The film's combination of comedy and religious themes was controversial, particularly on its initial release. However, it has regularly been cited as possibly the greatest comedy film of all time: in 2000, readers of the British Total Film magazine voted it as such; in 2004, the same magazine named it the fifth greatest British film of all time; in 2006 it was again voted the best comedy movie of all time on a poll conducted by the UK's Channel 4 network.
Brian then agrees to participate in a kidnapping plot by the resistance, which fails miserably (due to a clash with an "enemy" separatist faction intent on the same mission) and forces him to go on the run again. This time, he doesn't evade capture and is summoned before Pontius Pilate. He tries to get away with it by claiming to be a Roman, and the son of Naughtius Maximus, but the captain of the guards refuses to believe Brian and believes it to be a fake name, "like Silius Soddus or Biggus Dickus." Fortunately for Brian, the guards collapse into a giggling fit after an irate Pilate reveals that one of his best friends is a high-ranking centurion genuinely named Biggus Dickus, and he makes his escape. Following a series of misadventures (including a brief trip to outer space in an alien spaceship), the fugitive winds up in a lineup of wannabe mystics and prophets who harangue the passing crowd in a plaza. Forced to come up with something plausible in order to blend in and keep the guards off his back, he babbles pseudo-religious nonsense which quickly attracts a small but intrigued audience. Once the guards have left, Brian tries to put the episode behind him, but has unintentionally inspired a movement; and finds that some people have started to follow him around, with even the slightest unusual occurrence being hailed as a "miracle." After slipping away from the mob (who are busy persecuting a "heretic" - actually a hermit that Brian unwittingly disturbed) and spending the night with Judith, he opens the curtains the following morning to discover that an enormous mass of people, proclaiming him the Messiah, has formed outside his mother's house. Appalled, Brian is helpless to change the peoples' minds, as his every word and action are immediately seized as a point of doctrine.
The hapless Brian cannot even find solace back at the PFJ's headquarters, where people fling their afflicted bodies at him demanding miracle cures. Reg even claims that he has booked a session at the Mount for him. After sneaking out the back, he is finally captured and scheduled to be crucified. Meanwhile, a huge crowd of natives has assembled outside the palace, spurred on by the general feeling in the community that Brian's fellow "prophets" have been exacerbating. Pilate (together with the visiting Biggus Dickus) tries to quell the feeling of revolution, by granting them the decision on who should be pardoned. Instead they are just fed various names intended to highlight their respective speech impediments, e.g. pronouncing "Roger" as "Woger". The assembled hordes collapse to the floor in laughter at the spectacle. Pilate eventually orders Brian's release, but (in a moment parodying the climax of the film Spartacus), various crucified people all claim to be "Brian of Nazareth" - one man stating "I'm Brian and so's my wife" - and the wrong man is released. Various other opportunities for a reprieve for Brian are denied as one by one his "allies" (including Judith) step forward to explain why they are leaving the "noble freedom fighter" hanging in the hot sun. Condemned to a long and painful death, Brian's fellow sufferers attempt to lift his and their own spirits by singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
The following is a list of all the characters given actual names in the script, or with a spoken role. All names and character descriptions are taken from the published script. Each Python (especially Terry Gilliam) also played various bystanders and hangers-on. The Pythons themselves are listed first (in alphabetical order) followed by the rest of the cast in order of appearance.
Several characters are never named during the film but do have names which are used in the tracklisting for the soundtrack album and elsewhere. There is no mention in the film of the fact that Eric Idle's ever-cheerful joker is called 'Mr. Cheeky', or that the terribly well-meaning Roman guard played by Michael Palin is named 'Nisus Wettus'.
Spike Milligan had an unplanned cameo as a prophet ignored because his acolytes are chasing after Brian. By coincidence he was visiting his old World War II battlefields in Tunisia where the film was being made. The Pythons were alerted to this one morning and he was promptly included in the scene that just happened to be being filmed. He disappeared again in the afternoon before he could be included in any of the close-up or publicity shots for the film.
There are various stories about the origins of Life of Brian. Shortly after the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Eric Idle flippantly suggested that the title of the Pythons' forthcoming feature would be Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory (a play on the UK title for the 1970 American film Patton). This was after he had become frustrated at repeatably being asked what it would be called, despite the troupe not having given the matter of a second film any consideration. However, they shared a distrust of organised religion, and, after witnessing the critically acclaimed Holy Grail's massive financial turnover, confirming an appetite amongst the fans for more cinematic endeavours, they soon began to seriously consider a film lampooning the New Testament era in the same way Holy Grail had lampooned Arthurian legend. All they needed was an idea for a plot. Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, while promoting Holy Grail in Amsterdam, had come up with a sketch in which Jesus' cross was falling apart because of the idiotic carpenters who built it and he angrily tells them how to do it correctly. However, after an early brain-storming stage, and despite being non-believers, they agreed that Jesus was "definitely a good guy" and found nothing to mock in his actual teachings: "He's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff..." said Idle later . After settling on the name Brian for their new protagonist, one idea considered was that of "the 13th disciple". The focus eventually shifted to a separate individual born at a similar time and location, who would be mistaken for the Messiah, but had no desire to be followed as such.
