Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)


Introduction

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, also known simply as The Meaning of Life, is a 1983 British musical sketch comedy film written and performed by the Monty Python troupe, directed by Terry Jones.

The Meaning of Life was the last feature film to star all six Python members before the death of Graham Chapman in 1989.

Outline

Six fish in a posh restaurant’s tank swim together casually and say good morning to each other, then see their friend Howard being eaten outside. This leads them to question the meaning of life. The question is explored in the first sketch, “The Miracle of Birth”, which features a woman in labour being ignored by the doctors in favour of impressing the hospital’s medically-clueless administrator. In Yorkshire, a Roman Catholic man loses his job and informs his numerous children that he must sell them off for scientific experiments due to the Catholic church’s opposition to contraception (“Every Sperm Is Sacred”). A Protestant man looks on disapprovingly, and proudly remarks that Protestants can use contraception and have sex for pleasure (though his wife points out that they never do).

In “Growth and Learning”, a class of boys learn school etiquette before partaking in a sex education lesson, which involves watching their teacher have sex with his wife. One boy laughs and is forced into a violent rugby match pitting pupils against the school masters as punishment. “Fighting Each Other” focuses on three scenes concerning the British military: first, a World War I officer tries to rally his men during an attack, but they instead present him with various going-away gifts; second, a modern army RSM bullies his platoon to say what they’d rather be doing than drill practice, then dismisses each soldier in turn. Lastly, in 1879, during the Battle of Isandlwana in Anglo-Zulu War, a soldier finds his leg has been bitten off. Suspecting a tiger, the soldiers hunt for it and find two men suspiciously wearing two halves of a tiger costume.

The prior sequences end abruptly with a host introducing “The Middle of the Film”. In a segment called “Find the Fish”, bizarre characters ask the audience to find a hidden fish. “Middle Age” involves an American couple visiting a Hawaiian restaurant with a Medieval torture theme, where, to the interest of the fish, the waiter offers a conversation about philosophy and the meaning of life. The customers are unable to make sense of it and move on to a discussion of “live organ transplants”. In “Live Organ Transplants”, two paramedics visit a card-carrying organ donor and remove his liver while he is still alive. His wife is initially reluctant to donate her own liver while alive, but she relents after a man steps out of a fridge and reminds her of humanity’s insignificance in the universe (“Galaxy Song”). Executives of an American conglomerate debate the meaning of life before a raid by The Crimson Permanent Assurance briefly interrupts them.

“The Autumn Years” starts off with a musician in a French restaurant singing about the joys of having a penis. When the song is finished, everyone applauds the musician, but the applause is interrupted when the horrible, gluttonous and grotesquely obese Mr Creosote visits the restaurant, to the horror of everyone including the fish. He vomits continuously and devours an enormous meal. After the maître d’ persuades him to eat an after-dinner mint, Creosote’s gut explodes, splattering the other diners. Two staff members clean up while arguing and discussing about the meaning of life in “The Meaning Of Life”. A third waiter leads the audience to the house where he was born, spouts some weak philosophy, and then angrily dismisses them after his point trails off.

“Death” features a condemned man choosing the manner of his own execution: being chased off the Cliffs of Dover by topless women in sports gear and falling into his own grave below. In a short animated sequence, several despondent leaves commit suicide by throwing themselves from the branches of their tree. The Grim Reaper enters an isolated country house and convinces the hosts and dinner guests, with difficulty, that they are all dead. They accompany the Grim Reaper to Heaven, revealed to be the Hawaiian restaurant from earlier. They enter a Las Vegas-style hotel where it’s always Christmas and meet the characters from the previous sketches (“Christmas in Heaven”).

The song is cut off abruptly for “The End of the Film”. An epilogue features the host of “The Middle of the Film” being handed an envelope containing the meaning of life. Pronouncing it “nothing very special”, she blandly reads it out: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.

Cast

  • Graham Chapman as Chairman / Fish No. 1 / Doctor / Harry Blackitt / Wymer / Hordern / General / Coles / Narrator No. 2 / Dr Livingstone / Transvestite / Eric / Guest No. 1 / Arthur Jarrett / Geoffrey / Tony Bennett-esque singer.
  • John Cleese as Fish No. 2 / Dr Spencer / Humphrey Williams / Sturridge / Ainsworth / Waiter / Eric’s assistant / Maître D’ / Grim Reaper.
  • Terry Gilliam as Window Washer / Fish No. 4 / Walters / Middle of the Film announcer / M’Lady Joeline / Mr Brown / Howard Katzenberg.
  • Eric Idle as Gunther / Fish No. 3 / ‘Meaning of Life’ singer / Mr Moore / Mrs Blackitt / Watson / Blackitt / Atkinson / Perkins / Victim #3 / Man in Front / Mrs Hendy / Man in Pink / Noël Coward / Gaston / Angela.
  • Terry Jones as Bert / Fish No. 6 / Mum / Priest / Biggs / Sergeant / Man with Bendy Arms / Mrs. Brown / Mr Creosote / Maria / Leaf Father / Fiona Portland-Smythe.
  • Michael Palin as Window Washer / Harry / Fish No. 5 / Mr Pycroft / Dad / Narrator No. 1 / Chaplain / Carter / Spadger / Regimental Seargeant Major / Pakenham-Walsh / Man in Rear End / Female TV Presenter / Mr Marvin Hendy / Governor / Padre / Leaf Son / Debbie Katzenberg.

