History is turned on its comic head when, in 10th century England, King Arthur travels the countryside to find knights who will join him at the Round Table in Camelot. Gathering up the men is a tale in itself but after a bit of a party at Camelot, many decide to leave only to be stopped by God who sends them on a quest: to find the Holy Grail. After a series of individual adventures, the knights are reunited but must face a wizard named Tim, killer rabbits and lessons in the use of holy hand grenades. Their quest comes to an end however when the police intervene - just what you would expect in a Monty Python movie.
The movie starts out with Arthur, King of the Britons, looking for knights to sit with him at Camelot. He finds many knights including Sir Galahad the pure, Sir Lancelot the brave, the quiet Sir Bedevere, and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Lancelot. They do not travel on horses, but pretend they do and have their servants bang coconuts to make the sound of horse's hooves. Through satire of certain events in history (witch trials, the black plague) they find Camelot, but after literally a quick song and dance they decide that they do not want to go there. While walking away, God (who seems to be grumpy) come to them from a cloud and tells them to find the Holy Grail. They agree and begin their search. While they search for the Grail, scenes of the knight's tales appear and why they have the name they have. Throughout their search they meet interesting people and knights along the way. Most of the characters die; some through a killer rabbit (which they defeat with the holy hand grenade), others from not answering a question right from the bridge of Death, or die some other ridiculous way. In the end, King Arthur and Sir Bedevere are left and find the Castle Arrrghhh where the Holy Grail is. They are met by some French soldiers who taunted them earlier in the film, so they were not able to get into the castle.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table embark on a surreal, low-budget search for the Holy Grail, encountering many, very silly obstacles.
- The credits are rolled to deeply ominous music with several false starts, interlaced with apologies for the inadequacies of each, during which numerous titlers are fired en masse. In the end, credits that are heavily laced with references to moose, llamas and other furry animals roll to highly festive Latin music.
Little is to be seen but fog over a grassland while the sound of a galloping horse—a sound that could only be made on cobblestone, but not grass—is heard. From the fog emerge two pedestrians: King Arthur (Graham Chapman), dressed in chain mail, a tunic and a crown; and Patsy (Terry Gilliam), who appears to be fulfilling the role of beast of burden, and is using two half-coconuts percussively.
They approach a castle and Patsy perfectly mimics the sound of a galloping horse coming to a stop. Two guards become barely visible atop the castle wall. Arthur announces that he is looking for knights to join him at Camelot, and wishes to recruit the master of the castle. Unfortunately, the two guards are immediately distracted by Patsy's half-coconut shells. Arthur tries to return the conversation to the quest, but the guards are unable to turn their attentions from the possible causes for coconuts appearing in Mercia (England), as Arthur claims that they found them there, or how a bird, or a set of birds, might have brought one up from the tropics. Frustrated, Arthur and Patsy emulate riding off.
The scene changes to a plague village. A cart is being drawn through the streets, and is attended by a disheveled man (Eric Idle) who strikes a triangle and calls for the residents to "bring out your dead." A peasant (John Cleese) tries to lay a decrepit man on the cart, without calling attention to the fact that he is still alive. The attendant refuses to accept living cargo (citing regulations). When the peasant tries to abstractly request a favour, the attendant looks up and down the street to make sure there are no witnesses, and strikes the elderly subject a deadly blow to the head, solving the problem. The cart and the peasant continue on their ways. Arthur and Patsy emulate a ride through the village, and the attendant correctly infers that Arthur is a king from the fact that he is not covered in shit.
On a hillside, near a castle, Arthur approaches a peasant (Michael Palin) from behind and calls out "Old woman!" The peasant, Dennis, barely turns his head to correct the king with "man!" Rather than killing this vulgar subject on the spot for such gross insubordination, Arthur tries to apologize for the mistake. Unimpressed, Dennis then launches into a rant, making it very clear that he has harboured a great deal of bitterness over the class system, which he has experienced from the bottom all his life (of 37 years). Arthur is challenged to justify his kingship, and to an accompaniment of heavenly voices, tells the tale of the Lady of the Lake presenting Arthur with Excalibur. Dennis confidently challenges this presumption of political legitimacy. Focusing on the executive branch, he asserts that it must "derive from a mandate from the masses." Arthur can only respond by barking orders that the peasant be silent. Unaffected, Dennis continues his elocution of democratic dogma, at which point Arthur manhandles him. This only encourages Dennis; he becomes a raving firebrand, and tries to call as much attention as possible to Arthur's assault. The king accepts that he cannot adequately assert this authority in this situation, and relinquishes Dennis with "Bloody peasant!" Dennis, despite his anger, appears delighted at this parting shot, and its significance to his message. He seeks validation from the gathering crowd.
