The Life Of Brian Controversy Explained: Blasphemy, Bans, And Looking On The Bright Side

In 1979, "Monty Python's Life of Brian" reached the shores of the United Kingdom and local authorities up and down the land got themselves tied in knots about what to do with it. In the Welsh city of Swansea, a "public protection sub-committee" convened to discuss whether to ban the film, even before it was clear whether local cinemas planned to screen it or not (via Wales Online).

Yet ban it they did, and the ban remained in place until 1997, when the city authorities finally relented and let the film be shown to raise money for Comic Relief. Python member Eric Idle responded to the news in typical fashion, reportedly saying, "Is nothing sacred?"

The Swansea ban was just one of dozens instituted in the UK, part of a much larger uproar that greeted the film around the world (via WNBC). Religious groups had campaigned for a clamp down on the Pythons' follow-up to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" because of its supposedly blasphemous content — despite the fact that, in some cases, the officials implementing the bans had not even seen the film for themselves.

Charting the misadventures of Brian (Graham Chapman), a young man born on the same day as Jesus Christ and mistaken for a messiah, the riotous comedy openly ridiculed the hypocrisy of organized religion. But one big question emerged from the subsequent debate: Did "Life of Brian" make fun of Jesus Himself, or just satirize those who blindly follow Him?

What Happens in Life of Brian?

"Life of Brian" opens on a bright starry night as a glowing celestial body guides three wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the stable of a newborn baby. Then it takes a sudden comic turn: the travelers are hassled by the child's screeching mother Mandy (Terry Jones) before they realize that they have the wrong house, snatch back their gifts, and move on to the stable down the road.

The baby grows up as Brian (Graham Chapman), a simple but idealistic young man whose life parallels that of his illustrious neighbor, Jesus Christ. He dates a rebel, gets involved with the People's Front of Judea, participates in an attempt to kidnap Pontius Pilate's wife, and finds himself inadvertently hailed as a messiah. Despite his protests, people follow him anyway, and he is eventually captured and sentenced to death by crucifixion.

When I last saw "Life of Brian," I uncritically regarded myself as a member of the Church of England, although I rarely thought about God and only went to church for christenings, weddings, and funerals. The film didn't strike me as particularly blasphemous back then, so I was curious to see if my feelings might change in any way now I'm straight-up agnostic.

What struck me the most upon rewatch was how beautifully the film portrays Jesus and his family. Just take that opening scene when the three kings follow the star. It mimics the style of an old-school biblical epic, but there is no hint of mockery. That approach strikes me as a comedic necessity for the film: the Pythons are smart guys, and they're savvy enough to know that if they caricatured Joseph and Mary, or lampooned Jesus Himself, the satire simply wouldn't be as funny.

It's all played broadly with the Pythons' usual love for wordplay, absurd logic, ludic arguments, pantomime violence, songs, men in drag, and flashes of the grotesque. "Life of Brian" casts its net far and wide to skewer multiple targets and, in an instance of typical scene-breaking surrealism, Brian also gets rescued by passing aliens during a chase scene. The most surprising aspect of watching the film again is the warmth of the comedy: It is silly, jokey, irreverent, and even affectionate towards the subject it is sending up.

Why Was Life of Brian Controversial?

"Life of Brian" was greeted with intense hand-wringing from religious groups, with the crucifixion scene proving especially problematic (via The Sunday Telegraph). When it was initially released in the U.S., some screenings in New York were picketed by rabbis and nuns. Once it reached the U.K., it was slapped with the notorious X certificate and banned by multiple local authorities, often as a precautionary measure for the blasphemous material that it might contain, rather than the actual content of the movie itself.

These pre-emptive strikes were part of the real problem. You only have to watch the film and pay attention to what is happening on the screen to realize that "Life of Brian" isn't blasphemy. The Sermon on the Mount scene is a perfect example of what the Pythons are trying to achieve. Jesus Himself is portrayed as a very noble figure without a whiff of derision. The joke is that the commoners are too busy squabbling among themselves to correctly receive and interpret His message.

