After the huge success of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, England's silliest comedy troupe needed a follow-up. Naturally, they chose another period piece, this one requiring even more elaborate sets and costumes—and, as a bonus, it was liable to offend everyone. Monty Python's Life of Brian was released in 1979 and, sure enough, caused a stir. It also shot to the top of many people's lists of the best satires ever made, and helped cement Monty Python's legacy. Here, stop arguing about what the Romans have ever done for you and read this reverent list of important trivia.
1. IT WAS CONCEIVED IN AMSTERDAM, WRITTEN IN BARBADOS, AND FILMED IN TUNISIA.
Monty Python was a very British comedy troupe, but Life of Brian was a truly international production. The lads came up with the idea of doing a Biblical epic while promoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Amsterdam in early 1976. (No word on Amsterdam's other offerings, but much alcohol was definitely involved.) The final draft of the screenplay was written around Christmas 1977 in Barbados, where Eric Idle was vacationing; rather than return to London to finish the script, he convinced the other five Pythons to join him there. As for the actual filming, England was short on arid plains that could pass for Jerusalem, so everyone decamped to Tunisia, where Star Wars (and, more relevantly, Jesus of Nazareth) had recently been shot.
2. THEY USED LEFTOVER SETS AND COSTUMES FROM A REAL JESUS MOVIE.
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli (you may be familiar with his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet) had made a six-hour English-language TV miniseries called Jesus of Nazareth, seen by a massive worldwide audience in 1977. For the Pythons, one of the perks of shooting in Tunisia was that they could use some of the props, costumes, and sets that Zeffirelli's production had left behind.
3. THE PYTHONS MADE A CONSCIOUS DECISION NOT TO MAKE FUN OF JESUS.
The film's detractors insisted otherwise (most of them hadn't actually seen it), but Life of Brian doesn't ridicule Jesus or his teachings. (His followers; people who misunderstand him; organized religion in general, sure.) The men of Monty Python realized early in the writing process that Jesus shouldn't be a target. This wasn't out of reverence, though, so much as practicality: nobody thought Jesus' words or deeds warranted derision. As Eric Idle later put it, "He's not particularly funny. What he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff."
4. JESUS HAD A STUTTER.
Though Life of Brian is about a man whose life parallels Jesus', Jesus himself appears only briefly (and respectfully, the Pythons were quick to point out). According to Terry Gilliam, Kenneth Colley—the actor who played Jesus—had a terrible stammer in real life that cleared up when he was reciting dialogue onstage or in front of a camera. (By the way, Colley also played Admiral Piett, an Imperial officer, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.)
5. JOHN CLEESE WAS IN FAVOR OF STUNT CASTING FOR THE ROLE OF JESUS.
His suggestion was George Lazenby. Cleese explained: "I thought that on the poster, to have the words '...and George Lazenby as Jesus Christ' would be something that people would treasure for at least the next millennium." He's probably right, though it's also probably just as well that Jesus wasn't played by anyone recognizable.
6. THE FILM'S SAVIOR WAS A BEATLE.
Two days before the cast and crew were set to leave for Tunisia to begin shooting, the head honcho at EMI Films, Bernard Delfont, got cold feet and canceled the financing, fearing the film was too controversial to make a profit. (According to Gilliam, the problem was that Delfont finally actually read the script.) Everything was put on hold while the Pythons scrambled to find another backer. Their patron turned out to be George Harrison, a big Monty Python fan who had plenty of Beatles money lying around. Harrison set up a production company, HandMade Films, to make it official, and put up $4 million of his own money. "I liked the script and I wanted to see the movie," he later said. Terry Jones would call it "the most expensive movie ticket of all time." As for Delfont, the film ends with a little inside joke aimed at him, as the singer of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" can be heard muttering, "I told him, I said to him, 'Bernie,' I said, 'they'll never make that money back.’"
7. IT REQUIRED A MAKESHIFT CIRCUMCISION.
According to Eric Idle, when it came time to film the scene where a nude Brian goes to the window and inadvertently exposes himself to a crowd of disciples, director Terry Jones pointed out a problem with a Graham Chapman's genitalia: "We can see you're not Jewish." This was a good point. Brian would definitely be circumcised, and Chapman was not. Chapman's solution was to summon not a mohel but a rubber band, which he used to help make himself look the part. Acting!
8. BEFORE IT UPSET ANYONE ELSE, IT UPSET SOME MUSLIMS.
For the aforementioned window scene, the crowd was made up of Tunisian extras, almost all of them Muslim. To see a naked man other than one's husband is a no-no for Muslim women, and as Chapman later recalled, "When I flung open the shutters, half the crowd ran away screaming. That had a profound effect on my psyche."
9. THE FILMMAKERS WORKED HARD NOT TO DAMAGE ANY OF THE SHOOTING LOCATIONS (BUT DID ANYWAY).
Some of the sets had been built for Jesus of Nazareth, and some were made especially for Life of Brian, but some locations were actual old buildings in and around Monastir, Tunisia. The crew took care to minimize their impact on these settings, but not everything could be helped. For example, Terry Gilliam (serving as production designer) believed the black smudge they applied to the stones where the UFO crashes (around the 44-minute mark) would come right off. When it didn't, he sent people in under cover of night to paint the stones the right color again and hoped nobody would notice.
10. THERE WAS A STRATEGIC REASON IT OPENED IN AMERICA BEFORE ENGLAND.
Monty Python had a big following in the U.S., but it was nothing compared to the group's fan base in the U.K. So why did Life of Brian open in the States first? Because the Pythons knew some people would consider the film sacrilegious, and America, unlike the U.K., had no blasphemy laws. They weren’t just being paranoid either, as an actual blasphemy case had recently been prosecuted in England over an erotic poem about Jesus.
11. THE FIRST PEOPLE TO PROTEST THE FILM WERE ... RABBIS?
Our lads anticipated blowback from Christians over the film, but they were caught off-guard when the first complaints came from a council of rabbis. Their objection? The stoning scene, where Jews' reverence for the name of God is satirized, and in which John Cleese (playing a Jewish leader) wears a sacred prayer shawl.
12. SHOOTING THE UFO SCENE WAS A RACE AGAINST TIME (AND TAX LAWS).
At the time of the film’s production, Graham Chapman was living in the United States and, for tax reasons, he wasn't allowed to be back home in England for more than 24 hours at a time. Since most of the movie was shot in Tunisia, this wasn't a problem. But the scene where Brian briefly travels inside an alien spacecraft was shot in London. Chapman flew to England, hurried to the set, spent several hours inside the UFO, then had to hurry off again before his 24 hours were up.
13. GRAHAM CHAPMAN WAS THE SET DOCTOR.
Chapman was a medical student before he turned to comedy, and in fact was already a successful writer and performer for British TV when he finished his studies and became an actual licensed physician. He wore both hats on the Life of Brian set in Tunisia, filming during the day and holding a clinic for cast, crew, and extras in the evening, treating injuries and prescribing medication.
Criterion Collection DVD bonus features and commentary