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Films: M is for...

Magic Christian, The

A GREAT big, sprawling, ill-disciplined countercultural satire adapted by Terry Southern and Joe McGrath from Southern’s own novel, this is possibly the prime exponent of that genre’s disjointed vignette approach to storytelling. The high concept is got over in the opening minutes – cynical millionaire Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) and his young cohort (Ringo Starr) set out to mock various areas of society by using Grand’s vast wealth to bribe individuals into willfully belittling their own roles in life. And that’s it. Thus the film wavers between sketches on this slender theme which deliver (an on-train board meeting with Dennis Price, the amputation of the nose from a priceless painting as a mortified John Cleese looks on) and those that don‘t (the phrase ‘Laurence Harvey strips while reciting Hamlet’ is about as entertaining as the sketch it describes). By the time Yul Brynner and Christopher Lee are wheeled on for arbitrary cameos aboard a luxury liner that symbolises Britain (somehow) the air of self-importance is stifling. Nearly all the big, sprawling countercultural satires of the ’60s (see also Candy, How I Won the War, If…) punched above their weight to some degree, but The Magic Christian‘s episodic pomp, coupled with the predictability of its disparate scenes and its tendency to coast along on a wave of borrowed countercultural trappings, make it an easy film to watch, but a hard film to like.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Enoch Sneed

    May 15, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Sorry, but you did forget to mention the best bit – traffic warden Spike Milligan eating a parking ticket for £500. Well, this was 1969 when petrol was 30p a *gallon*, so that would be £10000 today.

  2. Sidney Balmoral James

    May 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Saw this film for the first time a few years back on BBC2, and was genuinely shocked at how poor it was – long sections are completely incomprehensible. I’d been expecting something ramshackle but with whacky charm, like Casino Royale, or The Loved One, but this is on another level. It’s like a great, sour belch from the sixties. One of the two truly, mirthless, abysmal films which bookend Sellars’ last decade – the other being the Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.

  3. Paul Gatenby

    May 16, 2010 at 2:15 am

    Then there’s the whole homoerotic thing going on – the idea of Sir Guy picking up a young homeless man in the park, the Laurence Harvey scene, the ‘Mad About The Boy’ scene, the flash frame on the cruise liner where Peter Sellers is dressed up as a nun (and looks exactly like his Mum). None of it makes sense and seems completely at odds with the plot (what there is of it). I find it a completely baffling and humourless film; there’s more laughs in The Blockhouse.

  4. pessoa

    May 16, 2010 at 2:53 am

    One of Paul Merton’s favourite films, I believe. He chose this film for his theme night on BBC 2, which is when I tried watching it. Must agree that it seemd an embarrassingly self-conscious, ‘kooky’, end-of-the-sixties affair.Perhaps you had to be there?

  5. Enoch Sneed

    May 16, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Interesting to read these comments. In the intro Peter Sellers says they will be using a lot of money “over the next two hours”, but the film only runs about 90 minutes. Did a lot of material end up on the cutting room floor? Also John Cleese and Graham Chapman (who contributed to the script) were very frustrated by director Joe McGrath’s inability to build a comedy situation.

    I think this is where the failure of the film lies – we don’t see Sir Guy Grand setting up his schemes for upsetting the pomposity and complacency of his victims. So, when Sir Guy visits the ‘Chez Edouard’ restaurant and smears the food on his face while a host of fawning waiters stand by it just looks rather stupid – you don’t realise that his wealth and status automatically make him “the last of the great gourmets”.

    This is a film you need to watch more than once to see the backstory.

  6. Sleazy Martinez

    May 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Don’t we have Peter Sellers’ milkman to thank for this mess? According to legend, the comic would run his latest material past the old boy and if Milko didn’t laugh, it was out.

    Chapman, G. claims (in his autobiography) that the original script was fairly solid, but that the “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we cast…” attitude also helped sink the enterprise.

    This would, however, make a good “Self Indulgence” double bill with “Skidoo”, which is the American side of the coin. Are you listening, NFT?

  7. Black Devil Rocket

    May 16, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    I’ll admit the film is a mess, but I’d say it almost captured the ridiculous qualities of the Terry Southern novel, which is still one of the funniest ever written. A lot of the gags that sort of work in the film are hilarious on the page, see the chapter on the stupidly massive car which is reduced to a cartoon there but in the book is absolutely sidesplitting.

    I’d recommend the cult classic novel first (which has the ticket eating bit too), then give the film another try.

  8. David Pascoe

    May 17, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    The scene at Sotheby’s with John Cleese, “Dutch noses” and Patrick Cargill (“From an outer gallery”) is brilliant.

  9. Victor Serge

    May 20, 2010 at 4:18 am

    I have to say, this is one of my favourite anti-capitalist films. I thought it proceeded quite logically from a critique of consumerism and follies of the rich to the state (the boat), culminating, naturally enough, with a revolution. It’s heavily steeped in situationism: deliberately jarring the audience’s expectations with ludicrous gestures to expose the Spectacle. You could call that 60s over-indulgence, I guess… but art and revolutionary politics have a long, close friendship. As an attempt to push the boundaries of political film past even the celluloid it’s printed on, I think it works.

  10. Matt Patton

    May 31, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I’ll bet that Southern was glad that he had a hand in EASY RIDER the same year. Also an awful film, but residuals probably kept him in rent and bourbon for the rest of his days.

  11. Nick Young

    June 6, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    I read the book first and, having seen from the cover that it had been made as a movie, was wondering how an earth could this be made into a film? It couldn’t.

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