Jesus, Spartacus, and Monty Python

Peter Bradshaw makes a very interesting point about Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), which recently returned to British movie screens for one day only:

The story of Spartacus reverses the Jesus myth: instead of getting sold out by his followers and dying a terrible death on the cross, Spartacus is protected by his troops, who are prepared to endure crucifixion rather than reveal the leader hidden in their ranks.

And then Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) came along and put the two stories together. At the end of that film, Brian is crucified along with dozens of other Jews (and at least one Samaritan), but then a soldier comes along, asking who Brian is so that Brian can be taken down from the cross. And whereas the extras in one movie all yelled “I’m Spartacus!” as a sign of self-sacrificial solidarity with their leader, the extras in the other movie all yell “I’m Brian!” as a way of selfishly trying to save their own skins, at the expense of the genuine Brian’s life.

It’s also interesting to consider that Spartacus was written by people who had an active interest in progressive politics — the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, almost didn’t receive any credit for the film because of the 1950s blacklist — so it may reflect some of that left-leaning idealism, whereas Life of Brian devotes a fair bit of screen time to mocking British left-wing politics, albeit in first-century Judean garb.

I don’t think the Pythons were anti-liberal, by any stretch, but I do think they were somewhat cynical about the ability of humans as a whole to rise above their own self-centredness. And so, in a roundabout way, they brought the story of Spartacus back to the story of Jesus, as the “hero” of their story is exploited and abandoned by nearly everyone he meets.

It’s kind of like how Life of Brian is the only movie I can think of that draws our attention to the ungrateful people who were healed by Jesus. Most life-of-Jesus movies flatter their audiences by suggesting that everyone who was healed would have expressed their gratitude — just like we would have done, right? Right? But what about, say, the ex-lepers who didn’t thank Jesus for healing them? What about the people who just went on to the next thing and possibly even resented Jesus for changing the status quo in their lives?

Anyway. I love Spartacus, and I love Life of Brian. I need the idealism, and I need the skepticism, or even the cynicism. Somewhere between the two lies reality — and indeed, I find ample helpings of both in the story of Jesus himself.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).

  • Matt Page

    FWIW, One of Monday's films was a french production called "The Blind Man of Jerusalem" which features a blind man getting healed and thereby discovering that his daughter is involved with a ruffian and that both they and some of his other servants are stealing from him. I'll post more on that one shortly, but Life of Brian did come to mind at the time.


  • Gene

    Excellent post! I haven't seen either film for years but I'm going to add them to my Netflix list. Thanks for this, Peter!

  • Anonymous

    Yes…thank you Peter.