We console ourselves after the loss of Monty Python’s Terry Jones with three films to remember him by.
It’s an odd feeling when a comedian passes, especially one of such staggering output. Like with Robin Williams, the sadness becomes bittersweet when you remember all of the mirth he brought into the world. Best known as a founding member of Monty Python, Jones would go on to create decades of fantastic and fantastical comedies, often alongside his fellow Pythons.
While the comedies remain the center of his legacy, Jones was also an accomplished scholar. In his later career, he wrote several books about Chaucer. He also produced several documentaries about history, as well as a mixed media documentary about economics. He continued to write and direct through 2015, before receiving a diagnoses of progressive aphasia. He would pass away January 21st of 2020 from complications related to that condition.
The Serious Pick: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
King Arthur (Graham Chapman) sees a vision of the cup of Christ, and sets off with his round table of knights (Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and the aptly named Sir Not Appearing in this Film) to recover the holy relic for Christendom.
It’s hard to keep a straight face while calling Holy Grail the “serious pick”, but of the Monty Python films, Grail remains the one that feels the most cinematic. While undeniably as weird and bombastic as the best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it has a strong narrative thrust from which the skits all branch off. It also has sword play, monsters, derring do, a killer rabbit, and a wizard who enjoys blowing things up. Co-directed by Gilliam and Jones, Holy Grail went on to become a cultural touchstone, still in heavy rotation at cinemas around the world.
The Lighthearted Pick: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
Jones takes solo reigns of the directing job for Python’s third film. Through various, loosely connected skits, the Python’s travel from birth to death, trying to explain the meaning of life itself.
The Meaning of Life feels like the big-screen version of the best of Flying Circus, all held together with a clever framing theme. It’s easily my favorite, even surpassing The Holy Grail.
The sheer audacity of the bits, many of them songs that went on to inspire a latter day roadshow, was astounding. If John Cleese disrobing and mounting his “wife” during an otherwise dry lecture on sex education doesn’t shock you, you only have to wait a little bit for Eric Idle to sing about the universe while a screaming man has his liver removed in the background.
So, you know, good clean fun from the Python gang.
The Unconventional Pick: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (AKA The Wind in the Willows: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.)
Mr. Toad (Jones) is a bit of a rich prat. Ensconced in Toad Hall, he idles away his time and fortune with one fad after another. His current infatuation is with the new motorcars springing up across England. Preoccupied, he fails to notice that he’s sold the land that his friends Mole and Rat (Steve Coogan, Eric Idle) live on to a pack of scheming weasels. The Weasels have eyes on Toad Hall as well, and Mole and Rat need to break Toad out of jail (after his latest driving accident) to save all their homes.
This…is a weird one. One one level, the crazy costumes and lavish set-pieces reminds one of Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. It can certainly flirt with the risque and odd elements of that film. On the other hand, Disney (who wouldn’t touch this film with a ten foot pole in their current, super safe corporate mindset) did channel the lunacy into a fairly family friendly channel. Some of the CG is dated, but the practical effects are unique and remarkable. As a live-adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, it’s a commendable stab at the rather sedate Scottish series of children’s stories.
Terry Jones’ resume reads like the AFI’s Best Movies of All Time. Not only did he act, write, and direct the Monty Python films, he also worked on the screenplay for Henson’s Labyrinth and had a cameo on The Great Muppet Caper, and appeared in recent comedy hits like Stranger Than Fiction.
His television output was prolific, from Do Not Adjust Your Set to an appearance on Saturday Night live. Looking at his filmography shows dozens of gems including comedies, documentaries, sketch shows, and short films. He was a renaissance man, and will be dearly missed.