While travelling through a forest, Arthur and Patsy encounter an epic battle between two armoured, faceless men. The weapons: swords, an anointed mace, and an axe. When the black-clad knight (John Cleese) runs his opponent through the face, he retrieves his sword and then simply stands tall. Arthur approaches him and praises him for his performance. The knight neither speaks a word, nor even turns his gaze towards the king. Despite this insolence, Arthur again does not respond with homicide, but invites the knight to enter his court. When no response is given, Arthur announces that he will continue on his quest. The knight then speaks with a deep voice and economy of words, repeating "None shall pass," forbidding Arthur to cross the bridge before which he is standing. This bridge would allow the party to cross a gully no more than 10 feet wide. Arthur and the knight draw their swords, and a much less epic battle ensues. When Arthur severs one of the knight's arms, he is unwilling to accept defeat. Arthur relieves the knight of his other arm and kneels down to offer a prayer of thanks. The knight kicks him over. The now completely unarmed knight drops his ominous mystique, and childishly goads Arthur into chopping off his remaining limbs. As the knight can no longer obstruct Arthur, he and Patsy ride off, ignoring the knight's continued challenges.
A group of monks are chanting in Latin while hitting themselves with wooden boards as they traverse a village which looks much like the plague village. A frenzied mob drags a lady accused of being a witch (Connie Booth) to Bedevere (Terry Jones), who is performing an experiment involving a coconut tied to a bird. They present their case based on the way she is dressed, the funnel on her head, and the parsnip tied over her nose. They also present testimony from a peasant (John Cleese) who had been turned into a newt (or so he claims). Bedevere proceeds to deduce the validity of their charge in his own way, after making the villagers admit that they put a fake nose on the witch. Using a scientific method befitting the Dark Ages of Europe, he develops a formula for identifying a witch based on the flammability and buoyancy of various objects and materials. The crowd becomes very quiet and still, probably because Bedevere is overtaxing their intelligence. It is eventually reasoned that the weight of the accused compared to that of a duck determines whether she is a witch. Remembering their original purpose, they return to their frenzy and carry her off to be weighed. As she is heavier than a duck, she is taken to be burnt as a witch. Right afterwards, Arthur approaches Bedevere. When Arthur identifies himself, Bedevere bows to the king, and is then knighted—Camelot has its first knight.
We are hurried through the recruitment of the remaining knights by the Book of the Film. They are Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin) (also called "the Chaste"), Sir Robin the-not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), and the aptly named Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film (a baby (William Palin) suited up in chain mail).
The party emulates riding to Camelot and when they spy it from a distance, they stop to appreciate its majesty. We are treated to a song and dance routine performed by the knights, presumably within the castle walls. This includes an interlude with tap-dancing, and a percussion solo. Even the decrepit shell of a man (Mark Zycon) suspended by his wrists in the dungeon below manages to pathetically cheer the upbeat celebrations upstairs. We are then returned to the outside of Camelot, at the same distance from the castle. Arthur seems to have had the same perception we have just had, since he elects to avoid Camelot, calling it a "silly place."
As Arthur and company ride to some unknown destination, a low-budget animation of the Almighty appears in the sky. He is not willing to suffer fools gladly, and when done chastising Arthur for his obsequiousness, charges Arthur with seeking the Holy Grail. Thus, the Quest for the Holy Grail begins, as manifested by another animation sequence with images reminiscent of medieval art.