Writing began in December 1976, with a first draft completed by mid-1977. The final pre-production draft was ready in January 1978, following "a concentrated two week writing and water-skiing period in Barbados". The film would not have been made without former Beatle and Python fan George Harrison, who set up Handmade Films to help fund it at a cost of £3 million (a move later described by Eric Idle as the "world's most expensive cinema ticket"). The original backers, EMI Films, had been scared off at the last minute by the subject matter, particularly Bernard, Lord Delfont. As a result, the very last words in the film are: "I said to him, 'Bernie, we'll never make our money back on this one'", teasing Delfont for his lack of faith in the project. Terry Gilliam later said, "They pulled out on the Thursday. The crew was supposed to be leaving on the Saturday. Disastrous. It was because they read the script... finally." As a reward for his help, Harrison appears in a cameo role as Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount", who briefly shakes hands with Brian in a crowd scene. His one word of dialogue (a cheery Scouse, but out-of-place-in-Judea, "Hello") had to be dubbed in later.
Directing duties were handled solely by Terry Jones on this project, having amicably agreed with Gilliam (who co-directed Holy Grail with his namesake) that Jones' approach to film-making was better suited for Python's general performing style. Holy Grail's production had often been stilted by their differences behind the camera. Gilliam again contributed two animated sequences (one being the opening credits) and took charge of set design. However, this didn't put an absolute end to their feuding. On the DVD commentary, Gilliam expresses great pride in one set in particular, the main hall of Pilate's fortress, which had been designed so that it accurately looked like an old Judean temple that the Romans had converted by dumping their structural artefacts (such as marble floors and columns) on top. He later reveals his consternation at Jones not paying enough attention to it in the cinematography. Gilliam also worked on the matte paintings, useful in particular for the very first shot of the three wise men against a starscape and in giving the illusion of the whole of the outside of the fortress being covered in graffiti.
The film was shot on location in Monastir, Tunisia, which allowed the production to reuse sets from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Many locals were employed as extras on Life of Brian. Director Terry Jones noted, "They were all very knowing because they'd all worked for Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth, so I had these elderly Tunisians telling me, 'Well, Mr Zeffirelli wouldn't have done it like that, you know.'" Graham Chapman, still suffering from alcoholism, was so determined to play the lead role - at one point coveted by Cleese - that he dried out in time for filming. Following shooting between 16 September and 12 November 1978, a two-hour-long rough cut of the film was put together for its first private showing in January 1979. Over the next few months Life of Brian was re-edited and re-screened a number of times for different preview audiences before the final cut was complete, losing a number of entire filmed sequences (see Lost scenes below).
The film also satirises both the tendency to interpret banal incidents as "signs from God" and the factions and infighting that can emerge from this. For example, when Brian loses his shoe, some of his over-zealous followers declare it to be a sign but they can't agree on what it means, while one other instructs them to "Cast off the shoe. Follow the gourd!" (which is viewed by some as being significant owing to Brian's seemingly charitable refusal to accept a price for it - and not even haggle over what it is worth - the truth actually being that it was a cheap, unwanted gift).
The (alleged) representation of Christ proved controversial. Protests against the film were organised based on its perceived blasphemy. On its initial release in the UK, the film was banned by several town councils – some of which had no cinemas within their boundaries, or had not even seen the film for themselves. A member of Harrogate council, one of those that banned the film, revealed during a television interview that the council had not seen the film, and had based their opinion on what they had been told by the Nationwide Festival of Light, of which they knew nothing. Some bans continued into the 21st century. In 2008, Torbay Council finally permitted the film to be shown after it won an online vote for the English Riviera International Comedy Film Festival, while the mayor of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth (Sue Jones-Davies, who played Judith Iscariot in the film) was still trying to remove the local council's long ban of the film.
In New York, screenings were picketed by both rabbis and nuns ("Nuns with banners!" observed Michael Palin) while the film was banned outright in some American states. It was also banned for eight years in the Republic of Ireland and for a year in Norway (it was marketed in Sweden as '"The film so funny that it was banned in Norway").