The main company of Monty Python members, who appeared in multiple roles in nearly every section of the film, was supported by featured cast mates:

  • Carol Cleveland.
  • Simon Jones.
  • Patricia Quinn.
  • Judy Loe.
  • Andrew Bicknell.
  • Mark Holmes.
  • Valerie Whittington.
  • Matt Frewer.
  • John Scott Martin.

Additionally Michael Caine makes an uncredited appearance as a soldier in a reference to his role in Zulu (1964).

Production

According to Palin, “the writing process was quite cumbersome. An awful lot of material didn’t get used. Holy Grail had a structure, a loose one: the search for the grail. Same with Life of Brian. With this, it wasn’t so clear. In the end, we just said: ‘Well, what the heck. We have got lots of good material, let’s give it the loosest structure, which will be the meaning of life'”.

After the film’s title was chosen, Douglas Adams called Jones to tell him he had just finished a new book, to be called The Meaning of Liff; Jones was initially concerned about the similarity in titles, which led to the scene in the title sequence of a tombstone which, when hit by a flash of lightning, changes from “The Meaning of Liff” to “The Meaning of Life”

Principal photography began on 12 July 1982 and was completed about two months later, on 11 September. A wide variety of locations were used, such as Porchester Hall in Queensway for the Mr Creosote sketch, where hundreds of pounds of fake vomit had to be cleaned up on the last day due to a wedding being scheduled hours later. The Malham Moors were chosen for the Grim Reaper segment; the countryside near Strathblane was used for the Zulu War; and “Every Sperm Is Sacred” was shot in Colne, Lancashire with interiors done at Elstree Studios.

The film was produced on a budget of less than US$10 million, which was still bigger than that of the earlier films. This allowed for large-scale choreography and crowd sequences, a more lavishly produced soundtrack that included new original songs, and much more time able to be spent on each sketch, especially The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Palin later said that the larger budget, and not making the film for the BBC (i.e. television), allowed the film to be more daring and dark.

The idea for the hospital sketch came from Chapman, himself a doctor, who had noticed that hospitals were changing, with “lots and lots of machinery”. According to Palin, the organ transplant scene harked back to Python’s love of bureaucracy, and sketches with lots of people coming round from the council with different bits of paper.

During the filming of the scene where Palin’s character explains Catholicism to his children, his line was “that rubber thing at the end of my sock”, which was later overdubbed with cock.

The Crimson Permanent Assurance

The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance introduces the feature. It is about a group of elderly office clerks working in a small accounting firm. They rebel against yuppie corporate masters, transform their office building into a pirate ship, and raid a large financial district. One of the boardrooms raided reappears later in the film, from shortly before the attack begins until the narrator apologises and a skyscraper falls and crushes the marauders.

The short was intended as an animated sequence in the feature, for placement at the end of Part V. Gilliam convinced the other members of Monty Python to allow him to produce and direct it as a live action piece instead.

Release

The original tagline read “It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up” (the length of The Meaning of Life proper is 90 minutes, but becomes 107 minutes as released with the “Short Subject Presentation”, The Crimson Permanent Assurance). In an April 2012 re-release held by the American Film Institute, the tagline is altered to read “It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 1 hour and 48 minutes to screw it up”.

Ireland banned the film on its original release as it had previously done with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but later rated it 15 when it was released on video. In the United Kingdom the film was rated 18 when released in the cinema and on its first release on video, but was re-rated 15 in 2000. In the United States the film is rated R.

Box Office

The film opened in North America on 31 March 1983. At 257 cinemas it ranked number six at the US box office, grossing US$1,987,853 ($7,734 per screen) in its opening weekend. It played at 554 cinemas at its widest point, and its total North American gross was $14,929,552.

Accolades

The Meaning of Life was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. While the Cannes jury, led by William Styron, were fiercely split on their opinions on several films in competition, The Meaning of Life had general support, securing it the second-highest honour after the Palme d’Or for The Ballad of Narayama.

