Since going their separate ways, the Monty Python line-up have always found a way to wander back into each other’s paths. Whether it’s popping up in Terry Gilliam’s films, perhaps most notably in Time Bandits which Arrow has now released on 4K UHD, or striking out in their own film appearances that range from the truly great (A Fish Called Wanda, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash) to the not so great (sorry Parting Shots). We’ve decided to look at some of their more underrated appearances and notice how often they appear alongside their former colleagues.
The Magic Christian (1969) – Cleese and Chapman
We kick off with a pre-Python appearance from Graham Chapman and John Cleese in the cult black comedy The Magic Christian. Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) is a billionaire, aided by his heir played by Ringo Starr, who uses his amassed wealth to belittle and humiliate those around him who will pander to any of his bizarre requests for money. A withering satire on capitalism and greed with a cast of cameos featuring a who’s who of British sitcom royalty (Clive Dunn, Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier) and A-List stars alike (Yul Bryner, Raquel Welch, Richard Attenborough).
Excessive, flawed but a intriguing snapshot of 60s Britain and constantly entertaining, there are elements of Chapman and Cleese’s Python humour in the script to which they contributed. Though only making fleeting appearances, Chapman especially, it is a must-watch for Python fans to see traces of the same surreal humour that would later follow.
The Missionary (1982) – Palin
From Handmade Films with George Harrison in a producer role is The Missionary, a Michael Palin led vehicle about a vicar returning as a missionary from Africa who is employed with the task of offering spiritual salvation to a cadre of prostitutes.
Conceived during production on Time Bandits, this was Palin’s first solo outing outside of the Python films. A gentle, historical comedy considering the subject matter which is far too clever to fall into “oo-er missus” innuendo traps. A charming lead performance from Palin. He would reunite with Harrison and co-stars Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott two years later in the equally underrated A Private Function.
Yellowbeard (1983) – Chapman
A film sprung from a boozy dinner between Keith Moon, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Cook and Graham Chapman, Yellowbeard is the story of a 17th century pirate (played by Chapman) who is released from prison and determined to find the treasure he had buried years previously. Features an array of comedic names (Peter Cook, Spike Milligan, Cheech and Chong and Marty Feldman to name a few) but unfortunately with a script that doesn’t live up to their talents. Some jokes creak louder than a bosun walking the plank.
Idle and Cleese pop up in this but both expressed a deeply negative opinion of the film. It’s hard to ignore Chapman’s likeability though and it’s a pity we don’t see more of him. He brings a suitably frantic presence whenever he’s on screen. Not his finest work but really not his worst either.
Silverado (1985) – Cleese
Basil Fawlty in the Wild West? The 1985 western Silverado is an odd place to find John Cleese but sure enough, there he is as Sheriff Langston quite wisely avoiding an attempt at an American accent. Four strangers, including Kevins Costner and Kline, come together to fight a gang of thugs and the villainous Sheriff (there’s Cleese with beard!) in the quiet town of Silverado.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill), it’s a luscious looking western that makes the most of sumptuous scenery. Cruelly forgotten nowadays but worth seeking out for Cleese alone. His performance is a thrill, made all the better for how incongruous it seems, and he even gets to act like an old British bobby and ask “What’s all this then?”.
Spies Like Us (1985) – Gilliam
Whether it be his legendary animations for Monty Python or his majestic directorial work (a number of which calls home here at Arrow – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys and Tideland) Terry Gilliam has always preferred to be behind the camera. But we’ve picked out his rare turn on-screen in US comedy Spies Like Us.
SNL alumni Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are hapless intelligence agents sent to the Soviet Union unaware that they’re being used as a decoy for an alternative mission. Gilliam appears as Dr Imhaus in one of the film’s funniest scenes where a series of doctors make one word introductions to each other. Gilliam was in good company here – Sam Raimi, Joel Cohen, Michael Apted, Larry Cohen and Frank Oz were just some of the other directors making cameos.
Clockwise (1986) – Cleese
A cult classic in the UK that struggled in the US with perhaps a little too much parochial humour, here is Cleese as leading man. He is a headmaster on a journey to chair the annual headmasters’ conference but a series of calamities, mix-ups and misunderstandings thwart his best efforts to get there.
Although not specifically written for Cleese, the role was a natural fit. A series of exhausting events causing a man’s frustration and anger to rise before finally boiling over is often Cleese’s most popular stock in trade as evidenced by Fawlty Towers and the much loved Dead Parrot sketch from Monty Python. It didn’t quite find its place on release but it holds remarkably good value and never has a petard been hoisted so frequently.
Erik The Viking (1989) – Jones
Written, directed and starring Terry Jones based very loosely on a children’s book he also wrote, Erik the Viking is an imaginative fantasy adventure infused with dry Pythonesque humour featuring a young Tim Robbins as the titular star. The Pythons were always able to secure eclectic casts and this was no exception with Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt and Anthony Sher joining forces on this one.
It shares some DNA with Time Bandits and is visually very impressive with grand sets and exciting on-location shooting. The whole result doesn’t quite come together as it should but Jones clearly enjoys himself as King Arnulf and there is just enough adventure to keep you satisfied.
Nuns on the Run (1990) – Idle
The early 90s were a prolific time for Eric Idle. Writing and singing the theme tune for hit sitcom One Foot in the Grave as well as the release of his signature song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” had brought Idle firmly back into public consciousness but it was also the release of 1990’s cult comedy Nuns on the Run that was a cornerstone of this renaissance.
Arguably the last hurrah for Handmade Films, the production company co-founded by George Harrison that released the likes of The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits and Withnail and I, Nuns on the Run was a breezy comedy featuring Idle and Robbie Coltrane who play gangsters. They try to go straight and find themselves donning habits to escape their former criminal colleagues. A very fun endeavour.
The Death of Stalin (2017) – Palin
By 2017, Michael Palin was firmly entrenched in National Treasure status for UK audiences and to some, more famous for travel documentaries than comedy. The Death of Stalin saw Palin return to live action film acting for the first time since 1997’s Fierce Creatures. He features in an ensemble cast in Armando Ianucci’s (The Day Today, The Thick of It) witty, political comedy that tells of the final days of Joseph Stalin’s cabinet.
Palin is Vyacheslav Molotov, Foreign Secretary and delivers a precise and effective performance, perfectly fitting in among the star studded cast without a hint of rust from a 20 year film exile. One of the best political films of recent years that merges drama, horror and out-and-out farce with dexterity.