When Michael Palin as Pontius Pilate addressed the soldiers daring them to laugh, he was truly daring them. The soldier extras were ordered to stand there and not laugh, but not told what Palin was going to do. Palin, in fact, can barely stifle his own laughter when saying "Biggus Dickus" in front of the soldier asked if he finds the name "risible."
After the first take of the scene where a nude Brian addresses the crowd from his window, Terry Jones pulled Graham Chapman aside and said, "I think we can see that you're not Jewish," referring to Chapman being uncircumcised. It was corrected in subsequent takes with a rubber band.
The Pythons all seem to agree that they were at their peak with this film. They wrote in beautiful surroundings by the sea, Graham Chapman had finally beaten his alcoholism, there were no last-minute directorial changes (unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)), they filmed in a location with very agreeable weather, and they all feel that it was their best writing effort.
Norway banned the film for one year for blasphemy, then gave it an '18' rating and included a warning from the censors at the beginning. It has been marketed in Sweden as "The film that is so funny that it was banned in Norway!" Ireland banned the film for blasphemy until 1987. Torbay Council, Devon, refused to show the film until September 2008. Aberystwyth, Wales, lifted its local ban in 2009 after cast member Sue Jones-Davies was elected mayor.
To receive a 'AA' certificate in the UK, allowing audience members under 18, the word "cunt" had to be removed from the scene where Reg blames Brian for allowing the Romans to almost discover the resistance's secret hideout. "Klutz" was overdubbed, though it's quite obvious to the audience what John Cleese is saying.
Eric Idle originally recorded "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in his normal singing voice. After deciding this was not quite right, he re-recorded it with a Cockney accent, singing the new dub in a hotel room with mattresses pushed up against the walls. The line, "Bernie, I said, they'll never make their money back" refers to Lord Bernard Delfont pulling out of financing the movie at the last minute. In the 2000s, the song was reused in the musical "Spamalot," adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
The script was written in the Caribbean, where the Pythons hobnobbed with, among others, Keith Moon, drummer from The Who. Moon was slated to play a street prophet in the scene where Brian hides among them. Eric Idle saw Moon the night of his death, and remembers him expressing excitement about the role, which eventually went to Terry Gilliam. The published version of the script is dedicated to Keith Moon.
Originally financed by EMI, who backed out because they considered the script blasphemous. The Pythons sued EMI and settled out of court. George Harrison, a huge Monty Python fan, thought it was the last chance to have another Python film. He created Handmade Films, and "pawned" (his words) his home in London and his office building to raise the $4 million needed. When asked why, he said "because I want to go see it." Eric Idle joked that it was the highest price ever paid for a cinema ticket.
Despite persistent rumors, the Pythons never intended to use the title "Jesus Christ's Lust For Glory". During production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), they became increasing irritated by the press, who seemed to always ask the same questions, such as "What will your next project be?" One day, Eric Idle flippantly answered, "Jesus Christ's Lust For Glory". It quickly shut up reporters, and the group adopted it as their stock answer. After production completed, they realized that while satirizing Christ was out of the question, they could create a parody of first-century life. An early idea for a scene involved Jesus, a skilled carpenter, frustrated by being crucified on a poorly-built cross.
According to Michael Palin's diaries, he, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle strongly favored the title "Brian of Nazareth." It was never used, perhaps to avoid comparisons with Jesus of Nazareth (1977), whose leftover sets were used for parts of this film. When the film was released in Italy in the early 1990s, it was titled "Brian di Nazareth," with no mention that it was made in 1979. It was so successful that And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) was also released theatrically.
The scene with Brian and the others on their crosses was recorded early in the morning, and it was very cold. John Cleese is wearing clothes, while the others are not, because he couldn't stand the cold.
John Cleese originally campaigned for the part of Brian, eager to expand his range with his first sustained film role. The rest of the group favored Graham Chapman, and felt that Cleese would be missed if he didn't play several of the ensemble roles. Cleese soon agreed that Chapman was better suited, and stepped aside.
John Cleese wanted George Lazenby to play the part of Jesus. He said it would be absolutely hilarious, and he wanted the film's tagline to be "George Lazenby IS Jesus Christ". When the film's producers contacted Lazenby's agent they found out Lazenby was overseas working on another film project.
