Yul BrynnerTerence AlexanderRoman PolanskiRaquel Welch
The Magic Christian
Medium: film
Year: 1969
Director: Joseph McGrath
Writer: Terry Southern, Joseph McGrath, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Sellers
Keywords: comedy
Country: UK
Actor: Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans, Caroline Blakiston, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Leonard Frey, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch, Tom Boyle, Victor Maddern, Terence Alexander, Peter Bayliss, Joan Benham, Patrick Cargill, John Cleese, Clive Dunn, Fred Emney, Kenneth Fortescue, Patrick Holt, David Hutcheson, Hattie Jacques, Jeremy Lloyd, David Lodge, Ferdy Mayne, Dennis Price, Robert Raglan, Graham Stark, Michael Aspel, Michael Barratt, Yul Brynner, Harry Carpenter, Graham Chapman, Roland Culver, W. Barrington Dalby, John Le Mesurier, Guy Middleton, Peter Myers, John Snagge, Frank Thornton, Michael Trubshawe, Alan Whicker
Format: 92 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064622/
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 29 November 2012
What the dickens was that? It's brave, but it's nearly unwatchable. Dispensing with such old-fashioned notions as "a plot", it's like a series of comedy sketches, except not funny.
It's different, though. I'll give it that. If you're looking for something off the beaten track, this baby couldn't find its way back with an army of guides and satellite navigation.
The, heh, story (heh) involves Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr playing practical jokes on people. Sellers is the richest man in the world. Starr on the other hand is a homeless bum whom Sellers finds sleeping in the park and adopts as his son after about sixty seconds' conversation. This is the nearest he comes to a rational action. Thereafter the two of them go around perpetrating pseudo-sketches that almost never have a punchline and instead make the audience wonder if what they're watching could be called a film in the first place. It's just weird. Quite often it's also faintly uncomfortable, since our unsympathetic heroes enjoy using Sellers's money to humiliate people.
However the talent in this thing is phenomenal. The links include:
1. The Beatles, the year before they broke up. It stars a Beatle and has songs with strong Beatle links. The theme song was written and produced by Paul McCartney and there are two more songs arranged and conducted by Beatles producer George Martin. John Lennon was also offered the Ringo role, incidentally.
2. The Goons, with Sellers in the lead role and Spike Milligan playing a traffic warden.
3. Monty Python's Flying Circus, in the year of their debut. John Cleese and Graham Chapman wrote an early draft of the film and also appear in it. The film's love of absurdity for its own sake could be called Pythonesque, so for instance the Python sketch "The Mouse Problem" was written for this film but rejected by Sellers.
4. A smattering of Carry On, with Hattie Jacques, Victor Maddern, David Lodge and Wilfrid Hyde-White, if you think he counts.
5. A ton of other cameos, e.g. Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee (who made me laugh), Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch, Frank Thornton, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, Terence Alexander and Yul Brynner. There's also a little nudity. The (male) actors kept deliberately fluffing their lines during the filming of the slave girl galley scene.
There's mockery of bigotry, greed, snobbery and pretty much everything else they can get their hands on. This partially redeems the film, actually. Even if a scene's not funny (i.e. almost always), at least it feels as if it has a point if it's skewering unpleasant opinions and attitudes. Sellers comments on the lack of coloured people on a cruise ship (called The Magic Christian) and gets an appalled response. "Fellow's going on about jungle bunnies." Businessmen wade through sewage in search of bank notes. Sport gets mocked, e.g. boxing, shooting and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. There's a scene in a French restaurant that just felt childish to me, but I can see its point. Similarly I think it's hard to like what Sellers does to a painting, even if you can see why it's in the film. There's an iconoclasm towards the arts (Shakespeare, Rembrandt) that I can understand but is still, for me, the characters being vandals.
The strongest example of this is Sellers unleashing a beast in Crufts that kills and eats dogs, in order to contrast people's horror at animal cruelty with their lack of interest in the far worse real-life horrors on the news. There's footage of an execution-style killing in Vietnam, for instance. You can see the (outraged) point that's being made, but Sellers's character should have been arrested.
The film's on safer ground when bashing racism, sexism and homophobia. The parody of the sexual overtones in car adverts (especially back then) isn't comfortable to watch, but it's certainly taking aim at a target that deserves it. Then there's the flip side of that, i.e. the gay elements. These are screaming at you. There are four huge examples and additional minor ones, shoving homosexuality in our faces and challenging old-fashioned attitudes. "The crowd seem to be sickened by the sight of no blood." I've found a reference to this film being called "viciously homophobic", which strikes me as almost offensively stupid. I can only assume that the writer found the film distasteful (which it is) and disliked it (I do too), but then decided based on those two premises that its deliberately confrontational content was gay-bashing (which is moronic).
Despite the title, there's little on religion. I might be wrong, but they struck me as wanting to go there, but nervous of it. (Bearing in mind what happened to Monty Python's Life of Brian, they might not have been entirely wrong.) There will often be something religious in the background, e.g. bishops on the train or nuns playing tennis in the park, but the film rarely notices. The main exceptions are Sellers's interesting suggestion about the Bible (which I'd have liked to see explored further) and a silly table-top battle. "No, son, no. Not while there's a cathedral standing!"
It's based on a novel. Great Scott.
Interestingly Sellers thought his performance was terrible and wanted to abandon the film after seeing the first day's rushes, which I think is an intelligent assessment. Of course he's still Peter Sellers. He's great. On an important basic level, he's incapable of badness. However he had a chance to hold the story together and perhaps even make it seem coherent, which might have been possible had he made different decisions on how to play his character. I thus give him much of the responsibility for the film's failure. He's the leading man, after all. In contrast, Ringo is surprisingly competent, albeit in a role that's essentially a sidekick and is having his moustache do half his acting for him.
Would I recommend this? Good grief, no. One of the best jokes here is arguably to have one of the Beatles being penniless. I like its outraged social conscience, but fundamentally the film fails. It doesn't work. It doesn't feel like a narrative. It's repellent, it's cruel and it's not funny. I was impatient to reach the end. However it's also going out on an outrageous limb, saying and doing things you won't see again in a movie. You can't say it's not unique, anyway.