Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button

Feature


Can the dignity of man be bought, and does everybody have their price?

"I'll give you this much not to have me sectioned..."

This is the gambit of the infamous 1969 adaptation of Terry Southern’s celebrated counter-culture novel.  Where the rest of the 60s was about enlightenment and liberation, Southern asked if the pursuit of money strips away all morals and restraint, culminating in the dumping of a fortune into a tank of killing-floor sweepings as sharp-suited businessmen dive in to scoop up the cash.  Yes, the movie is just as rebellious, and - yep - they do all go swimming in shit at the end!

Disenchanted billionaire Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) sets out to play elaborate (and expensive) practical jokes to see if everyone is prepared to dump their dignity for money.  For this purpose, he adopts a loveable vagrant (Ringo Starr) as his new son and they sit back and watch as the world suddenly jumps to their warped tune.  The pranks become gargantuan as they begin to target the great and good of the UK in their bid to prove a theory.  Can the Oxford rowers be persuaded to ram the Cambridge boat in order to win the annual race?  Will a big-name thespian perform a full-frontal strip during a production of Hamlet?  Can the wealthy passengers aboard the Magic Christian ever recover from the relentless jokes inflicted upon them?  We have a hunch on this one…

Biggest of all stunts involves the Grands’ organising the maiden voyage of the aforementioned Magic Christian, a luxury passenger liner catering to the upper echelons of society as the rich & famous pile onboard.  With cash to burn, the vessel becomes a captive playground for the Grands as they unleash stunt after stunt upon those with more money than sense.  The openly drunken captain (Wilfred Hyde-White) causes consternation among the wealthy passenger, evermore so when a gorilla yanks him away to his doom!  Oh, and it’s the very same ape-suit which appeared in Carry On Up The Jungle the following year!!  Also on board is Christopher Lee, who had had it in the neck with playing Dracula by this point (Iythangyowh!) and who better to turn up as “ship’s vampire” in an anarchic comedy thumbing its nose at the establishment than him?  Yes, you read it right: the Magic Christian is kitted out so splendidly that all niceties are catered for, including resident blood-sucking monster!  The drive system of the ship is revealed to be a crew of nude female galley-slaves, all under the whip-cracking control of Raquel Welch, who has NEVER looked better than she does here!

Break out the Fleshlight and roll of Bounty extra-quilted!!

Sellers is fine as Sir Guy Grand, viewing all his pranks with an objective bewilderment rather than mischievous glee.  He might sound like one of his stock characters, but there is more to his performance than mere caricature, and the really lifts him from the page into three dimensions.  Although the addition of Youngman Grand (and have him played by a Beatle) was just an attempt to open the film to a wider audience, there is a decent case to be made that his inclusion - and subsequent adoption - helps to humanise Sir Guy Grand.  Without him, he’d come across as just a mean-spirited bastard, exerting his money and influence over the masses, rather like a precursor to C Montgomery Burns, but having a sounding board allows the audience access to Grand scheme of things as opposed to being totally on the outside.

To that end, Ringo Starr is shows a great deal of likeability as Youngman Grand, a role originally written with John Lennon in mind.  It was lucky for the drummer that his a very public drugs bust in New York put paid to the initial choice, and that they really wanted a Beatle to starr.  Created just for the movie - and as a way to sell the tricky project to a wider audience - it certainly worked, garnering a lot of publicity for a movie which might not have been as noticed with Sellers on his own.  Hell, in a couple of countries, it even played under the title of “A Beatle in Paradise”.  In fact, it almost counted as another Beatles project, with Ringo Starring, McCartney producing the music and with John & Yoko shown boarding the Magic Christian…or at least you’d think that.  The aforementioned drugs-bust even put paid to the pair making a cameo in the movie, having to be represented by a couple of look-alikes instead.  Where many thought that the only missing component was George Harrison, it turns out that more pieces are off the board than originally thought.  A real shame!

Peter Sellers: Icon.  Genius.  Prick.

Time has a way of making the once outrageous commonplace, as John Waters found out when the infamous “lesbian adoption” scene in Pink Flamingos ended up being a part of the modern world.  The same thing applies to a large chunk of The Magic Christian, to varying degrees.  Where it was unusual to see the people forsaking their dignity and making fools of themselves in public for the sake of money, you just have to tune into any number of “reality” shows to see this stuff on a daily basis - most of the things done by Sir Guy Grand wouldn’t be that out of place if posted on YouTube or other social media, and we’re pretty sure than people have gone swimming in shit for the sake of making a few quid.  Hell, it can even be argued that these days, money has little to do with such degradation, the main catalyst for these types of antics fuelled by the unquenchable thirst for notoriety.