Our heroes encounter a castle with a French taunter (John Cleese) who taunts them with random names like "Daffy English knights" (unaware that "knight" has silent letters, and only one "n") and makes up flowery insults such as "I fart in your general direction!" and "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!" Whether this man is French is unclear, since his French-talking colleagues appear to understand English words more readily than French ones, and his accent slips when shouting "I'm French!" Arthur gives the same terms to the inhabitants of the castle as he did with the first one he approached, including, of course, the part involving the Grail. The Frenchman claims that they already have a grail, but then indicates to his peers that this is a mischievous fabrication. Half-stunned, Arthur asks to see it. The guard rejects the request with his typical inane derision. Arthur then takes a more aggressive posture, and in mid-threat, the French launch a cow from what sounds like a catapult at Arthur's party, landing on one of them. With all possible gusto, Arthur orders a charge, and they all attack the castle walls (several feet high) with nothing more effective than swords. Arthur's party is treated to a barrage of livestock. Arthur orders a retreat, but since he does not know the meaning of the word, he uses a different expression. The taunter hears battle noises, but there is nothing to see. Sir Bedevere's keen mind hatches a plan: a giant hare made of wood known as a Trojan Rabbit is wheeled towards the castle. The French understand that it is intended as a present for them, and then cautiously bring it into the castle. Sir Bedevere explains the remainder of his plans... but at this point he realizes that he forgot the step where the knights are supposed to climb into the rabbit, before it is to be presented to the enemy. Using the same technology as before, the wooden colossus is sent over the castle walls, killing one of the servants (Neil Innes).
A clapperboard is snapped in front of "a famous historian" (John Young) wearing a modern suit and tie, who narrates some unseen details of Arthur's experience with the French, and then informs us that the king decided that he and his knights should search for the Grail individually. Anything else he was going to tell us is cut short when an unidentified knight on horseback slashes his neck. The historian's wife shows up crying for help.
After they split up, Sir Robin travels through a forest with his favourite minstrels. The vocal one sings of Robin's bravery, and describes in graphic detail the various ordeals that Robin is prepared to face. Just as the minstrel is about to sing of the gory treatment Robin's penis could withstand, Robin gracefully orders them silent. They immediately encounter a three-headed giant (Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, and Michael Palin). The giant interrogates Robin, who wishes to discreetly downplay his significance, but his minstrel sings of Robin's identity and credentials. One of the heads wishes to cut Robin's head off, but the heads immediately descend into bickering about each others' lifestyles and various things completely unrelated to Robin. When they finally agree on their next course of action, they see that Robin is no longer available. Sir Robin has continued on the quest, and his minstrel sings a song that absurdly describes his lord's brave cowardice, over Robin's objections.
Galahad, wet, weary, and probably depleted of much of his short-term vitality, follows a Grail-shaped light to Castle Anthrax. There he finds a colony of robe-clad teens, who will not hear of any talk about a Grail, but insist on tending to what they perceive to be Galahad's immediate needs—they decide that they are medical. Galahad is shy, and finds the strength to resist temptation, and again demands to see the Grail. At this point a girl named Dingo (Carol Cleveland) realizes that one of their rules has been broken, for which Galahad must administer the punishment. Dingo describes the punishment, which expands to include more and more inhabitants of the castle, and becomes increasingly sexual. Galahad finally seems willing to accept their hospitality, but then his friends storm the castle and rescue him. As he is being rescued he insists on remaining to fight the perils alone, but they valiantly stand by him, thinking only of his safety. The heroes leave a castle full of very frustrated girls (Elspeth Cameron, Mitsuko Forstater, and Sandy Rose).
In the famous "Scene 24," Arthur and Sir Bedevere are in a hut trying to extract information about the Grail from a frighteningly withered old man (Terry Gilliam), who can only cackle insanely to Arthur's questions. A fire burns in the middle of the room. Eventually the miscreation speaks, but does not answer Arthur's questions directly. He does speak of an enchanter and the Bridge of Death. The old man disappears, as does the hut—along with any indication of civilization, save the fire.
Arthur's party progresses through a foggy forest to the accompaniment of stressful music, while Arthur makes anxious glances to the left and the right. The stress is brought to its natural end when they find themselves before a knight (Michael Palin) who's approximately twice the height of Arthur. He is surrounded by several other armoured men who lumber about like animals. They are the Knights who say "Ni!" They do indeed say "Ni!" as a form of intimidation and coercion, and liberally use it on Arthur at the slightest provocation, and also dread using the word "it." They demand a shrubbery from Arthur on pain of death.
Meanwhile, a group of modern-day police officers conduct an investigation of the murder of the famous historian, and interview a woman (Rita Davies) who was close to him.
