DIRECTED BY: Joseph McGrath
FEATURING: Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr
PLOT: A billionaire adopts a bum, then uses his fortune to pull outrageous pranks designed to show how far people will debase themselves for money.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The spirit of 1969 lives on in this wild and wicked kitchen sink satire that owes a lot to easy access to fine Moroccan hashish. While it’s uneven and at times repetitive, when it’s at its best it’s got a reckless, swinging psychedelic sensibility that’s intoxicating.
COMMENTS: You may notice that there are five different writers listed in the credits of The Magic Christian, including director McGrath, Terry Southern (who write the original novel), star Peter Sellers, and Graham Chapman and John Cleese of Monty Python (which was just kicking off its first year on television in 1969—both actors also play small roles in the film). This may help explain why the ramshackle satire on display here has a little bit of a “too-many-cooks”/revue show feel. The story arc is flat; it’s a series of pranks/sketches that don’t build on each other. They could be reshuffled in almost any order. In the first segment, billionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo hippie (Starr), but Starr has no real character; he’s only there to lend an ear so that Sellers doesn’t have to explain his bizarre behavior via monologues. The sketches are sometimes satirical, but just as often, they’re plain goofy, as when Grand takes a tank brigade with him on a pheasant hunt. It’s not clear whether we should admire Grand for exposing the hypocrisy of money-grubbing society, or revile him for exploiting people’s weaknesses for his own amusement. “Some days it’s not enough merely to teach,” he muses, “you must punish as well.” That sounds fine when he’s trolling the upper-crust, using a suitcase full of money to fix the Oxford/Cambridge rowing race, but when he abuses a hotdog vendor or bribes a lowly beat cop to eat a parking ticket, he’s acting like a bully. And when he destroys a Rembrandt, he’s a straight-up sadistic Philistine. The first hour is uneven, but things get manic in the last half hour, when Grand pitches a cruise aboard the “Magic Christian” as the event of the season for the stiff-upper-lip crowd. Once aboard, the dandies find the trip a bourgeois nightmare populated by male exotic dancers, pot-puffing ship physicians, transvestites, a galley full of slave girls, a guy running around in a monkey suit, and a vampire. The Badfinger soundtrack, featuring the Beatlesesque hit “Come and Get It” (composed by Paul McCartney), is a major asset, and cameos by Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski and Yul Brynner (among others) liven things up considerably. Christian arrives as a little bit of a disappointment, partially because this prodigious an assembly of talent—seriously, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers, and a third of Monty Python working together on one project?—promises more comedy goodness than any single movie could possibly deliver. But it’s still a time capsule of psychedelic gags from an age in which satirists viewed restraint and good taste as the enemy, but without making stupidity and vulgarity their allies.
Much of the cast and crew of The Magic Christian overlaps with that of 1967’s Casino Royale: director McGraff, writer Southern, and star Sellers all worked together on the shambolic 60s spy spoof. In a further similarity, where Frankenstein’s monster made an appearance in Royale, Dracula shows up in Christian.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by Kengo, who suggested it’s “not really that weird a movie by late sixties/early seventies standards, with all the disjointed dreamlike narrative, broad satire and surreal imagery that seemed to be standard at the time, but has some good bits.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)