In the UK, Mary Whitehouse and other campaigners launched waves of leaflets and picketed at and around cinemas that showed the film, a move that was only felt to have ironically boosted the publicity. Leaflets arguing against the film's representation of the New Testament (for example, suggesting that the Wise Men would not have approached the wrong stable as they do in the opening of the film) were documented in Robert Hewison's book Monty Python: The Case Against.
One of the most controversial scenes was the film's ending: Brian's crucifixion. Many Christian protestors said that it was mocking Jesus's suffering by turning it into a "Jolly Boys Outing" (such as when Mr Cheeky turns to Brian and says: "See, It's not so bad when you get up here"), capped by Brian's fellow sufferers suddenly bursting into song; director Terry Jones issued the following riposte to this criticism: "Any religion that makes a form of torture into an icon that they worship seems to me a pretty sick sort of religion quite honestly".
Another argument was that crucifixion was a standard form of execution in ancient times and not just one especially reserved for Jesus (a point proven by the Bible itself, with the mentioned presence of the two thieves crucified next to him). The Pythons often prided themselves on the depths of the historical research they had taken before writing the script. They all believe that, as a consequence, the film portrays 1st century Judea more accurately than actual Biblical epics, with its focus centred more on the average person of the era.
Shortly after the film was released, Cleese and Palin engaged in a what would become an infamous debate on the BBC2 discussion programme Friday Night, Saturday Morning, in which Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, put the case against the film. Muggeridge and the Bishop had arrived 15 minutes late to see a screening of the picture prior to the debate, missing the establishing scenes which demonstrated that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and hence contended that it was a send-up of Christ himself. Both Pythons later felt that there had been a strange role reversal in the manner of the debate, with two young upstart comedians attempting to make serious, well-researched points, while the establishment figures engaged in cheap jibes and point scoring. They also expressed disappointment in Muggeridge, who all in Python had previously respected as a satirist. Cleese expressed that his reputation had "plummeted" in his eyes, while Palin commented that, "He was just being Muggeridge, preferring to have a very strong contrary opinion as opposed to none at all". Muggeridge's verdict on the film (or at least, what he'd seen of it) was that it was "Such a tenth-rate film that it couldn't possibly destroy anyone's genuine faith".
The Pythons unanimously deny that they were ever out to destroy people's faiths. On the DVD audio commentary, they contend that the film is heretical because it lampoons the practices of modern organised religion, but that it does not blasphemously lampoon the God that Christians and Jews worship. When Jesus does appear in the film (first, as a baby in the stable, and then later on the Mount, speaking the Beatitudes), he is played straight (by actor Kenneth Colley) and portrayed with respect. The music and lighting make it clear that there is a genuine aura around him on both occasions. The comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear his statements of peace, love and tolerance ("I think he said, 'blessed are the cheese makers'"). Importantly, he is distinct from the character of Brian, which is also evident in the scene where an annoying and ungrateful ex-leper pesters Brian for money, while moaning that since Jesus cured him, he has lost his source of income in the begging trade (referring to Jesus as a "bloody do-gooder").
Not that the Pythons all agree on the definition of the movie's tone. There was a brief exchange that occurred when the surviving members reunited in Aspen, Colorado, in 1998 for a show that was broadcast on HBO and has since become available on video. The appearance was billed as the "U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Tribute to Monty Python", although video releases have gone by varying titles, including "Monty Python Live at Aspen (1998)". The program mostly consists of an interview, on stage, by U.S. comedian Robert Klein. In the section where Life of Brian is being discussed, Terry Jones says, "I think the film is heretical, but it’s not blasphemous". Eric Idle can be heard to concur, adding, "It’s a heresy". However, John Cleese, disagreeing, counters, "I don’t think it’s a heresy. It's making fun of the way that people misunderstand the teaching". Jones responds, "Of course it's a heresy, John! It's attacking the Church! And that has to be heretical". Cleese replies, "No, it's not attacking the Church, necessarily. It's about people who cannot agree with each other".
The film continues to cause controversy; in February 2007 the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Newcastle upon Tyne held a public screening in the church itself, with song-sheets, organ accompaniment, stewards in costume and false beards for female members of the audience (alluding to an early scene where a group of women disguise themselves as men so that they are able to take part in a stoning). Although the screening was a sell-out, some Christian groups, notably the ultra-conservative Christian Voice, were highly critical of the decision to allow the screening to go ahead. The Revd. Jonathan Adams, one of the church's clergy, defended his taste in comedy, saying that it did not mock Jesus, and that it raised important issues about the hypocrisy and stupidity that can affect religion. However, Stephen Green, head of the group, insisted that, "You don't promote Christ to the community by taking the mick out of Him". Again on the film's DVD commentary, Cleese also spoke up for religious people who have come forward and congratulated him and his colleagues on the film's highlighting of double standards among purported followers of their own faith.
