The Magic Christian (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Magic Christian is a 1969 film directed by Joseph McGrath and starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, John Cleese, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski. It was loosely adapted from the 1959 comic novel 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 doesn't 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 an African-American'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, led by the Grands, 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 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 Grand and Youngman, having returned to the park where the film opened, bribing the park warden to allow them to 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". 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".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Magic Christian (film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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