Life of Brian (1979) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I don't think you need me to evaluate Life of Brian. It's a Monty Python film. Everyone knows who they are and has formed an opinion about them. This particular effort is rated in the top 150 films of all time at IMDb and has received 98% positive reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes. No less an authority on British film than the august BBC declared it, "A beautiful film, a perfect comedy, and a gentle triumph of silliness over pomposity, self-importance, and intolerance - Life of Brian could be the best British comedy ever."

As a quick refresher, it's about a guy who was born in the next stable down from Christ. From the very beginning of his life, people seemed to get him confused with his famous neighbor. First it was the Magi, who followed the star to Brian's stable, only to realize that star navigation is somewhat less precise than GPS, and the real Messiah was just one door down. That would not be the last time people tried to worship him. Brian lived in a time that was obsessed with the Messiah. Various people in that time were convinced that they were the Messiah - from Herod to Caligula to Livia, the wife of Augustus. It was not only the famous who felt themselves chosen. Many minor claimants, sane and mad alike, joined the messianic frenzy that gripped the age. This film pictures the people of that time as being aware of the Messiah's presence, but not his identity, thus shopping around from soap box to soap box trying to find the authentic redeemer among the pretenders. At one time, Brian seemed to be the flavor of the month.

'Nuff said. It's a comedy classic, and it has been re-issued in the Criterion Collection with two full-length commentaries, which between them include all of the living Pythons! I think I'll offer some personal reminiscences.

I lived in the United States when this film was released, and I remember well the controversy. I liked it of course, but one had to be very careful about admitting that because religious people opposed it vociferously. Catholic groups protested the film and wanted attendance to be considered a sin. Fundies virtually shut it out of the Bible Belt states, forcing theater operators to avoid it or to close it early. The same sorts of protests worked against Life of Brian in the U.K., where a group called Festival of Light successfully lobbied many towns and shires to ban the film. The people who protested it, as usual, had no idea what they were talking about. The film does not concern itself at all with Christ or Christianity. Christ is only mentioned once, when an overflow crowd struggles to hear The Sermon on the Mount from a great distance. "Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers?" The film does not ridicule Christianity at all. Brian just happens to have lived in the same time and place as Jesus, and that time is ridiculed. Of course the controversy also fueled the curiosity of a different segment of the population, and the box office total was $19 million in the United States alone, a minor hit by 1979 standards, and highly profitable for the investors who spent $4 million on production. To illustrate its popularity, it took in about as much as Norma Rae or The Rose, for example, and that achievement seems even more impressive when one considers the competition. It came out the same weekend as Apocalypse Now.

The film went on to cult status in the States, but never achieved more than that. It never became embedded into our consciousness as an integral part of the culture. It has admirers among intellectuals and Python fans, but it's never been the kind of universally recognized film that Jay Leno could quote from and everyone would immediately get the joke.

Years after its release, I moved to continental Europe, and eventually lived in several different countries there, where I found out that this film is viewed very differently on the continent. Virtually every educated European has seen the film, can recognize the famous quotes, and can sing along with "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," the cheery finale sung by an unlikely chorus of crucified men. Life of Brian IS a cultural touchstone in Western Europe. I would guess that this film is as familiar to Western European adolescents as Star Wars is to Americans the same age.

I am back in the United States now, but there's something about Western Europe's affection for this movie that continues to give that region a special spot in my heart.

Above - a documentary about the making of the film and the reaction of fundamentalists.



  • TWO full-length commentary tracks - one by three of the Pythons, the other by two more. All the living Pythons participated.
  • Five deleted scenes taken from Terry Jones's 3/4" video cassettes.
  • Widescreen anamorphic transfer. Sadly, it is grainy and below Criterion's usual standard. Lots of scratches and burn marks. Apparently, there was not a pristine master available. Shame.



  • Graham Chapman showed everything.

  • Terry Jones showed his rump, and his package from behind.

  • Sue Jones-Davies showed everything.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus:  better than 3.5 out of four stars. James Berardinelli 4/4, Roger Ebert 3/4, BBC 5/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.1/10. (Top 250 of all time.)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a B. It is one of the most intelligent comedies ever written. (Maybe too intelligent. How many films have long scenes about obscure Latin grammatical rules?). It is a screen classic which made a substantial profit and which is also a critical darling. That said, let me warn you that it is not a mindless Adam Sandler film pitched at the masses. A good education is required to understand all the references, and the accents can be daunting if you aren't already familiar with the Pythons. I debated scoring it C+, which would probably be the right score for America, but I figured that the film's universal recognition in some parts of the world elevates it beyond mere genre status. Personally, I love it.

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