hardest.

So let's at least try to start out by treating Holy Grail like it hasn't been over-quoted to death as thoroughly as any film that side of The Big Lebowski. The thing is, at heart, a collection of somewhat autonomous sketches hung onto a narrative spine that connects them thematically: these were sketch comedy writers and performers, at the end of the day, and conceiving of comedy as short little bursts that didn't need to be sustained for more than three or four minutes is apparently what came naturally to them. It also provided an excellent vehicle for the dominant form of comedy in the Pythons' work, the aggressively weird conceptual gags in which something inordinately surreal plunges right on through a normal environment, generally leaving the characters inside that environment quite baffled and upset. Generally speaking, the group's favorite target for their absurd sensibilities were the most staid and English of situations, and in Holy Grail, they turned their attention to the great, quintessentially English myth of King Arthur, the Camelot court, and the quest for the titular cup of Christ (quintessentially English, anyway, for something mostly imported from France).

Holy Grail thus functions primarily as two things: a send-up of the various themes of the Arthur myth cycle (religious fealty, moral purity, the duty of kings and the duty to kings), and a send-up of the whole business of epic costume drama filmmaking (the latter was to have been even more pronounced in the original conception; the movie was perpetually being shaved down thanks to a by-all-accounts miserable and cash-strapped production). It appears to specifically parodies at least two previous films on the same material: the 1967 Camelot, in a moment where several characters triumphantly shout "Camelot!" right before a decidedly squirrelly musical number; and the previous year's Lancelot du Lac in the violent blood geysers of the Black Knight sequence - as well the generally low-fi production, heavily based in outdoor locations shot with surprising loveliness by whomever served as the cinematographer (Terry Bedford is credited as "lighting cameraman", and it seems not unreasonable to suppose that Gilliam had a lot to do with the camerawork: he and Jones split directorial duties, with Jones largely dealing with performance and Gilliam with technical issues). Whether the Lancelot du Lac connection is deliberate, I can't say; we do know for a certainty that the Pythons were conversant in the art cinema of the day, and Robert Bresson was nothing if not a brand-name art film director.

The overall parodic strategy of Holy Grail isn't particularly original: insert random, goofy shit into places where it doesn't belong, and in so doing, point out that the original material was a bit goofy by itself. It's just that it's very, very good. I hate to talk about the jokes, because talking about the jokes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is something that nobody ever needs to do again, but that's where the film spends nearly all of its comic energy: the whole matter of applying a bent version of the scientific method to determine whether Connie Booth (Cleese's wife and an occasional Python guest when they needed a woman who couldn't be performed in drag) was a witch; the droning Bible reading about explosive armaments; and everything that points to the inherent ridiculous of the old myths, whether it's the arbitrary fetch-quest of finding a nice shrubbery, the florid fantasy names mocked in the on-set ad-lib "There are some who call me... Tim?", and of course the species of the killer beast of Caerbannog. Other jokes are more pointed: one of my favorite parts of the movie is the matter of the anarcho-communitarian peasants speaking wrathfully about the arbitrary nature of monarchical systems, satirizing both the nature of monarchies and the fecklessness of left-wing political organizations (the latter joke would specifically be much refined in Life of Brian).

Viewed as fresh as we can view it - and dear reader, I confess that I couldn't do it; I remained caught up in the fact that I had this movie effectively memorised some 18 years ago and very likely will never be able to un-memorise it - the film seems to me to be exceptional in all possible ways: its travesty, satire, and parody are well-augmented by the precision of its surrealism, which only seems random. In fact, the film carefully builds up a series of comic motifs and call-backs, giving the whole thing a rather elegant structure that gives all of the jokes a feeling of inevitability even as they seem spectacularly random (the most conspicuous of these is the running joke in which a famous historian is murdered in the 20th Century and the police begin to investigate; it doesn't pay off until the final scene, when it does so to extraordinary self-reflective effect.

The hell of it is, this is all true only if the film is funny: and even as I concede that it doesn't and likely will never again trigger an instinctive "this is funny" reaction in me, I find the best of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to be as funny as anything in cinema. Not uniformly so: the middle, when it's most about the various knights' quests, bogs down into two extended sketches that have very little payoff (Galahad the Chaste's accidental visit to a castle full of horny virgin girls, led by the Python's favorite female co-star, Carol Cleveland), or none at all (Lancelot's dramatic, violent interruption of a wedding). But there's a reason it's so damn quotable. Still, not everybody is going to have that response, particularly if the film was spoiled for them before they were able to get to it, and I think that if you don't find Holy Grail funny, than absolutely nothing I have said applies at all: it's just a bunch of Brits being uptight in silly ways against a lot of trees. It's still a hell of a smart film, historically (in its depiction of the Middle Ages as filthy, dangerous, and wet) and satirically, and even in its literary aspirations - it's a movie that rewards a solid familiarity with the Arthurian Romances and the ways that they've been interpreted over the last 800 years, as will happen when a movie is written by a lot of men with Oxbridge educations. I find it all terribly exciting and clever, and while its sharpness has been considerably blunted through time, you can still tell where it once was. I can concede that it's possible to not love this movie, though I'm damned if I can think of the kind of person who might have that response.