The second feature film coming from the Monty Python troupe, the Pythons had honed their film skills from Holy Grail and were ready for an even trickier subject—religion. Conceived of during the tour for Holy Grail, the Pythons quickly concluded there wasn’t much to make fun of Jesus for directly, so the group decided to tackle concepts for organised religion and the Roman Empire, all through the lens of a man named Brian Cohen who’s mistaken for the Messiah. With a little help from a friend, the film got the production it needed and released rather controversially in 1979. Now a cult classic alongside their other films, what follows are some interesting trivia tidbits from its production and release.
Ask a Daft Question
One of the many stories surrounding the film’s creation is that, during the promotion for Holy Grail, Eric Idle was tired of being asked what the group’s next project was. In one interview, he stated it was “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory”, based on the UK title for the movie Patton (Patton: Lust for Glory). Eventually, the Pythons decided to go with it and started basing the story around a sketch about Jesus angrily correcting the carpenters working on his cross about their shoddy craftsmanship. Once they realised there wasn’t much to make fun of directly, the film took a turn to poke at concepts surrounding organised religion.
Too Many Cooks
While Holy Grail was co-directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, for Life of Brian, the two decided to let Jones be the sole director to cut down on tension behind the camera. Gilliam was instead in charge of the sets and art direction, as well as his usual animations.
You Are in Command Now, Son of God
John Cleese had originally wanted to do some stunt casting for the role of Jesus. His idea was to have George Lazenby in the role, stating “I thought that, on the poster, to have the words ‘…and starring George Lazenby as Jesus Christ’ would be something that people would treasure for at least the next millennium.” However, Terry Jones opted for Kenneth Colley, with whom he’d worked on the film Jabberwocky. Colley actually had a terrible stutter, but it would clear up immediately as he was reciting lines, a method used by some to help treat the condition. The year after the film came out, Colley would go on to play Admiral Piett in Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back.
Hand Me Downs
The sets for Life of Brian largely came from another film about Jesus that was also made in Tunisia. This production was Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth TV miniseries.
With a Little Help from Their Friends
EMI pulled out of the film a week before production was supposed to begin. When the Pythons were scrambling for someone to help with the funding, Beatle George Harrison stepped in as he was a big fan of theirs. In Harrison’s words, he “pawned” his home and office for £4 million. When reporters asked him why he’d pay so much money for the film’s production, Harrison answered: “Because I want to see it.” Eric Idle later joked that it was the most anyone had ever paid for a cinema ticket. Additionally, Keith Moon had been with the group “drying out” when they were writing in Barbados and was originally supposed to play one of the mad preachers, but he died before production started.
Are You a Speaking Role?
Allegedly, the man who said “I’m not” in the “You’re all individuals!” scene was an extra who ad-libbed the line. Rather than throw it out, the Pythons decided to keep it in the film and give the extra a raise commiserate with a speaking role.
Favour to a Friend
Eric Idle used the name “Loretta” as a nod to his friend Marty Feldman’s wife.
So Funny It Was Banned in Norway
Even though the film’s mockery wasn’t directed at Jesus, many religious people still found the film to be highly offensive and protested it—even though they hadn’t seen it. Several states in the American south banned the film, as did a few town councils in the UK, and even countries such as Ireland and Norway. Sweden actually used the above headline for its marketing of Life of Brian. Ireland lifted its ban after eight years and Norway after one.
John Cleese and Michael Palin also appeared on Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, to debate the film. It is said that Muggeridge, as a recent convert to Christianity, had taken a contrarian view as was his style and that Muggeridge had come to the film fifteen minutes late, thus missing the point that Jesus and Brian were two different people. Cleese and Palin said that it became painfully obvious to them that, while the two comedians were seeking to make rational, evidentiary arguments, Muggeridge and Stockwood were merely interested in scoring points with the audience.
In addition to playing Brian and other roles during filming, Graham Chapman also served as the surgeon on set since he was a qualified doctor.
The film’s final musical number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was a takeoff on the British concept of “keeping a stiff upper lip” and took on a life of its own in British society. During the Falklands War, after the HMS Sheffield was struck by a cruise missile and was slowly sinking, the crew gathered on deck and began singing the song as they awaited rescue. RAF pilots would also sing the song before going on their missions during the First Gulf War.