By T.J. Foster
(This review was originally written as a history paper and contains much of the historical details of the time period. To Skip this, go to the part labelled “review portion begins here”.)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the feature films of the titular comedy group. The main cast includes Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. Each of them plays a variety of characters in the film, as they do in all the Monty Python films. They also co-wrote the film. It was directed by Terry Jones. Musician George Harrison was also a major contributor to the film’s production (Brian).
Life of Brian starts out with in a stable in 1st century Palestine, where a mother is visited by 3 wise men, who want to bring gifts to her baby. Her baby is named Brian, and was born right next to the stable where Jesus was born. As soon as the wise men discover that they have found the wrong stable, they leave the stable and go to the birthplace of Jesus. Later, we find Brian as an adult at around the same time as Jesus’ ministry. On day, he unexpectedly finds out from his mother that his father was a roman. After a brief identity crisis, he decides to join a revolutionary group called the People’s Front of Judea, not to be confused with the People’s Judean front. Both groups are opposed to the Roman occupation of Judea, but do not agree with each other ideologically. After a botched attempt with the Peoples Front of Judea to capture Roman Governor Pontius Pilate’s wife, Brian finds himself on the run. On his way, he accidently amasses a legion of rabid followers hold onto his every word and believe him to be the Messiah, much his chagrin.
Being a comedy film and a spoof, it is obvious that many of the details of the film are not historically reliable. However, the film does address many of the insane realities of the day.
Life of Brian focuses largely on the Roman occupation of Judea. “After Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East, Judah came first under the rule of the Ptolemies and later under that of the Seleucids. Eventually, Opposition to the Seleucid attempt to suppress the Jewish ancestral faith led to the rise of the family of Jewish leaders known as the Maccabees, who gradually drove the Seleucids from the country and set up a revived kingdom of Judaea. Family disputes, however, led to Roman intervention in 63 BC. Under Roman control, Herod the Great was made king of Judaea in 37 BC and later of all Palestine (20–4 BC) (Judea).”
A man in the film is shown being stoned for violating the Old Testament law, specifically by uttering the name “Jehovah.” The characters react to the stoning in a banal manner, because they happen all the time, according to Old Testament law under which Judea was ruled. Deuteronomy 5:11 says: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (English Standard Version).” The scene from the film is reminiscent of the scene in the New Testament when Jesus prevents a woman from being stoned for adultery in John 8:1-7.
Despite being infamous as a spoof of Jesus, Jesus only briefly appeared in the movie. Nevertheless, he is arguably the most significant historical character of the time. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Jesus, also called Jesus Christ, Jesus of Galilee, or Jesus of Nazareth, (born c. 6–4 bc, Bethlehem—died c. ad 30, Jerusalem), religious leader revered in Christianity, one of the world’s major religions (Sanders).” He is regarded by most Christians as the Incarnation of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead. The primary secular information about him comes from historian Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. His account says: “Josephus’ reference to James the brother of Jesus:
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest (Josephus).” Most of the further information about Jesus’ story is found in the Gospels of the New Testament.
During Jesus’ brief appearance, he preaches a portion of the sermon on the mount as described in the gospel of Matthew chapter 5, where he says things like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:3-6, English Standard Version).”
Specifically, the scene emphasized “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” One of the listeners, who is at the back of the audience, cannot hear Jesus. One of the audience members ask, “Did he say, ‘blessed are the cheesemakers,” to which his friends replied “it’s not meant to be taken literally. It clearly refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.” The scene is meant to indicate the unreliability of the firsthand accounts of events like these.
Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea at the time, appears in the film as well. “Pontius Pilate, Latin in full Marcus Pontius Pilatus, (died after 36 CE), Roman prefect (governor) of Judaea (26–36 CE) under the emperor Tiberius who presided at the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion (Pilate).” There is a disparity between the Gospel’s presentation and the historical records of him outside the Gospels. Josephus’ accounts depict that “They seem to picture a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case. He provoked both Jews and Samaritans to riot (Pilate).” Whereas “The New Testament suggests that Pilate had a weak, vacillating personality. Life of Brian leans more towards the more headstrong ruler who was easily willing to execute criminals, although it also shows him to be a buffoon with a speech impediment.
