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Posts Tagged ‘The Magic Christian’

My taste in movies is broader than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean I expect all of them to be good. I find it is important to bear in mind that, no matter how talented or discriminating someone is, the chances are they have participated in at least one piece of complete garbage in the course of their careers: successful movie actors just have a much higher hit rate than most. I am reminded of something Michael Caine said, about how one needed to make sure only one film in five was a genuine stinker – Caine’s legendary willingness to appear in virtually anything may have constituted an attempt to stack the odds in his favour.

Much as I have attempted to impress this principle on others, it has not always taken. It would have been in the late summer of 2005 that my father approached me and enquired if I would be recording a showing of Joe McGrath’s 1969 film The Magic Christian, due on TV that evening. I had not planned to; reviews in the TV listings were unenthusiastic and it didn’t look like my kind of thing, let alone his. Nevertheless, he asked if I would tape it for him. I agreed, but asked why: ‘it’s got lots of good people in it,’ was his response. This I cannot argue with: the film’s most distinguishing feature is an astonishing cast list, starting with Peter Sellers and going on to include Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Hattie Jacques, John le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, along with many other well-known faces, some of them playing themselves. That the film does not seem to recognise the value of its assets, and fritters them away rather, is thematically appropriate but still bad film-making.

(NB: staring at the poster for three minutes will mean you probably have a longer exposure to Raquel Welch than her entire actual screen-time in the movie. Caveat emptor.)

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, who at the start of the film decides to make up for his childless state by adopting an heir: he chooses a tramp from one of London’s parks, played by Ringo Starr (there have been suggestions the part was actually written for John Lennon, and you can imagine him in it). The duo set out to perpetrate a series of insanely lavish practical jokes puncturing the pomposity of the society they see around them and exposing the venality of the great and the good. As Sellers’ character puts it at one point, ‘Grand’s the name, money’s my game – would you like to play?’

What follows is an almost entirely plotless series of skits and sketches, most of which concern the Grands bribing people to sabotage various aspects of mainstream society. They pay the actor Laurence Harvey to do a striptease in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, pay one of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams to ram their opponents and wreck the contest, get someone to enter a black panther (farcically disguised as a dog) at Crufts, and so on. Eventually the Grands set out on a cruise to New York on the liner The Magic Christian, where all manner of strange events start to occur – but is all as it seems? (Hint: no it isn’t, but by this point you will have stopped caring anyway.)

Apart from Sellers and Starr, most of those big names in the cast list turn up for only one or two scenes, and it is a general rule of thumb that the less time they have on screen, the better they come across, as the script for this movie is so slapdash and lousy that hardly any of them can do much with this material. I suppose this excuses most of them, with the possible exception of John Cleese and Graham Chapman: they wrote an earlier version of the script (later replaced by one written by McGrath and Terry Southern, author of the source novel), but the only scenes from this which survived are the ones they appear in – so in a very real sense they are the authors of their own misfortunes here. (This clearly left its mark on Cleese and Chapman: an episode of Monty Python made a couple of years later features an insane, incompetent Scottish film director, and the stage directions in the script drily make clear that he ‘in no way resembles J. McGrath.’)

Some of the more lavishly silly sequences in The Magic Christian do kind of anticipate Python at its most absurd – there’s a bit where Grand goes partridge hunting using an ack-ack gun and a flame-thrower – but the film has a kind of laboriousness about it that takes away most of the fun; much of the humour also comes across as rather problematic, too (many jokes seem racist, sexist, or homophobic).

This is because it seems to be battering away at a supposedly subversive message about how money-obsessed the great and the good of society are. (This is possibly not the most dazzlingly original insight in the annals of British satire.) One has to remember the film was made at the end of the 1960s and does embody, awkwardly, something of the hippy ideal of not being materialist or acquisitive. However, if this film was a person, it would be Sid James dragged up as a hippy at the end of Carry On Camping – the costume is just about right, and he’s saying some of the right words, but it is plainly a disguise and a deeply unconvincing one. It feels more like a hippy exploitation film than a genuine attempt to make a satire embodying the philosophy of the counter-culture – even if it is, it is hopelessly naive and unsubtle.

There is the odd mildly amusing moment scattered through the film – the scene where Roman Polanski encounters a rather unexpected cabaret singer is perhaps the closest it gets to being laugh-out-loud funny – and I suppose Peter Sellers deserves some kind of credit for delivering a solid comic performance that does as much as anything to hold the film together. But even so, this is one sixties artefact which has not aged well, mainly because it was never any good at the time. Paul Merton once went on TV to defend The Magic Christian, suggesting it has a reputation as a bad movie because it has been smeared by various establishment film critics offended by its all-purpose irreverence. Paul, I hate to contradict you, but I have to disagree: The Magic Christian‘s reputation as a bad movie stems mainly from the fact it is a bad movie.

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