Occasionally forgotten amongst the blasphemy accusations, the film also significantly pokes fun at politically revolutionary groups, who seem to share a common cause (in the film, they are all opposing the Roman occupation of Judea) but are in fact more interested in the easier task of being at odds with one another, constantly engaged in futile disputes about which group has the most charisma, infamy and "ideological purity", as Cleese once referred to it. They harangue their 'rivals' with cries of "splitters", their rivals being The Judean People's Front, The Peoples' Front of Judea, the Judean Popular People's Front and the Popular Front of Judea ("He's over there"). Other scenes have the freedom fighters wasting time in debate, with one of the debated items being that they should not waste their time debating so much, as well as the famous scene where Reg gives his "What have the Romans ever done for us?" speech. Originally intending for everyone to agree that the question is rhetorical, it eventually ends up as: "Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?", "Brought peace?", "Shut up!"
This element (which is not dissimilar to the film's comments on religious sectarianism) furthers Cleese's claim from the Aspen stage interview that there is a more general social message in the film regarding belief systems and group thinking, beyond only heretical satire of religious faiths. According to the DVD commentary, this part of the story was inspired mainly by the multiplication of ineffectual left-wing parties in Britain during the 1970s. These revolutionary groups would splinter every few weeks, and be angrier at each other than they were at the government.
The scenes shown included the shepherds gathering for Jesus's birth, which would have been at the very start of the movie; a segment showing the kidnap of Pilate's wife (a huge mountain of a woman played by John Cleese); a scene introducing hardline Zionist Otto, leader of the Judean People's Front (played by Eric Idle); and a scene in which Pilate's wife alerts Otto to Brian's capture. The shepherds' scene has badly distorted sound, and the kidnap scene has poor colour quality. All of these scenes can now be found on the Criterion Collection DVD.
The most controversial cuts were the scenes involving Otto, initially a recurring character, who had a thin Adolf Hitler-esque moustache and spoke with a German accent, shouting accusations of "racial impurity" at people whose conceptions were similar to Brian's (Roman centurion rape of native Judean women), and other Nazi-based phrases. The logo of the Judean People's Front, designed by Terry Gilliam, was a Star of David with a small line added to each point so it resembled a swastika, most familiar in the West as the symbol of the anti-Semitic Nazi movement. The rest of this faction also all had the same thin moustaches, and wore a point on their helmets, similar to those on WW1 era German helmets. The official reason for the cutting was that Otto's dialogue slowed down the narrative. However, Gilliam, writing in The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons, said he thought it should have stayed, saying "Listen, we've alienated the Christians, let's get the Jews now". Idle himself was said to have been uncomfortable with the character; "It's essentially a pretty savage attack on rabid Zionism, suggesting it's rather akin to Nazism, which is a bit strong to take, but certainly a point of view". Michael Palin's personal journal entries from the period when various edits of Brian were being test-screened consistently reference the Pythons' and filmmakers' concerns that the Otto scenes were slowing the story down and thus were top of the list to be chopped from the final cut of the film.
The only scene with Otto that remains in the film is during the crucifixion sequence. Otto arrives with his "crack suicide squad", sending the Roman soldiers fleeing in terror. Instead of doing anything useful, they "attack" by committing mass suicide in front of the cross, ("Zat showed 'em, huh?" says the dying Otto, to which Brian despondently replies "You silly sods!") ending Brian's last hope of rescue. (They do however show some signs of life during the famous rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" when they are seen waving their toes in unison in time to the music.) Terry Jones once mentioned that the only reason this excerpt wasn't cut too was due to continuity reasons, as their dead bodies were very prominently placed throughout the rest of the scene. He acknowledged that some of the humour of this sole remaining contribution was lost through the earlier edits, but felt they were necessary to the overall pacing.
Otto's scenes, and those with Pilate's wife, were cut from the film after the script had gone to the publishers, and so they can be found in the published version of the script. Also present is a scene where, after Brian has led the Fifth Legion to the headquarters of the People's Front of Judea, Reg (John Cleese) says "You cunt!! You stupid, bird brained, flat headed... The profanity was overdubbed to "you klutz" before the film was released. Cleese approved of this editing as he felt the reaction to the four-letter word would "get in the way of the comedy".