The King of Swamp Castle (Michael Palin) brags (in a Yorkshire accent) about how he managed to build a castle on the worst possible terrain he could find, and brashly admits that the first few attempts were complete failures. He then explains to his son, Prince Herbert (Terry Jones), that the acquisition of more land is essential to their kingdom, which is why he must marry a princess who is connected to a great deal of it. Herbert has a horribly pale complexion, and is so effeminate that his own father mistakes him for someone called Alice.
Herbert is reluctant to participate in this land-grab, and wishes to express himself in song, but the king shouts down the erupting music and forbids Herbert to sing. The king impatiently closes the discussion and storms off. As he prepares to leave the room, he orders two guards to watch Herbert. Unfortunately, the guard with speaking parts (Eric Idle) has a very hard time processing the phrase "stay here and make sure he doesn't leave." When the king finally leaves, melancholy music erupts, and the king returns to repeat his prohibition on singing. Herbert then tries to inconspicuously write a note, tie it to an arrow and shoot it through a window to the outside. The guards see what he is doing, but appear oblivious to the ramifications. Sir Lancelot discovers the note when the arrow it is tied to buries itself in the chest of his servant, Concorde (Eric Idle). The message is from someone pleading to be rescued from a forced marriage. Lancelot enthusiastically assumes that this is part of his quest for the Grail, and resolves to rescue what he thinks is a maiden.
He charges into the castle and attacks several members of a wedding party, including the father of the bride and as many unarmed guards as he can. When he takes too many seconds between killing people, he attacks a wall-hanging. He bursts into Herbert's room, and then kills the guards while one of them tries to recall the instructions his king gave him, and how they might relate to the newcomer. The king appears and expresses his displeasure at the disruption that Lancelot has caused. However, when he learns that Lancelot is from Camelot, he appears to believe that Lancelot can provide some unspecified gain in lieu of Herbert.
After severing the linens that Herbert is currently using to make his escape down the castle walls, the king escorts Lancelot out of the room, while making friendly conversation. The king tries to introduce Lancelot to the crowd, but their predictable hostility excites Lancelot into combat once again, and he kills a few more people before the king can calm him down. The king explains the new arrangement involving the princess and her holdings, which somehow depends on the death of her father. When her father appears to be recovering from Lancelot's attack, he motions to one of his guards, who approaches the father of the bride. The king delivers a narrative of the princess's father succumbing to his wounds, and surely enough, he dies. Herbert then appears in the castle, apparently in good health, which irritates his father. His irritation escalates when Herbert begins to explain his ordeal in song. Concorde appears and suggests that Lancelot return to the quest. Lancelot insists on a melodramatic exit, and then swings across the room from a rope. Somehow the stunt fails, and he is left dangling above the centre of the room.
While riding into yet another provincial village, Arthur meets the Old Crone (Bee Duffell). She is asked about a shrubbery, but appears terrified by the inquiry, and refuses to cooperate. With some reluctance about the optics of such a spectacle, Arthur and Bedevere coerce her with the word "Ni!" Fortunately, Roger the Shrubber (Eric Idle) boldly happens by, and both parties are satisfied.
Arthur and Bedevere return to the dreaded Knights who say "Ni!" but find that their name has been changed (to something so complex and random it was probably ad libbed, and therefore cannot be repeated here). The Knights who (so recently) said "Ni!" charge Arthur with another useless errand and an impossible task. The eccentric Knights are defeated by Arthur's accidental discovery of a secret word which is their weakness. Robin and his musically sardonic minstrels then appear on the scene. They ride off together.
In the modern world, the police continue their investigation of the historian's murder.
Back in the Medieval world, the adventurers each overcome their perils and reunite to face a bleak and terrible winter (which they survive by eating Sir Robin's minstrels).
The reunited party ventures further to find the enchanter named Tim (John Cleese). Tim the Enchanter appears as a Scots-talking middle-aged man but commands great powers of pyrokinesis, has a very long, grey-streaked beard, and on his head either wears ram's horns, or grows them there. He is also able to withstand long awkward silences, doing nothing to break them. Arthur and his party are in awe of Tim and his spectacular display of pyrotechnics, and find themselves flustered when asking him for help, as per the instructions of the Old Man from Scene 24. Tim promises to help with their next phase of intelligence gathering and beckons the party follow him. After one step, he abruptly turns around and speaks of a terrible monster. The longer he spends on the warning, the more foolish he appears. Arthur's fearful respect for the enchanter is diminishing.