In 1982, during the Falklands War, sailors aboard the destroyer HMS Sheffield, severely damaged in an Argentinean Exocet missile attack on 4 May, started singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while awaiting rescue.
The shots of the crowds walking toward the Mount at the beginning of the movie were accidental. The scene was shot in the late afternoon, and all the Tunisian extras left suddenly because the women had to prepare dinner for their families. The sweeping shots at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sequence are the extras returning to the set.
Several scenes were filmed involving a group of Jewish zealots led by a psychopath named Otto, whose symbol was a combination of the Nazi swastika and a Star of David. The scenes were cut from the film during post-production, largely because several cast members decided that an analogy of Nazism and extreme Zionism, even if played for laughs, was too incendiary for a movie that was already going to be extremely controversial. In "The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons," Terry Gilliam, said he thought it should have stayed, saying "Listen, we've alienated the Christians, let's get the Jews now." Idle himself was said to have been uncomfortable with the character. "It's essentially a pretty savage attack on rabid Zionism, suggesting it's rather akin to Nazism, which is a bit strong to take, but certainly a point of view". Michael Palin's personal journal entries from the period when various edits of Brian were being test-screened consistently reference the Pythons' and filmmakers' concerns that the Otto scenes were slowing the story down and thus were top of the list to be chopped from the final cut of the film. However, Oxford Brookes University historian David Nash says the removal of the scene represented "a form of self-censorship" and the Otto sequence "which involved a character representative of extreme forms of Zionism" was cut "in the interests of smoothing the way for the film's distribution in America."
During the Venice Film Festival, the UAAR (Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics) assigns the Premio Brian (Brian Award) to the most rationalist/atheist movie presented to the Festival. The name of the award is dedicated to this movie.
Originally banned by Frank Hall, the Irish film censor, in 1979. He described as "offensive to Christians and to Jews as well, because it made them appear a terrible load of gobshites." It has been widely available on PAL UK TV videocassette in Ireland since 1980, and later on DVD to this day (legally & uncut).
The film pokes fun at revolutionary groups and 1970s British left-wing politics. The groups in the film all oppose the Roman occupation of Judea, but fall into the familiar pattern of intense competition among factions that appears, to an outsider, to be over ideological distinctions so small as to be invisible, thus portraying the phenomenon of the "narcissism of small differences". Michael Palin says that the various separatist movements were modeled on "modern resistance groups, all with obscure acronyms which they can never remember and their conflicting agendas".
According to the memoir 'Gilliamesque', Terry Jones actually wanted Terry Gilliam to co-direct the movie, but he wasn't interested after facing some tension with the Monty Python group (apparently they wouldn't take his directions as seriously as actors he worked with after, and said he got a different experience on Jabberwocky (1977)), so he was brought on as production designer instead.
Stan wants to be a woman, and insists on being called Loretta. As a member of The Beatles, producer George Harrison performed the song "Get Back," which includes the lyrics "JoJo was a man who thought he was a woman" and "Get Back, Loretta."
Brian sells "Wolf nipple chips, get 'em while they're 'ot they're lovely!" This is a reference to the famous myth that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf when they were babies - a story commemorated by ancient statues.
The film was banned in Norway for a year by the government on the grounds of blasphemy. In response the distributors in Sweden (traditional rival to Norway) started marketing the film with the infamous tagline: "The film that is so funny it was banned in Norway".
Its highly plausible, though not officially confirmed, that the television series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and the later 1979 extended version, inspired Monty Python to later create the film. Both have a similar plot, some of the same sets were later re-used, and in particular the scene with John the Baptist declaring he's not the Messiah, is obviously part inspiration for the later "he's a very naughty boy". In fact, the film was shot on the same sets as the miniseries and with the same extras. Terry Jones recalled that some said to him, "Well, Franco Zeffirelli wouldn't have shot it like that, you know".
George Harrison: Mr. Papadopolous, owner of "The Mount", who shakes hands with Brian and gives a very Liverpudlian "'ullo". The original recording proved unusable, so Michael Palin dubbed it in post-production.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Though the movie was directed solely by Terry Jones, to avoid the frictions and conflicts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Terry Gilliam directed at least two scenes: the arrival of the Wise Men and the Nativity, and the abduction of Brian by the aliens, as explained in the commentary.