Monty Python nearly didn’t get to explore the philosophical verities of The Meaning of Life. The troupe was deep into the writing process for their fourth feature (not counting Live at the Hollywood Bowl) and couldn’t seem to beat into shape the mountain of material being generated. Since a “writing recce” in Barbados had done the trick when they were polishing the final draft of Life of Brian, a trip to Jamaica was arranged so the six of them could work without distraction. The trouble was they only had the vaguest notion of basing the film around the seven ages of man, but that came more into focus when John Cleese and Graham Chapman dashed off a sketch about a woman giving birth in a modern, impersonal hospital. This went down like a treat at the next read-through and immediately seemed the perfect way to start the film. It didn’t work out that way, though.
With two solo features under his belt, Terry Gilliam didn’t wish to be limited to animation and lobbied for his own live-action unit. The result was The Crimson Permanent Assurance, an exuberant fantasy about a long-established British firm shaking off the shackles of its American oppressors and embracing a life of corporate piracy. An amusing enough conceit, but at 16 minutes it broke up the flow at a critical point where the film was supposed to be moving into the home stretch, so it was surgically removed and placed at the front as a “Short Feature Presentation,” complete with its own credits. Subsequently, Cleese and Chapman’s “The Miracle of Birth” didn’t hit quite the same, but it still served as a good bookend with the closing section on “Death,” which climaxes with a Vegas-style floor show in the afterlife where guests are serenaded with the upbeat “Christmas in Heaven.”
In between, The Meaning of Life runs the gamut from ditties about the sanctity of spermatozoa, the enormity of the galaxy, and the pleasures of possessing a penis to gross-out gags depicting the removal of a liver from a live donor and a fancy restaurant invaded by an obese gourmand who vomits constantly. It also keeps up the proud Python tradition of thumbing their noses at organized religion, taking jabs at Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Church of England in swift succession. The latter comes up during the part about “Growth and Learning,” which also includes the spectacle of a schoolmaster teaching a sex education class to a group of terminally disinterested boys who don’t even perk up when he disrobes to demonstrate intercourse with his wife.
After the church, the institution that comes in for the most drubbing in The Meaning of Life is the military, with the section on “Fighting Each Other” flinging the viewer from a World War I trench to a modern army base (where Michael Palin, the film’s MVP, shines as a sergeant major fixated on marching up and down the square) and back to the first Zulu War. The class satire is strongest in the latter, where the massive casualties suffered by the rank-and-file soldiers pale in comparison with one pampered officer losing a leg. When the search for it peters out, a tuxedoed Gilliam steps into frame to introduce “The Middle of the Film,” which confronts viewers with the bafflingly surreal “Find the Fish.”
From there, it’s a steady march through “Middle Age,” “Live Organ Transplants,” and “The Autumn Years,” with an addendum specifically concerning “The Meaning of Life” during which director Terry Jones pulls off an impressive three-and-a-half minute take that starts inside the restaurant where the odious Mr. Creosote has met an explosive end courtesy of a wafer-thin mint and follows Eric Idle’s waiter out to the street as he leads the camera crew to his birthplace. And the whole thing wraps up with a dinner party attended by all of the Pythons save for Cleese, since he’s the Grim Reaper who has come to take them away. If this was a tacit acknowledgement that the troupe had run its course, they at least went out on a film that pulled no punches and was just as cutting and inspired as their best material always was. Twelve years after making their big-screen bow with a compilation of rehashed television material, Monty Python definitively proved they could deliver a sketch film that was inherently cinematic and presented a clear vision of how six opinionated comedians saw the world.
After The Meaning of Life collected a Special Jury Prize at Cannes, the Pythons mostly went their separate ways, periodically popping up in each other’s projects. Cleese and Idle joined the overqualified cast of Chapman’s Yellowbeard. Gilliam cast Palin against type in Brazil and brought Idle along for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Cleese recruited Palin to stutter his way through A Fish Called Wanda. Palin asked Gilliam to help send him Around the World in 80 Days. Jones got Cleese to play the villain in Erik the Viking. The one time they all appeared together was for a 1989 television special to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which Chapman didn’t live to see since he died before it was broadcast. He then would be the first to confirm if it truly was Christmas every day in heaven.
“The Meaning of Life” is streaming (in standard definition – gross) on Britbox and available to rent or purchase in HD and 4K from the usual places.