The Pythons, all staunch non-believers, contended that "Life of Brian" was heretical, not blasphemous. As Terry Jones told Wales Online:

"It wasn't about what Christ was saying, but about the people who followed Him – the ones who for the next 2,000 years would torture and kill each other because they couldn't agree on what He was saying about peace and love."

Instead of paying attention to what "Life of Brian" was really saying, many of the film's most vociferous opponents were too busy lining up to batter it to death, like the women in the later stoning scene, irately triggered without stopping to question why they were actually offended. Or, in some cases, because they just liked the blood and sound of crunching bones too much to worry about these finer points.

Mary Whitehouse, the formidable conservative activist and campaigner who previously waged war against "The Exorcist," "Doctor Who," and reportedly coined the term "video nasties" in the '80s, predictably waded in on the issue, petitioning for a ban on the film. The Pythons later credited her involvement for driving people to the cinemas to see what all the fuss was about.

"Life of Brian" was also banned outright in other countries, including Singapore, South Africa, Chile, and Norway, prompting the cheeky Swedish tagline, "So funny, it was banned in Norway." It was also banned in Ireland. According to the Irish Times, Irish censor Frank Hall later joked that the film was:

"Offensive to Christians and to Jews as well, because it made them appear a terrible load of gobsh***s."

The furor in the U.K. resulted in a TV debate where the Pythons got to have their say on the matter...

The Pythons Bite Back

The most high-profile platform for their argument was the BBC2 debate show "Friday Night, Saturday Morning," where Michael Palin and John Cleese went toe-to-toe with the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist, satirist, and former British spy.

Muggeridge was an interesting character, who had spent most of his life as an atheist before being inspired by Mother Teresa and converting to Christianity in 1969. His argument was perhaps a little skewed, because it was rumored that he missed the first 15 minutes of the film and didn't realize that Brian and Jesus were two separate characters (via BBC).

Regarding the concluding song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which some felt mocked Christ's suffering, Jones was unrepentant:

"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."

I can at least feel a little sympathy towards people who are offended by the final scene, but there is another distinction to be made here. They are not using the cross that Jesus died on for the song, but the method of execution itself. Crucifixion was a fairly common method of execution in Roman times (via, not just reserved for the Son of God, and the Pythons are careful to point that out. A couple of crucifixes in the foreground early on, complete with rotting skeletons, make it clear that crucifixion was as much part of day-to-day life as stonings and gladiator battles.

Of course, the Pythons probably knew that people would take offense, but it was a cheerfully nihilistic way to sign off, paraphrasing the old adage "Life's a b**** and then you die" in catchy song format.

Modern Context

In 2021, "Life of Brian" seems a little tame. It certainly isn't an angry, polemical satire, but even so, it still generated controversy in the 21st century. In 2007, a screening of the film in a church in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, U.K. (which included some women in the audience wearing fake beards) upset some Christian groups.

As other commentators have noted, the film is more likely to draw accusations of being non-PC than blasphemous these days. As Philip Hammond argued in his piece for The Conversation:

"It is now more likely to be criticised for breaching the boundaries of 'political correctness' around issues of gender, race, class and disability than blasphemy. It is difficult, for instance, to hear Brian assert his Jewish identity in anti-Semitic terms... Still, as gender transitioning becomes culturally mainstream, the desire of the revolutionary Stan (Eric Idle) to be a woman, to be called "Loretta" and to have babies, will strike a chord."

The "Life of Brian" controversy has long since cooled, allowing it to find its place on numerous "best comedies of all time" lists. Personally, I've always found the Pythons a little bit smug and hit-or-miss, but like the rest of their comedy, when the movie hits, it really knocks it out of the park. We're just glad they didn't go with their original title, "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory" (via BBC).