When it comes to the script, there are similarities to the writing style of Top Secret!, where a bucket of fermenting ideas was dumped into a framework and kicked into a vaguely corresponding shape.  Others would argue that Terry Southern used as system for adapting his book which prefigured Tim Burton’s method for Mars Attacks, involving throwing all material up in the air and only using that which fell within the circle drawn on the ground.  There was certainly input from Sellers (either on paper or through improv)  and director Joe McGrath has been known to interfere with perfectly good scripts in his time ( I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight) as well as utterly chaotic ones ( Casino Royale) so it’s more than likely he stuck his oar in at some point.  Future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman took a crack at a script where the drafts was (apparently) in double figures, only to see all but the two scenes they appear in junked, and after that, it really fell apart!  The result is nothing even approaching cohesiveness, but a lot of fun, all the same.  It’s easy to argue that the movie irons out some of the more mean-spirited elements from the novel, as the chuckling poor people and elements of racism didn’t make it to the screen.

The former life of Python.

Speaking of the script, of all the compromises made when bringing the movie the screen, the one felt most profoundly by fans of the novel must certainly be the piece of cinematic terrorism committed by our bored billionaire.  Aside from attempting to ruin a hugely popular soap-opera by slipping the lead actor a fistful of cash to blatantly stray from the script and break the fourth wall, Guy Grand buys up the rights to a load of cinematic classics, dropping in crude, newly-filmed footage into random prints and gleefully monitoring the reaction from confused audiences.  In the movie, it’s all very vague and done in throwaway fashion, with Sellers having to say that Men in White is “…one of the great classics of the silver screen” to establish its credentials before an innocuous change is made to it.  In the book, the relationship between one of cinema’s iconic couples is rendered much spicier when the new footage includes hands wandering up skirts under tables…

Sellers was well on his way to losing touch with reality when making The Magic Christian, but hadn‘t reached the point in the mid-70s where he was genuinely “certifiable”, as Spike Milligan noted.  Sellers already had a few ego-driven disasters under his belt (and, by Christ, was there to be a load more…) and had become paranoid about making any more of them, and he was closely monitoring this particular film.  By now you will have realised that The Magic Christian is more a fascinating piece of art rather than a cohesive story, but it might not have even got past the second day of shooting, as when Sellers saw the initial rushes, he exclaimed “Thank God we caught that in time!” and demanded that filming be halted.  He was talked around, but this incident gives a good snapshot of just how his mind was working (or not) at the time.  Pity they could have caught The Bobo, Soft Beds Hard Battles, The Great McGonagall, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Prisoner of Zenda & The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu in time.

"I'd lunge at somebody and miss them altogether!"

The film takes its time to get going, as the first half an hour is rather lumpy - almost as though it wanted to squeeze in a number of pieces from the book without the breathing room needed.  Readers of the book will be disappointed to see the “supermarket” sequence barely working at all, and only by knowing the book can you appreciate what they were trying to achieve.  This all balanced out by any number of genuinely funny set-pieces, including a strange variety of dog entered in Crufts, one which looks suspiciously like a large cat and causes carnage.  Best of all are the antics aboard the Magic Christian its elf, with so many comedy ideas thrown at the wall and the vast majority of them firmly sticking.

Possibly the very best gag involves a very unusual appearance by Yul Brynner, which has become the main footnote for the entire movie.  We won’t spill the beans about it here, but as it’s a genuine pleasure to discover for yourselves, but we have to wonder if Brynner was “in” on the whole concept of the movie, or he inadvertently fell into the very same concept which Guy Grand was trying to prove all along.  Another piece to look out for is when Sir Guy breaks out the heavily artillery when going grouse-shooting, and a waiter is on hand to scoop up what’s left of the poor bird and present it on a plate for the billionaire.  Listen closely and you might notice that Seller’s is providing the French accent for the servant, and it sounds rather like a certain rather popular character he’s known for.  Among the many things you’ll  never see again in your lifetime is - wait for it - an appearance by Graham Stark in a Peter Sellers film!  Who would have thought it?

If I hide behind this, they won't know I played Mon Mothma...

Speaking of notable thespians, where would an ambitious movie (not to mention one starring Peter Sellers) be without an impressive list of guest-stars to keep it afloat, and The Magic Christian doesn’t disappoint in that department.  Who are they, you say?  Probably not, as no-one reads this stuff anyway, but you are treated a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime cast comprised of: Caroline Blakiston, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch,  Victor Maddern, Terence Alexander, Patrick Cargill,  John Cleese, Clive Dunn, Fred Emney, Patrick Holt, Hattie Jacques, Jeremy Lloyd, David Lodge, Ferdy Mayne, Dennis Price, Graham Stark, Zero Mostel, Michael Aspel, Yul Brynner, Harry Carpenter, Graham Chapman, George Cooper, John Le Mesurier, Nosher Powell, Roy Scammell, Frank Thornton, Rita Webb & Alan Whicker?  If that isn’t a list to get you salivating, then there’s no pleasing you!   Lawrence (father of bounty hunter Domino) Harvey is the aforementioned actor who chooses outrageous fortune and goes from Hitchcock to his cock as he whips out his Hamlet on stage!  Roman Polanski even turns up drinking alone at the ships’ bar, presumably wondering which glass to spike before a mysterious chanteuse sidles up to him, one definitely able fend off his advances.

