MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL: SPECIAL EDITION
Reviewed October 28th, 2001 by Brian White
“... Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”
Jeez it’s hard to pick one quote from the movie to set the tone. This is arguably among the funniest movies ever made. While my personal preference is Life of Brian, it is obvious that The Holy Grail holds the top spot on many people’s list. This cheap little film ($500K US) has really held up over the last twenty-seven years.
The Holy Grail is Monty Python’s first feature film with an attempted narrative. And Now For Something Completely Different, the troupe’s first feature, comprised of a number of refilmed versions of previously-aired television sketches. The Grail, on the other hand, is the Pythons creating something new for the screen. The film is a silly retelling of the Arthur legend, or at least part of it. This movie is still a number of sketches, but the actors wear the same costumes for most of the flick.
Some time back, a DVD of the Holy Grail was released with a non-anamorphic transfer, the original mono track, and little else. Some years before that, Criterion released an excellent special edition laser disc of the Grail. It boasted a vastly improved video transfer over what was available before, a commentary track from directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, a Japanese track, and a section that allowed you to view a scene in Japanese with subtitles that translated the Japanese back into English. As one might guess, this last feature is hilarious. There were also numerous production stills on that disc. That older LD eclipses the original DVD release in every way, considering the DVD’s non-anamorphic transfer. Now we get this Special Edition, 2-disc DVD that knocks the fake chain mail off of the Criterion LD, for a shit-bag less money. I paid $85 Canadian for the LD, and the DVD is priced under $30!
What do you get on the new disc that makes it so great? Well, it’s packed with new features, and some Criterion hold-overs, which I’ll get to in a moment. Perhaps the most important aspect of the disc is the greatly improved video and audio quality.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This film was made for about forty-seven bucks, and it’s always going to look like crap.” Fair enough, the movie is very cheap, and the grainy film transfers that we’ve always seen betray the slim budget. I mentioned earlier that the Criterion LD had improved upon the video quality that was previously available. I remember renting a VHS release and not being able to make out much detail in this very darkly lit movie. The LD brightened things up quite a bit. Believe it or not, the new special edition DVD brightens the movie more than the laser disc. I compared the Camelot sequence on the LD and the new DVD, and there is a lot more detail visible in the shadows on the DVD. Other than just a brighter transfer, this 1.85:1, anamorphic transfer gives you a lot more detail and color. There are some flecks and dirt, but the transfer used appears to be in better shape than that used by Criterion. The packaging states that the original negative was kept in good condition to strike a high-definition transfer. You’ll still see a haze of film grain, but the Grail has never looked better. One minor authoring issue: every now and then, a subtitle pops up when subtitles are turned off. This happens maybe five times during the disc.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital mix has also been created for the film. The transfer doesn’t make the movie sound like modern films by any stretch, but it opens the sound up a bit, so you don’t have the badly recorded sound-effects and dialogue blaring from your center speaker (although the disc gives you the option to listen to the mono track). I found that it was much easier to make out the dialogue on the new disc. There are some sound effects in the back, but not very much. All in all, a much more listenable Grail is found on this disc.
How about them extras? Well, you’ve got the same commentary track with Gilliam and Jones that was available on the Criterion laser disc, and it is very good. It’s a laugh to hear a real director like Gilliam look at this early effort with shock and surprise at all of the mistakes that he thinks he made. Jones’ comments are less technical and more anecdotal. The disc also contains a commentary track by Eric Idle, Michael Palin and John Cleese. The inclusion of the other surviving Pythons is greatly appreciated, but the directors’ commentary is more interesting. All Pythons were recorded separately. Winking at the Matrix DVD, there is a “Follow the Killer Rabbit” feature that allows you to view conceptual art, or jokes about the slim funding when the infamous rabbit appears. There is a film included that documents Terry Jones and Michael Palin driving around Scotland visiting a number of the film’s sets. At one point, not convinced that they are at the right spot, they pull out an Apple notebook and watch the DVD to compare the scenery. There’s another modern day film, which is a sketch starring Palin, on how to use your coconuts. The DVD contains a BBC spot shot on the set back in 1974, sing-alongs, a silly little film with Lego characters performing Camelot, Photos, the English-to-Japanese-back to-English translation bit from the Criterion laser disc, and subtitles for people who don’t like the film (taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II). There are also some great new animated menus in Gilliam’s style (In Dolby Digital 5.1). To top it all off, there is a new little joke at the beginning of the DVD that I won’t give away. This is a very rich package, and it’s done in a very fun, silly way. There’s also a fancy 3D-ish sleeve over the keep case.
Consumer Note: the packaging for the special edition is very similar to the first DVD release. The earlier disc had “Widescreen Edition” across the top. The new disc has similar packaging with “Special Edition” across the top.
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