Friday, June 25, 2010

The Magic Christian

The Magic Christian is a 1969 film directed by Joseph McGrath and starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with noteworthy appearances by John Cleese, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski. It was loosely adapted from the 1959 comic novel of the same name by U.S. author Terry Southern.


McGrath's film adaptation differs considerably in content from Southern's novel. Relocated to London in the 1960s, it introduces an orphan whom Sir Guy Grand picks up in a park and on a whim decides to adopt. The role was written with Ringo Starr (who plays it) in mind. The movie is often remembered for its song "Come And Get It" written and produced by Paul McCartney and performed by Badfinger, a British rock band promoted by Apple Records. The lyrics refer to Grand's schemes of bribing people to act according to his whims ('If you want it, here it is, come and get it'). Thunderclap Newman’s "Something in the Air" is also dominant in the film's soundtrack.

British actor and dancer Lionel Blair was responsible for the film's choreography. A host of British and American actors (see cast) have brief roles in the movie, many playing against type.

Episodic in character, The Magic Christian is an unrelenting and often heavy-handed satire on capitalism, greed, and human vanities. Notable are the appearances of (pre-Monty Python) John Cleese and Graham Chapman (uncredited), who had written an earlier version of the film script, of which only the scenes they appear in survived.


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 as a display of father Grand to his adoptive charge that "everyone has their price" - it just depends on the amount one is prepared to pay. They start from rather minor spoofs, like bribing a traffic warden (Spike Milligan) to take back a parking ticket and eat it (who, delighted from the large bribe, eats its plastic cover too) and proceed with increasingly elaborate stunts involving higher social strata and wider audiences. As a father-son conversation reveals, Grand sees his plots as "educational" ("Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it's not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well.").

At Sotheby's art auction house, it is proudly claimed that an original Rembrandt portrait might fetch £10,000, yet to director Mr. Dougdale's (John Cleese) astonishment, Grand makes a final offer of £30,000 for it ('Thirty - thousand - pounds? Shit! I beg your pardon, I do beg your pardon!') and having bought it, proceeds, in front of a deeply shocked Dougdale, to cut with his scissors the portrait's nose from the canvas. In a classy restaurant he makes a loud show of wild gluttony, Grand being the restaurant's most prominent customer. In the annual Boat Race sports event, he bribes the Oxford team (where Graham Chapman plays a member of the rowing team) and makes them ram purposely the Cambridge boat, to win a screamingly unjust victory. In a traditional pheasant hunt, he uses an anti-aircraft gun to down the bird.

Grand and Youngman eventually buy tickets for the luxury liner S.S. Magic Christian, along with the richest strata of society. In the beginning everything appears normal and the ship apparently sets off. Yet soon, things start going wrong. A solitary drinker at the bar (Roman Polanski) is approached by a transvestite cabaret singer (Yul Brynner), Dracula (Christopher Lee) poses as a waiter, a cinema show turns out to feature the unfortunately unsuccessful transplant of a black person's head onto a white body. Eventually passengers start noticing through the ship's CCTV that their Captain (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is in a drunken stupor and finally gets carted off by a gorilla. In a crescendo of panic the guests try to find their way to abandon ship. A group of them, shown the way by Youngman Grand, reach instead the machine-room, which turns out to be powered by hordes of topless rowing slaves, under the Priestess of the Whip's (Raquel Welch) command. As passengers finally find an exit and lords and ladies stumble out in the daylight, we discover that the supposed ship was, in fact, a structure built inside a warehouse, and the passengers had never left London. During the whole misadventure, father and son Grand look perfectly composed and cool.

Towards the end of the film, Guy Grand fills 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, as the song "Something In The Air" by Thunderclap Newman, is heard by the movie's audience.

The film ends with both Guy Grand and Youngman Grand, having returned to the park where the film opened, bribing the park warden to allow them to both now sleep there, stating that this was a more direct method of achieving their (mostly unstated) ends.


Most mainstream critics have been quite negative on the film, especially for its extensive use of black humour. Darrel Baxton, in his review for Splitting Image, refers to the film as of "the school of savage sub-Bunuelian satire." Christopher Null in states that "it's way too over-the-top to make any profound statement." In his study of homosexuality in films The Celluloid Closet, author Vito Russo states (on page 184) that "Yul Brynner in drag sings Noel Coward's 'Mad About the Boy' while the 'fag' jokes fly in a viciously homophobic film".


Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE
Ringo Starr as Youngman Grand, Esq.
Isabel Jeans as Dame Agnes Grand
Caroline Blakiston as Hon. Esther Grand
Spike Milligan as Traffic warden #27
Richard Attenborough as Oxford coach
Leonard Frey as Laurence Faggot (ship's psychiatrist)
John Cleese as Mr. Dougdale (director in Sotheby's)
Patrick Cargill as Auctioneer at Sotheby's
Joan Benham as Socialite in Sotheby's
Ferdy Mayne as Eduoard (of Chez Edouard restaurant)
Graham Stark as Waiter at Chez Edouard Restaurant
Laurence Harvey as Hamlet
Dennis Price as Winthrop
Wilfrid Hyde-White as Capt. Reginald K. Klaus
Christopher Lee as Ship's vampire
Roman Polanski as Solitary drinker
Raquel Welch as Priestess of the Whip
Victor Maddern as Hot dog vendor
Terence Alexander as Mad Major
Clive Dunn as Sommelier
Fred Emney as Fitzgibbon
David Hutcheson as Lord Barry
Hattie Jacques as Ginger Horton
Edward Underdown as Prince Henry
Jeremy Lloyd as Lord Hampton
Peter Myers as Lord Kilgallon
Roland Culver as Sir Herbert
Michael Trubshawe as Sir Lionel
David Lodge as Ship's guide
Peter Graves as Lord at ship's bar
Robert Raglan as Maltravers
Frank Thornton as Police Inspector
Michael Aspel as TV commentator
Michael Barratt as TV commentator
Harry Carpenter as TV commentator
John Snagge as TV commentator
Alan Whicker as TV commentator
Kenneth Connor
Graham Chapman as Oxford crewman (uncredited)
James Laurenson as Oxford crewman (uncredited)
Yul Brynner as Transvestite cabaret singer (uncredited)
Sean Barry-Weske as John Lennon lookalike (uncredited)
Kimberley Chung as Yoko Ono lookalike (uncredited)
George Cooper as Losing Boxer's Second (uncredited)
John Le Mesurier as Sir John (uncredited)
Guy Middleton as Duke of Mantisbriar (uncredited)
Edward Sinclair as Park attendant (uncredited)


* In the posters for Chevy Chase's 1985 movie Fletch, Chase's character shows a fake ID of himself as an afro-wearing basketball player, named "Magic Christian."

* The scene towards the end of the film, involving the vat containing animal blood, urine and excrement, ordered by the Grands from the fictional Slaughterhousing, Ltd, and delivered in a tanker truck, was filmed on London's South Bank on a stretch of wasteground on which The National Theatre was later built. It was originally planned to film this climactic scene at the Statue of Liberty in New York and, remarkably, the U.S. National Park Service agreed to the request. Sellers, Southern and director Joseph McGrath then travelled to New York on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (at a reported cost of US$10,000 per person) but the studio then refused to pay for the shoot and it had to be relocated to London.

* The episode of The Simpsons entitled "Homer vs. Dignity" follows the movie's plot line to a point.


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