FILM REVIEW: The Magic Christian (1969)

The Magic Christian (UK, 1969)
Directed by Joseph McGrath
Starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, John Cleese, Spike Milligan

If there was a category of films called 'WTF?!', then The Magic Christian would be the definitive example. Joseph McGrath's late-1960s satire assaults your senses and your intelligence over a disorientating and unrelenting 92 minutes. The result is both a colossal train-wreck and a memorable commentary on human greed, which if nothing else will make you laugh and freak you out.There are a number of reasons to get excited about The Magic Christian. It is based on the 1959 novel by Terry Southern, who co-wrote the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick hired Southern after Peter Sellers gave him a copy of the novel; Kubrick loved it and promptly re-worked Dr. Strangelove from a straight drama into a black comedy. The screenplay for The Magic Christian was co-written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese, just before they hit the big time with Monty Python's Flying Circus.The other huge draw of The Magic Christian is its cast, which reads like a who's-who of British comedy actors. Alongside Chapman and Cleese, who appear respectively as the Oxford boat race captain and Mr. Dugdale, the director of the auction, Spike Milligan turns up as a traffic warden whom Sellers bribes to eat his parking ticket. John Le Mesurier, who was in The Italian Job the same year, turns up as Sir John during the boat race, and Hattie Jacques cameos as Ginger Horton. There are also brief cameos by Christopher Lee as 'The Ship's Vampire', Raquel Welch as Priestess of the Whip (don't ask), Roman Polanski as a lonely drunk and an unrecognisable Yul Brynner as a drag queen singing Noel Coward's 'Mad About The Boy'.That last sentence should give you some idea of the sheer level of weirdness we are dealing with here. Like its contemporary The Bed-Sitting Room, the film has a very particular brand and style of humour, and once it has gotten into its stride it makes no effort to tone down or alter said style to achieve greater audience appeal. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the film was almost universally panned when first released, although both it and The Bed-Sitting Room have since been rehabilitated.On the one hand, there are many, many things wrong with The Magic Christian. Like a lot of 1960s comedies it is shambolically constructed with an episodic storyline, so that it ends up as less of a story than a series of sequences of famous people enjoying each other's company at our expense. McGrath had previously directed Casino Royale, the equally shambolic James Bond spoof which Sellers had left mid-shoot. Even at its best his direction is aimless and very sub-Richard Lester (who isn't that good in the first place).The story of The Magic Christian makes very little sense. After eccentric billionaire Sir Guy Grand (Sellers) decides on a whim to adopt a homeless orphan (Ringo Starr), they embark on a series of pranks designed (and I use that word advisedly) to prove that everyone had their price and will do anything, no matter how degrading, if enough money is offered. Grand supposedly gets this idea when buying a hot dog from a train: having no change he offers the man first a fiver and then a tenner, and the man crashes his hot dog stand off the end of the platform in excitement.What follows is a series of increasingly elaborate pranks which target the unsuspecting public (often played by famous people) in increasingly mean-spirited ways. Things begin fairly harmlessly with the parking ticket scene, or Guy going to a high-quality restaurant and behaving like a pig, eating caviar with his hands and throwing his food at the guests. But soon the tone of the pranks become more savage, with the boat race being sabotaged and ending with civil servants swimming for money in a vat of faecal matter from the local slaughterhouse.With scenes like this, you would imagine that The Magic Christian would come across as a hard-hitting if heavy-handed satire, in which the seemingly moral and upright citizens of the world are humiliated in such a way that we are forced to reflect upon our own selfish desires. Sometimes the film does manage this, but for all the moments in which it does there are at least as many moments where it loses sight of this message and settles for the weirdness of the scenes in and of itself.This is particularly evident in the centrepiece involving The Magic Christian itself, billed as the most advanced passenger cruiser ever made. Once the guests embark, all manner of things go wrong, starting with them being shown a film of a black man's head being transplanted onto a white men's body (questionable doesn't cover it). The ship's captain becomes steadily more drunk and is promptly kidnapped by a gorilla. Christopher Lee turns up and starts biting the passengers who flee to the hold, only to discover the engine room is filled with hundreds of topless rowers commanded by a whip-cracking Raquel Welch. They run off the ship, only to find that the whole thing was a simulator inside a London warehouse, with Sellers and Starr looking on completely deadpan.Other set-pieces are equally inexplicable. Whilst at a performance of Hamlet, the actor playing the title role (Lawrence Harvey) delivers the whole 'to be or not to be' speech as a striptease, for no apparent reason. On the train later on, Guy Grand holds a board meeting for designing a new car; the scene then cuts to an illustrative animation which is somewhere between Terry Gilliam's Python work and Yellow Submarine. Finally, on the same train, a series of Oriental gentleman rotate through hidden doors to sit next to a seemingly racist businessman, who is then dragged through the door, laughed at by divers in strobe light, and carted off the train by the Gestapo. The only natural response to such scenes is to sit open-mouthed, head in hands, going: "What the hell?!".On the surface, then, there is an awful lot wrong with this film. It's shambolically directed, the story is all over the place, and the main theme often gets lots amongst the cameos. And yet - somehow - it works. For starters, it is an achievement in and of itself that someone could make a comedy this spiteful and mean-spirited at a time when most mainstream comedies were light and frothy. Whereas The Party a year earlier was a playful throwback to the traditions of silent cinema, The Magic Christian points the way forward to darker, blacker comedies like Withnail & I and Heathers.The ultimate test of a comedy, past or present, is whether or not it makes you laugh. And The Magic Christian passes this test, even if, as in Dr. Strangelove, much of the laughter is awkward laughter. The art gallery sequence where Sellers cuts up a priceless Rembrandt is funny, and the following scene with Sellers bidding with klaxon horns and flashing lights showcases his brilliant comic timing. Sellers' characterisation is great, drawing on his work as Grytpype-Thynne in The Goon Show, and Ringo Starr is very sporting and convincing as a more deadpan Moriarty.The Magic Christian contains all that is good and bad about 1960s comedy. It is ramshackle in its construction, but no moreso than The Party, and it is very excessive and indulgent, but not to the point of utter frustration. Indeed, despite its myriad flaws it has aged considerably better than some of Sellers' other work from the same period. The film makes for enjoyably confusing viewing, and would make a good double bill with The Bed-Sitting Room. You'll laugh, you'll be confused, you might be offended - but somehow you can't bring yourself to hate it.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: An enjoyably confusing shambles


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