Should the world of British comedy gain anything of genuine importance from The Magic Christian, it’s that during the time of shooting, the aforementioned writing team of John Cleese and Graham Chapman had just met up with a group of other performers to start work on a little project originally entitled Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus.  The movie also became a nexus for the upcoming and the old guard, as it contained members of both the Pythons and The Goons, where Sellers bribes an officious traffic-warden to eat a parking ticket for a large sum of money, here played by Spike Milligan.  

However, if there is anything which secures The Magic Christian’s place in history, then it has to be the soundtrack - the wonderful, wonderful soundtrack.  Renamed from The Iveys when Paul McCartney signed them up to The Beatles’ Apple label, some tinkering with the line-up resulted in the formation of a super-group, who went to score a string of top-ten hits on both sides of the Altantic.  Here, they provide the magnificent theme song of “Come and Get it”, one which many will know without realising it, along a couple of other toe-tappers.  Things fell apart with the corruption within Apple, the swindling of accounts and suicide of it’s lead singer/guitarist within a VERY short space of time, and would have been a world-beating group if not for such unfortunate circumstances.  Pair their work with Thunderclap Newman’s aforementioned singular hit “Something in the Air” and you have a soundtrack which is pure dynamite, let alone a time-capsule.

With its counterculture credentials firmly established, let's take a look if the conception of this Christian is immaculate...

Putting the Chris in Magic Christian!

Image


Anyone who has seen the Olive release of The Magic Christian will know exactly what to expect, as Fabulous Films have directly licensed the transfer from them, as the Olive Films logo bookends the movie.  This is definitely no bad thing, as the 1.78:1 image has very strong, with stable colours and a very nice example of getting contrast right.   It’s also an example of where print-damage can be pleasing, as although there are no huge splices or vertical lines running down the screen, the mild debris which throughout combines love the lovely level of grain to really cement the celluloid nature of the project.  With so many cinemas opting for digital these days, to see a very nice, natural print of a movie with light damage is utterly refreshing, and damn well had us pining for the days of our local branch of Cannon.  Excellent, and pleasingly nostalgic.

Audio


The DTS-HD:MA mono track is perfectly good, doing the best job possible with the recording limitations under which the movie was made.  OK, we all know that films from this era were constantly looped in a studio, trashing a performance often in mid-sentence, and The Magic Christian is just as hampered, but the exterior filming was so haphazard that dialogue is drowned out as cars roar past actors trying to get their lines out, even occasionally starting again after a vehicle has thrown them off.  When you take all this into account, Fabulous Films gives a very faithful rendition of the original element, and we are pleased to report that the songs really do sound nice.  In fact, we are doubly chuffed that the legal issues which have sometimes plagued the “swimming in shit“ finale has the track   “Something In The Air” restored for this release, formerly missing from other prints due to the licensers asking far too much money to use it.


Extras


Sans sausage.

This is a real bummer, as the press notes which accompanied the review disc brought up the BBC documentary made in conjunction with The Magic Christian, focusing on the star of the movie and his career, entitled Would The Real Peter Sellers Please Stand Up?  It’s very rare, and features location filming during the shoot, and is a fascinating look at the man at the height of his fame.  It was only played once, and prevented from ever being screened again, as Sellers disliked the way it made him seem “depressed”.  While this is all well and groovy, it’s not included on the disc as an extra, so it’s rather galling to have it mentioned at reasonable length in the publicity materials for the disc.

He'll be playing Sean Connery at this next...

Overall


We first encountered The Magic Christian when a local video shop was clearing out a load of its old uncertified tapes about 20 years ago, and we picked up for a quid.  It didn’t have a cover, and was rather battered, but it provided a comedy experience like no other during a time when it was all but forgotten.   If you are looking for (largely) undiscovered Peter Sellers, along with a list of British comedy greats (and a ridiculously stunning Raquel Welch) then we thoroughly recommend this hearty slice of counter-culture.  No need to swim through animal shit to get this little number from the wonderful Fabulous Films, as ordering it is much easier!


Links:
Media Copyright Acknowledgement (Fair Use) Keep your grubby paws to yourselves, you thieving little shits.