The movie also pointed out another detail in a fun way. While Brian’s group of revolutionaries were at a meeting to revile the Romans, they accidentally have to admit that the Romans gave them things like roads, infrastructure, education, health care, and many other things despite also oppressing them.
Apocalyptic imagery is satirized as well. In one scene, there are many bizarrely painted men dancing and speaking fiery words about the future. One of them speaks a few lines about end times imagery that parodies Revelations 13:1’s vision: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and Blasphemous names on its heads (Revelations 13:1, English Standard Version).”
Crucifixion was a common form of execution during the Roman empire of which many of the characters were painfully aware. Crucifixion involved either strapping or nailing someone to a cross made of wood until they asphyxiated. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Crucifixion, an important method of capital punishment particularly among the Persians, Seleucids, Carthaginians, and Romans from about the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, abolished it in the Roman Empire in the early 4th century CE out of veneration for Jesus Christ, the most famous victim of crucifixion.” It included, “Crucifixion was most frequently used to punish political or religious agitators, pirates, slaves, or those who had no civil rights (Crucifixion).” Jesus’s crucifixion isn’t shown in the film.
(review portion begins here)
The Pythons are as excellent as ever as the 6 of them jump between all the major roles of the film. As he did in the Holy Grail, Graham Chapman does excellently as the exasperated everyman who is thrown into a world of madness. Terry Jones does his same excellent, shrill, woman voice for Brian’s mother as he did in Holy Grail. John Cleese plays a number of frustrated authority figures.
Even though I like the other Monty Python movies, I find many parts of them to be quite dull. The Pythons often used a very surreal type of humor that appeals to some people, but not to me. I find them funnier when they are doing situational comedy or when they are satirizing a particular thing. Life of Brian only contains one instant of surreal humor. Otherwise, it contained situational comedy and satire that were direct and understandable, which made this film my favorite of them. For me, there is never a dull moment in the movie.
Life of Brian’s satire pokes not primarily at Jesus, but is far reaching and lampoons all sorts of irrational people. They point out the often pretentious, hypocritical nature of revolutionaries. They mock the silliness of gender identity issues. The film attacks the Gospels in the New Testament primarily by making fun of how information gets around and how people misinterpret events. The jokes are consistently clever and hilarious, as well as profound and thought-provoking.
Although in a real setting and with a good deal of historical relevance, there are plenty of fictionalized events and incidences, especially because the movie is a comedy. The various revolutionary groups depicted in the film never existed. Pontius Pilate was likely not a bumbling buffoon as he is portrayed. Brian, his family, and his followers were invented for the film. Although there is historical evidence that Jesus was a real person, he likely did not exist as described in the Gospels or in the film.
I would absolutely recommend this film to a classmate for a number of reasons. Not only is it far and away my favorite Monty Python movie, but it may be my favorite comedy, and one of my favorite films period. Its jokes and performances are top notch. Additionally, it carries an important message about thinking for oneself and not getting caught up in narrow minded, immovable ideologies, both religious and otherwise. In an interview about the film, John Cleese explained that the film was largely attacking closed systems of thought. When an idea is whirring around in one’s head so fast that no light or contrary evidence can make it in then it is very dangerous (Brian). Not only would it make a classmate laugh, but it may also help them to question and ideology into which they may be stuck, and think more critically. Additionally, it gives excellent exposure to one of the most well-regarded comedy groups in recent history.
The Bible. English Standard Version.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, editor. “Crucifixion.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 12 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/crucifixion-capital-punishment. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
—. “Pontius Pilate.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Pontius-Pilate. Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.
Encyclopedia Britannica Editors, editor. “Judea.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 29 Mar. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Judaea. Accessed 26 Feb. 2019.
Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, 1, based on the translation of Louis H. Feldman, The Loeb Classical Library.
“Life of Brian – 1979 Debate (1/4).” YouTube, uploaded by Nir0bateman, 31 Oct. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ni559bHXDg. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
Sanders, E. P. “Jesus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 21 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Jesus. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.