The British movie, “Life of Brian”, which was written and starred the group of Monty Python, contained themes of religious mockery that were very controversial in 1979 when it was released. Some religious groups protested and accused the group of blasphemy.
Some religious groups protested and accused the group of blasphemy.
In the United Kingdom, 39 groups either imposed and X rating or outright banned the movie, which prevented the movie from being shown at all. In its original version, it carried the AA rating. Below is the rating system of the British Board of Film Classifications (BBFC):
U (1912-present) – This stood for ‘Universal’ and denoted that a film was suitable for everyone.
A (1912-1982) – This stood for ‘Adult’, and denoted that the film might contain material unsuitable for children. From 1923 to 1970 children were required to be accompanied by adults. The A certificate was replaced by the PG certificate in 1982.
H (1932-1951) – This stood for ‘Horror’, and was largely restricted to that genre. It was advisory, but many local authorities used it as an excuse to ban children under sixteen. It was replaced by the X certificate in 1951.
X (1951-1982) – This was the first BBFC certificate that explicitly excluded people under a certain age limit, in this case sixteen. The limit was raised to eighteen in 1970, and the X certificate was replaced by the 18 certificate in 1982.
AA (1970-1982) – This excluded people under the age of fourteen. It was replaced by the 15 certificate in 1982.
PG (1982-present) – Replacing the old A certificate, this stood for ‘Parental Guidance’. Although anyone could be admitted, PG certificate films contained an implicit warning that the film might contain material unsuitable for children.
15 (1982-present) – This replaced the old AA certificate, raising the age limit to 15 in the process.
18 (1982-present) – This replaced the old X certificate, barring people under eighteen.
R18 (1982-present) – This classification was exclusively intended for videos that could only be sold in licensed sex shops.
Uc (1985-present) – This denotes video releases deemed particularly suitable for pre-school children.
12 (1989-present) – Introduced for cinema films in 1989 and video releases in 1994, this covers films that, while containing material deemed unsuitable for children, were nonetheless considered appropriate for 12-year-olds and upwards.
12A (2002-present) – Introduced for cinema films, this replaced the theatrical 12 certificate and permitted children under twelve to see the films provided they were accompanied by a responsible adult.
Michael Brooke, Source
There were some countries that banned the movie altogether including Ireland & Norway, and in some of the countries, the bans lasted decades.
Since the movie was in the spotlight so much due to the ban in these countries, they decided to use this to their advantage in their marketing campaigns.
In Sweden, the posters for the movie read, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”.
The end of the movie was one of the most controversial scenes in which Brian was crucified, The Christian protesters said the scene was mocking Jesus’ suffering by making the scene into a “Jolly Boys Outing” (such as when Mr. Cheeky turns to Brian and says: “See, not so bad once you’re up!”), and then Brian’s fellow sufferers broke into song.
The protesters claim is reinforced even more when several of the movie’s characters talk about crucifixion being not as bad as it seems. Brian asks his cellmate what will happen to him, and the cellmate says: “Oh, you’ll probably get away with crucifixion”, and when the old man Matthias, who works for the PFJ dismisses crucifixion as “a doddle” and says that being stabbed would be worse.
The following report was issued by Terry Jones, the director: “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”.
Leaders from religious communities later responded by saying that Jones did not understand the meaning of the crucifix symbol or the significance to Christians as a reminder of the suffering and death Christ went through for their sake.
The Monty Python group argued that crucifixion was a standard form of execution in the ancient times and not just for Jesus.
The comedy group wrote a letter to all religious groups that accused them of blasphemy and had never seen the movie:
Thank you for your letter regarding the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Whilst we understand your concern, we would like to correct some misconceptions you may have about the film which may be since you have not had the chance to see it before forming your views. The film is set in Biblical times, but it is not about Jesus. It is a comedy, but we would like to think that it does have serious attitudes and certain things to say about human nature. It does not ridicule Christ, nor does it show Christ in any way that could offend anyone, nor is belief in God or Christ a subject dealt with in the film.
We are aware that certain organizations have been circulating misinformation on these points and are sorry that you have been misled. We hope you will go see the film yourself and come to your own conclusions about its virtues and defects. In any case, we hope you find it funny.
The Pythons were proud of the historical research they did before they wrote the script.
The group believed that the film showed 1st century Judea more accurately than actual biblical epics. The films focus was more on the average person of that era. The Pythons letter can be found at: Dangerous Minds
Right after the movie was released, John Cleese and Michael Palin had a debate with the BBC2 program Friday Night, Saturday Morning with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, who gave arguments against the movie.
Sometime after the debate with Muggeridge and the Bishop, it was found out that neither of them were at the opening of the movie they missed the first 15 minutes in which it is established that Brian and Jesus were two different characters, and that is was a spoof of Christ himself.
Both Cleese and Palin felt that the sides a done a strange switching of sides in the debate, with the two young upstart comedians trying to make serious, well-researched points, while the Bishop and host laid out cheap jabs and point scoring.
The whole group of Pythons were extremely disappointed in Muggeridge because they had previously respected him as a pessimist.
John Cleese said that the reputation of Muggeridge in his opinion had dropped dramatically in his eyes, while Palin said that “He was just being Muggeridge, preferring a very strong contrary opinion as opposed to none at all”. Muggeridge’s stance on the film was that it was “Such a tenth-rate film that it couldn’t possibly destroy anyone’s genuine faith”.
The Pythons collectively deny that they were trying to destroy anyone’s faith.
The DVD commentary states that the film is heretical because it roasts the practices of modern organized religion, but it doesn’t blasphemously roast the God that Christians and Jews believe in.
Jesus does appear in the movie, played straight and narrow by Kenneth Colley, and is portrayed with respect.
The music and lighting show him with a genuine aura around him.
Very important to understand is that Jesus is distinct from the character of Brian, which is very clear when an ex-leper pesters Brian for money, while whining that he has lost his source of income in the begging trade since Jesus cured him.
James G. Crossley, biblical scholar, argued that the movie made the distinction between Jesus and Brian to contrast between the traditional Christ of both faith and cinema and the historical figure Jesus in critical scholarship and how critical scholars have argued that ideas later were attributed to Jesus by his worshippers.
Crossley pointed out that the movie used several controversial scholarly theories about Jesus, but regarding Brian, such as the Messianic Secret, the Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus the revolutionary, and having a single mother.
Not all the Pythons agreed on the interpretation of the movie. In 1998, in Aspen, Colorado, there was a brief exchange between the surviving members. In the part where they are discussing the Life of Brian, Terry Jones says, “I think the film is heretical, but it’s not blasphemous”. Eric Idle agreed, adding, “It’s a heresy”.
On the other hand, John Cleese disagreed and said, “I don’t think it’s a heresy. It’s making fun of the way that people misunderstand the teaching”. Jones responded, “Of course it’s a heresy, John! It’s attacking the Church! And that has to be heretical”. Cleese replied, “No it’s not attacking the Church, necessarily. It’s about people who cannot agree with each other”.
In a different interview, Jones said that the movie “isn’t blasphemous because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself”.
Some of the bans on the movie continued into the 21st century.
After winning the online vote in 2008 for the English Riviera International Comedy Film Festival, the Torbay Council finally allowed the movie to be shown.
In the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, the ban was finally lifted in 2009 and the first viewing was attended by Terry Jones, Michael Palin and the Mayor Sue Jones-Davies who portrayed Judith Iscariot in the movie when made.