BY ALEX DIBLASI
Long-forgotten in the time since its release and regularly overlooked for some sort of special deluxe DVD package from Criterion or Kino, “The Magic Christian” is a film whose relevance has only magnified in the 43 years since its original release. The film takes a nasty swipe at the class structure, with its two misanthropic lead characters (British comic Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr) proving time and again that not only can people be easily bought, they will go to unthinkable depths for a wad of cash and with it the promise of prestige and wealth.
The 1970 film is one of my all-time favorites, despite its poor commercial performance and the fact that it still has yet to gain any sort of beloved cult status. Adapted from a novel by American satirist Terry Southern, Peter Sellers stars as Sir Guy Grand, one of the wealthiest men in the world. For all of his character’s quirks, shown throughout the rest of the movie, he is introduced to us as a philanthropic mind, adopting a bum (played by Ringo Starr), who he names Youngman Grand.
Despite this kindhearted gesture, Grand is an eccentric billionaire with a unique sense of humor. He constantly uses his wealth to “buy” situations, that is to say he pays people off to permit strange things to occur. At a high-society performance of Hamlet, the “to be or not to be” speech is turned into a male strip routine, to the disgust of the uppity audience members. In a later scene on a train, Grand presents to Youngman a rude businessman, who Grand says has “earned millions off of mankind’s inhumanity to mankind.” After briefly annoying him, Grand has the businessman snatched away to a strobe-lit party with topless dancers, nuns and a guy in a scuba outfit.
As the film’s first half shows, Grand’s mean streak is exacted on those who deserve it – the greedy, the elitist and those who adhere strictly to traditions. Grand is also dedicated to showing Youngman the effect money has on people in capitalistic society. In a scene at Sotheby’s auction house, a stuffy art historian (played by a young John Cleese of Monty Python fame) goes from casually dismissing Grand’s inquiries about the painting to being a pitiful yes man once Sir Guy offers thirty thousand pounds for a Rembrandt. He even agrees with Grand’s deliberately wrong assertion that Rembrandt was French.
This all builds up to the film’s title, which is a luxury liner setting sail on its maiden voyage. Hyped as “the social must of the season,” Grand and Youngman see to it that everyone else around them is routinely terrorized. Over the course of the boat’s excursion, things begin to go awry, from a fake hijacking of the boat to a police officer who plants a joint on a senior citizen. By the end of the voyage, all hell breaks loose, with the corridors marked with slogans like “SMASH CAPITALISM” and “DOWN WITH PANTS,” while the main hall features posters of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Lenny Bruce. Again, Grand and his son casually observe the proceedings while everyone else around them panics.
I can also see how and why others would think the movie is too cynical and too mean-spirited. To me, it’s funny, a bizarre series of vignettes where Grand and his son administer bad karma to those who have sown it elsewhere, while also skewering such then-sacred topics like the British class system and the dog-eat-dog world of business. The message of the film has only grown more relevant on both sides of the Atlantic, with the economic crisis rubbing salt into these already open wounds of class struggle.
For those with an anti-materialist bent, this movie is perfect. It takes a bit of time to get acquainted with the film’s humor – the script was written by Southern and had revisions written by Sellers as well as John Cleese and Graham Chapman of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe. For all of its intellectually stimulating content, there are still plenty of great laugh out loud moments.