The Magic Christian is a nearly forgotten movie bursting with 1960s comedic genius, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. It is based on the novel of the same name by Terry Southern. Though the film is much altered from the novel with several more scenes written by Southern himself, along with John Cleese and Graham Chapman. The casting of Peter Sellers also necessitated the setting be moved from New York to London.
The novel itself became important in that it brought Southern to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who had received a copy as a gift from Peter Sellers, who then hired him on as co-writer for Dr. Strangelove, when Kubrick decided to make that film a black comedy, rather than a straightforward thriller.
The plot is simple and episodic (it is in fact almost an anti-narrative), Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), an eccentric billionaire, together with his newly adopted heir (formerly a homeless derelict), Youngman Grand (Ringo Starr), start playing elaborate practical jokes on people.
A big spender, Grand does not mind handing out large sums of money to various people, bribing them to fulfill his whims, or shocking them by bringing down what they hold dear. Their misadventures are designed to display the hypocrisy of life and that "everyone has their price"—it just depends on the amount one is prepared to pay. In fact the purpose of the film is Grand attempting to explore just how far he can go.
There then follows a series of massive practical jokes. Starting with minor spoofs, like bribing a Shakespearean actor to strip during a stage performance of Hamlet, and convincing a traffic warden to take back a parking ticket and eat it.
This all culminates in The Magic Christian which is pitched as the exclusive cruise liner and the “social must of the season.” Only the richest and stuffiest of socialites are allowed on board. Things start off pleasantly enough, but quickly turn weird. A solitary drinker at the bar is approached by a transvestite cabaret singer a vampire poses as a waiter, and a cinema film features the unsuccessful transplant of a black person's head onto a white person's body. Passengers start noticing, through the ship's closed-circuit television, that their captain is in a drunken stupor and gets carted off by a gorilla.
|Roman Polanski and Yul Brenner|
In a crescendo of panic, the guests try to abandon ship. It is full of cameos with Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Yul Brenner, and Raquel Welch (as “the Priestess of the Whip”). Eventually climaxing in one of the madcap kitchen-sink comedic frenzies of insanity popular in the 60s comedies (Perhaps perfected in Casino Royale). A group of them, shown the way by Youngman Grand, instead reach the machine-room. There, the Priestess of the Whip assisted by two topless drummers, commands more than a hundred slave girls. They are naked except for loincloths. Rowing five to an oar, their wrists are manacled and fastened by chains to the ceiling. Apparently the actors kept deliberately flubbing their lines for this scene, so that they could spend more time perving on the naked women.
As passengers finally find an exit, and lords and ladies stumble out in the daylight, it is discovered that the supposed ship was in fact a structure built inside a warehouse, and the passengers had never left London.
In the final scene the pair fill up a huge vat with urine, blood and animal excrement and adds to it thousands of bank notes. Attracting a crowd of onlookers by announcing "Free money!” Grand successfully entices the city's workers to recover the cash. The sequence concludes with many members of the crowd submerging themselves, in order to retrieve money that had sunk beneath the surface. Originally Sellers wanted to do this in front of the Statue of Liberty, but due to the expense they stayed in London.
The role of Youngman Grand was originally offered to John Lennon, but who had to back due to his 1968 arrest for possession of pot. Ringo Starr - who was hoping to pursue a career as an actor after having received favorable reviews for his performance in the 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day's Night then stepped into the role intended for Lennon.
There is a further Monty Python connection, besides Cleese and Chapman’s roles, in that one of the earliest Python sketches “The Mouse Problem”- a fake documentary about a man who is part of a subculture that enjoys dressing up as mice, an obvious parody of the secretive lives and social condemnation of gay men in the 1960s (although nowadays it seems much more on point with the “furries” subculture) - was written for the film. It was ultimately rejected by Sellers.
This film is a product of its time, yet it still rings true today. Grand’s own blasé disdain for the culture and class which gave him the freedom and capital to mock it, is understated but ever present. While some critics have claimed that it was too silly to make a point, I feel they have missed it.
The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.