The company approaches a rock-encircled clearing beyond which is the mouth of a cave that breathes smoke. Skeletons litter the scene. The tension jumps when Tim sights the monster. When the knights realize that the monster is an average-looking rabbit, the tension immediately turns to annoyance and scorn. Sir Bors (Terry Gilliam), ordered to dispatch the creature, sets forth to perform the task as casually as a short-order cook would perform his craft. The rabbit leaps about six feet to bite off Sir Bors's head before the knight even raises his sword. Tim feels vindicated and expresses it as would an 11-year-old. Arthur, believing a full scale attack is sufficient to accomplish the task, orders one. When several knights die in the attempt, he orders a retreat (in his own unique way).
Tim regards the carnage with scorn of his own—wild chortling. When someone recalls the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, Arthur calls to Brother Maynard (Eric Idle), who is seen with his entourage a stone's-throw away, but off-camera until this scene. They consult with his order's exhaustive canon on use of the weapon, the Book of Arnaments, verses 9-21, describing how to use the grenade ("And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, 'O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.' And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu—[Cleric is told to skip forward by Brother Maynard]—And the Lord spake, saying, 'First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less.Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.') After a miscount, the grenade is thrown at the rabbit, and a thundering explosion alerts the police, who are already looking for a murderer.
In the cave beyond the rabbit, Aramaic writing is found, which Brother Maynard translates. Finally, they receive concrete instructions on where to find the Grail: the "Castle of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh". While they are trying to deduce the meaning of the text, the knights are ambushed by the Legendary (Animated) Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh. The human party (also animated) are chased about the cave, and are only saved when the animator (Terry Gilliam) suffers a fatal heart attack.
In the modern world, the police discover the gruesome scene at the cave entrance. They assume it's a homicide, and not an animal attack.
Arthur's party approaches the Bridge of Death that is guarded by the Old Man from Scene 24. Arthur orders Sir Robin to face the deadly quiz that the Old Man will give him, but Robin deflects the order. Lancelot makes the first attempt, and when the party sees that the challenge is as difficult as answering a few superficial personal questions, Robin finds his bravery renewed, and volunteers to be the next participant. Unfortunately, the last question asked Robin involves geographical trivia that would have been very rare knowledge in the Dark Ages, and Robin is thrown into the Pit of Death. Then Galahad flubs his answer and is also lost. When Arthur is asked a question about aerodynamics (involving the redundant "airspeed velocity"), he solves the problem by answering it with a specific question (which the Bridgekeeper cannot answer). The Old Man is cast into the pit, and the way is clear.
Arthur and Bedevere search for Lancelot, but he is not to be found. In fact, he has his hands pressed against a police car and is being searched. The king and his remaining free knight are called by an ethereal song. They are drawn over misty mountains to a lake. To a majestic, brass-rich soundtrack, a barge with the head of a monster transports our heroes across the water to the island of the Castle Aaarrghh.
As the music reaches crescendo, the men disembark and kneel. Arthur, mounting his sword tip on the ground, offers the Lord a solemn prayer. The music is interrupted by the sound of a catapult being discharged. Arthur's speech switches from prayer to blasphemy as a sheep lands on them. The Taunting Frenchman appears atop the castle wall and offers his usual insolence. Arthur launches into orders, threats, and expressions of indignation invoking God's name. The French respond with human waste. Humiliated and soiled, Arthur and Bedevere walk back through the water to the mainland as the French taunt at will.
Reaching the other side of the lake, Arthur shouts to an unseen party to stand ready. To the sound of a military drum, emerging on a nearby ridge, soldiers numbering maybe 1,000 form a line of battle nearly as many feet in width. They are well equipped. Arthur shouts a deadly oath across the lake to the French who persist in their taunts. Without hesitation, Arthur orders a charge, and the company surges forward.
As the soldiers approach the shore on the mainland, they are cut off by just two modern-day police cars. The line of battle has shrunk to less than 100 feet, and Arthur and Bedevere are arrested. At least three of the officers start pushing back the crowd and confiscate an "offensive weapon." The film breaks in the projector and runs out of the gate, putting an abrupt end to the movie. For the duration of the film, there are several minutes of organ music but no end credits.