Life of Brian opened on 17 August 1979 in five North American theatres, and grossed an impressive $140,034 USD ($28,007 per screen) in its opening weekend. Its total gross was a strong $19,398,164 USD. It was the highest-grossing British film in North America that year. In addition, the film was the fourth highest-grossing film in Britain in 1979.
On 30 April 2004, Life of Brian was re-released on five North American screens to "cash in" (as Terry Jones put it) on the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It grossed $26,376 USD ($5,275 per screen) in its opening weekend. It ran until October 2004, playing at 28 screens at its widest point, eventually grossing $646,124 USD during its re-release. By comparison, a re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail had earned $1.8 million USD three years earlier. A DVD of the film was also released that year.
For the original British release, a spoof travelogue narrated by John Cleese Away From It All, was shown before the film itself. It consisted mostly of stock travelogue footage and featured arch comments from Cleese. For instance, a shot of Bulgarian girls in ceremonial dresses was accompanied by the comment "You'd never believe that these girls were plotting the downfall of Western Civilization as we know it!", Communist Bulgaria being a member of the Warsaw Pact at the time. Not only was this a spoof of travelogues per se, it was a protest against the then-common practice in Britain of showing cheaply made banal short features before a main feature.
As well as this, the BFI declared it to be the 28th best British film of all time, in their equivalent of the AFI's original 100 Years...100 Movies list. It was the seventh highest ranking comedy on this list (four of the better placed efforts were classic Ealing films). Another Channel 4 poll in 2001 named it the 23rd greatest film of all time (the only comedy which came higher on this occasion was Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, which was ranked 5th).
In addition to this, the line, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!", spoken by Brian's mother Mandy to the crowd assembled outside her house, has been voted by readers of BOL.com the funniest line in film history. This poll also featured two of the film's other famous lines ("What have the Romans ever done for us?" and "I'm Brian and so's my wife") in the top 10.
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was later re-released with great success, after being sung by British football fans. Its popularity became truly evident in 1982 during the Falklands War when sailors aboard the destroyer HMS Sheffield, severely damaged in an Argentine attack on 4 May, started singing it while awaiting rescue.
Indeed, many people have come to see the song as a life-affirming ode to optimism. One of its more famous renditions was by the dignitaries of Manchester's bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, just after they were awarded to Sydney. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is also featured in Eric Idle's Spamalot, a Broadway musical loosely based upon Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and was sung by the rest of the Monty Python gang at Graham Chapman's memorial service and at the Monty Python Live At Aspen special.
An album of the songs sung in Monty Python's Life of Brian has been released on the Disky label.
In October, 2008, a memoir by Kim "Howard" Johnson entitled Monty Python's Tunisian Holiday: My Life with Brian (Thomas Dunne Books, Oct. 2008) ISBN 978-0-312-53379-3 will be released. Johnson became friendly with the Pythons during the filming of Life of Brian and his notes and memories of the behind-the-scenes filming of the classic film make up this new book.
With the success of Eric Idle's musical retelling of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, called Spamalot, Idle announced that he would be giving Life of Brian a similar treatment. The oratorio, called Not the Messiah, was commissioned to be part of the festival called Luminato in Toronto, Ontario, in June 2007, and was written/scored by Idle and John Du Prez, who also worked with Idle on Spamalot. Not the Messiah is a spoof of Handel's oratorio Messiah. It runs approximately 50 minutes, and was conducted at its World Premiere by Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian, who is Idle's cousin.
Not the Messiah received its U.S. premiere at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York. Cousins Peter Oundjian (Caramoor's Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor) and Eric Idle joined forces once again for a double performance of the oratorio in July 2007.
A BBC history series What the Romans Did for Us, written and presented by Adam Hart-Davis and first broadcast in 2000, takes its title from John Cleese's rhetorical question "What have the Romans ever done for us?" in one of the film's scenes.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his Prime Minister's Question Time of 3 May 2006 made a shorthand reference to the types of political groups, "Judean People's Front" or "People's Front of Judea", lampooned in Life of Brian. This was in response to a question from the MP David Clelland, asking "What has the Labour government ever done for us?" – itself a parody of John Cleese's "What have the Romans ever done for us?"
On New Year's Day 2007, and again on New Year's Eve, UK television station Channel 4 dedicated an entire evening to the Monty Python phenomenon during which an hour-long documentary was broadcast called The Secret Life of Brian about the making of The Life of Brian and the controversy that was caused by its release. The Pythons featured in the documentary and reflected upon the events that surrounded the film. This was followed by a screening of the film itself. The documentary (in a slightly extended form) was one of the special features on the 2007 DVD re-release - the "Immaculate Edition", also the first Python release on Blu-Ray.