"Holy Grail" proves test marketing isn't all bad. The initial screening, for a group of investors in the film, "was just the most awful evening," says Jones. "After about five minutes it was just dead silence. The entire film played to absolutely no reaction at all." So he and co-director Terry Gilliam toned down the "grisly" sound effects and changed to a mock-heroic adventure music. They didn't know the fixes worked until months later, in Los Angeles, when the first paying audience saw it.
Not much about shooting or shaping "Holy Grail" was fun. Editing and redoing the soundtrack "was a long, slow process, always very fraught," Jones says. "We didn't know it was going to be a funny film. We just thought we were trying to rescue something. Our future ability to make films was on the line." As for the filming, he says, "Every time I watch it, I keep remembering how miserable it was. We were so wet and cold."
"Holy Grail" left at least one great joke on the pages. The original script was set half in modern, half in medieval times. "And they eventually found the Holy Grail in [ London department store] Harrods, because it's the store that has everything," Jones says.
"Holy Grail" is only No. 2 in England, No. 2 in the eyes of the Pythons. Although "Grail" does better stateside, in England, "Life of Brian," the Pythons' 1979 satire of the origins of Christianity, is seen as the true comic classic. "The general feeling of the group is that 'Life of Brian' is their best work," says John Goldstone, the films' producer. "America seems to be a lot more sensitive about examining religion."
"Holy Grail" outperforms the stock market. Half the 229,000 pounds (the equivalent of about $2 million in 2009) to make the film came from theater impresario Michael White, Goldstone says, the other half from music-industry folk including Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. When Goldstone last checked, a few years ago, the investors had seen a 6,000 percent return on their money.
"Holy Grail" by the (some) numbers. On Netflix, 2.1 million people have given the film an average of 4.1 out of 5 stars. DVD wholesale grosses dating from 2001, the first proper packaging, according to Goldstone, were at $120 million as of last September. " Spamalot," the musical based on "Holy Grail," did more than $170 million on Broadway and continues to tour the country, he adds; it will make its Los Angeles premiere in July.
The staying power of "Holy Grail." Neither Goldstone nor Jones can recall a period when it ever truly felt as though the film might fade away. It was a steady presence in college cinemas for decades, they say, the DVD era kicked things into another gear, then "Spamalot" came along and hit the overdrive button. Original Python Eric Idle, who wrote the musical, "is wonderful at retreading material," says Jones, "and thank God he is."
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune