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Wednesday, May 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movies
Those naughty Monty Python boys resurrect 'Life of Brian'

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

The satire “Life of Brian” featured, from left, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones.
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Terry Jones, former Monty Python-ite and director of the 1979 biblical satire "Life of Brian," has something he'd like to say to Mel Gibson.

"I'd like to publicly thank him for giving us this opportunity," said Jones on the phone from his London home, speaking of the re-release of his film in U.S. theaters beginning Friday (in Seattle, at the Neptune). "We are very grateful to Mel. There is a rumor that this is why Mel made 'The Passion of the Christ,' to give us this opportunity."

Anyone who found themselves wanting to whistle "Look on the Bright Side of Life" toward the end of "The Passion" is undoubtedly jumping for joy at the news of the return of "Brian." And while the film is celebrating its 25th anniversary, Jones is perfectly clear about the reason for the re-release — it's because of the widespread interest in Gibson's film. "It is a shameless piece of commercial opportunity on our part, we cannot deny," he said, clearly amused by it all.

"Life of Brian," the satirical and wildly funny story of a young man named Brian Cohen who just happened to be born in the next stable over from Jesus (thus launching a lifetime of being mistaken for the Messiah), almost didn't get made at all. The British film production company EMI had put up the money (approximately 2 million British pounds), and then abruptly withdrawn it shortly before filming when "one of them actually read the script," said Jones.

Terry Jones as Simon the Holy Man in Monty Python's "Life of Brian." He also played Brian's exasperated mom and directed the film, being re-released for its 25th anniversary.
Luckily, a savior was waiting in the wings: former Beatle George Harrison. Eric Idle, of the Monty Python troupe, knew Harrison and had told him about the film. "George said, 'Oh, I'd like to see that movie,' " remembered Jones. "He really put up the money. The most expensive cinema seat of all time!" Harrison, at the time, said that tapes of Monty Python comedy sketches helped to keep his spirits up during the difficult period of the Beatles breakup, "so he owed us one."

The seven members of the Python troupe wrote the screenplay together, after each of them did some individual research on the period and the Gospels. (Jones is an accomplished historian whose academic history book "Who Murdered Chaucer?" was just recently published in the U.K. He also regularly hosts the BBC series "Medieval Lives.")

Once the script began to take shape, said Jones, "it had a organic life of its own. It very much became not about Christ or even the subject of Christ, but about people's reactions to somebody."

Filming took place in the sands of Tunisia (not far from the dunes where George Lucas shot "Star Wars" a few years previously), on the re-dressed sets used by Franco Zeffirelli for "Jesus of Nazareth." Many of the extras for "Life of Brian" were veterans from Zeffirelli's film and didn't hesitate to advise Jones of what they learned from the Italian master. "I'd be walking around, and these old men would say, 'Oh, Mr. Zeffirelli would never do it like that.' They were constantly giving advice."

Released under a storm of controversy in 1979 (much of it coming, as is often the case, from people who hadn't seen the film), "Life of Brian" was condemned by many religious groups in the United States and banned in many towns in the United Kingdom. Jones recalls that when they were banned in Swansea, Wales, the people of that town got on buses to go see the film in Cardiff.

"Life of Brian" is actually gentle, almost reverent, in its depiction of Christ — you see a brief shot of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and then Brian's rapt reaction. Its silliness is in the characters who scurry around the soft-spoken Brian (Graham Chapman), madly babbling about having found a new Messiah, and in the wonderfully funny character bits devised by the Pythons. Jones donned a skirt (as he often did in the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" TV series) to play Brian's exasperated mother, Mandy, bellowing out his lines with an almost operatic glee. "He's not the Messiah," she huffs to the crowd. "He's a very naughty boy!"

Jones, who's still close to his fellow Pythonites ("I had lunch with Mike Palin yesterday"), hopes the film will find a new audience this time around, as well as those who fondly remember its release a quarter-century ago. "The film's not blasphemous," he says, almost in disbelief at the furor which happened so long ago. "I think the more people saw it, they realized it was silly to ban it."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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