At the 37th British Academy Film Awards, Andre Jacquemin, Dave Howman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were also nominated for Original Song for “Every Sperm is Sacred.” The award went to “Up Where We Belong” in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Home Media

A two-disc DVD release in 2003 features a documentary on production and a director’s cut, which adds deleted scenes into the film, making it 116 minutes. The first is The Adventures of Martin Luther, inserted after the scene with the Protestant couple talking about condoms. The second is a promotional video about the British army, which comes between the marching around the square scene and the Zulu army scene. The third and last is an extension of the American characters performed by Idle and Palin; they are shown their room and talk about tampons. In Region 1, it was released on Blu-ray to mark its 30th anniversary. In May 2020, it was released on Netflix in the United Kingdom.

Trivia

  • According to Terry Gilliam, before the Pythons decided to make a sketch movie about the meaning of life, two ideas were considered for the movie. The first was “Monty Python’s World War III”, with sponsored armies and soldiers wearing military uniforms full of advertisements. Another idea was the Pythons being tried for fraud, accused of making a tax dodge, not a movie. They spend the entire movie trying to prove that they’re shooting an adaptation of “Hamlet” in the Caribbean. At the end, they’re found guilty and sentenced to death, and each one of them gets to decide how they’re going to die. The idea was used in the death sketch, In which Arthur Jarrett chooses to die while being pursued by naked girls.
  • Graham Chapman played a doctor in the “birth” segment, and is called “Doctor” in the Zulu War segment. He was a real-life doctor, with a medical degree from Emmanuel College, but he never practiced medicine professionally.
  • Thirty years after it was written, Eric Idle and physicist Professor Brian Cox re-wrote the lyrics to the Galaxy song. They decided it needed an update because subsequent scientific discoveries meant that much of the information in the original song was no longer accurate. It was performed as part of the Monty Python’s farewell shows at the O2 Arena in London, England in 2014.
  • Michael Caine appears as an uncredited extra in this film, during the “Fighting Each Other” segment that shows the Anglo-Zulu War. Caine appeared in the definitive film about this conflict, Zulu (1964).

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Terry Jones.
    • Terry Gilliam … (animation and special sequence).
  • Producer(s):
    • John Goldstone … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Graham Chapman … (written by).
    • John Cleese … (written by).
    • Terry Gilliam … (written by).
    • Eric Idle … (written by).
    • Terry Jones … (written by).
    • Michael Palin … (written by).
  • Music:
    • John Du Prez.
  • Cinematography:
    • Peter Hannan.
    • Roger Pratt … (segment “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”).
  • Editor(s):
    • Julian Doyle.
  • Production:
    • Celandine Films.
    • The Monty Python Partnership.
    • Universal Pictures.
  • Distributor(s):
    • Universal Pictures (1983) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1983) (France) (theatrical).
    • Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) (1983) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • United International Pictures (UIP) (1983) (Australia) (theatrical).
    • United International Pictures (UIP) (1983) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • United International Pictures (UIP) (1986) (Argentina) (theatrical).
    • MCA Home Video (1986) (USA) (VHS).
    • Universal Pictures (2000) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Universal Home Video (2004) (Brazil) (DVD).
    • Das Vierte (2006) (Germany) (TV).
    • Argentina Video Home (2008) (Argentina) (DVD).
    • New Star (2011) (Greece) (theatrical) (re-release).
    • Universal Pictures (2011) (Netherlands) (DVD) (director’s cut).
    • Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (UPHE) (2012) (USA) (DVD) (Universal’s 100th Anniversary).
    • Universal Pictures (2013) (Germany) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
    • Sonoro Filme (1984) (Portugal) (theatrical).
    • United International Pictures (UIP) (1983) (Brazil) (theatrical).
    • United International Pictures (UIP) (1983) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Universal Pictures International (UPI) (2015) (Spain) (theatrical).
    • Asociace Ceských Filmových Klubu (ACFK) (Czechia) (all media).
    • Egmont Entertainment (2001) (Finland) (DVD).
    • Esselte Video (Finland) (VHS).
    • Image Entertainment (1998) (USA) (DVD).
    • Kutonen (2017) (Finland) (TV).
    • LK-TEL (Argentina) (VHS).
    • MCA/Universal Home Video (USA) (VHS).
    • MCA/Universal Home Video (USA) (all media) (laserdisc).
    • MTV3 (2008) (Finland) (TV).
    • RTL2 (Germany) (TV).
    • Sub (2011) (Finland) (TV).
    • TV3 (1989) (Finland) (TV).
    • TV5 (2016) (Finland) (TV).
    • Universal Pictures Finland (2003) (Finland) (DVD).
    • Universal Pictures Finland (2013) (Finland) (Blu-ray).
    • Universal Pictures (all media).
    • Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Nordic (2014) (Finland) (Blu-ray) (DVD) (3-disc Monty Python’s Holy Trinity).
    • Yleisradio (YLE) (1999) (Finland) (TV).
  • Release Date: 31 March 1983 (US), 09 May 1983 (Cannes Film Festival), and 23 June 9183 (UK).
  • Rating: Unknown.
  • Running Time: 90 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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