Color, 1969, 92m.
Directed by Joseph McGrath
Starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch, Isabel Jeans, Caroline Blakiston, John Cleese, Dennis Price
Olive Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Artisan (US R1 NTSC)
The late 1960s was fertile territory for the late satirist Terry Southern whose novels The Magic Christian and Candy were adapted within a year of each other. Both films pared away some of Southern's more acidic tendencies in favor of all-star, rambling comedy skits strung together by slender storylines, though the end results are as different as night and day. While Candy strives to be a mod, continental exercise in pop sci-fi erotica, this outing instead feels like a celebrity crossover between Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Goon Show gone completely off the rails (which makes sense, as Pythonites John Cleese and Graham Chapman both co-wrote and appeared onscreen), coupled with good old English slapstick and a catchy pop soundtrack courtesy of Badfinger, an ill-fated band designed to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles.
Fortunately their theme song, "Come and Get It" (written by the unmistakable hand of Paul McCartney), is one of the catchiest ever written and kicks the film off in high style, promising a cheeky look at man's insatiable lust for money. The ensuing film doesn't always live up to that promise, but it's a weirdly gripping experience all the same as the viewer rarely has any idea what's just around the corner.
While strolling through the park, eccentric millionaire Sir Guy Grand (Sellers) strikes up a friendship with an amiable bum, Youngman (Starr, never the world's greatest actor), whom Guy adopts as his own son. Together they decide to test the limits of human greed by offering money to an increasingly bizarre assortment of characters who debase themselves completely for a little green. After attending a striptease version of Hamlet with Laurence Harvey and displaying most un-English bad manners at restaurants and auctions, the father and son wreak pandemonium aboard the maiden voyage of the Magic Christian, a vessel populated by topless slave girls (ordered by "Priestess of the Whip" Raquel Welch), a stampeding vampire (Christopher Lee), and a scary chanteuse (Yul Brynner in drag) hitting on a reluctant Roman Polanski. Back on land, humanity is put to one final, scatological test of avarice courtesy of a giant vat of... well, you'll have to see for yourself.
Amazingly, that entire final sequence was usually trimmed from U.S. television showings and some theatrical screenings (along with all of the slave girl nudity, for obvious reasons), but the uncut version has been the standard since the VHS days. This sort of hit-and-miss celebrity goofiness had already been devoured into the mainstream thanks to the surreal likes of Casino Royale (which shares this film's director, Joseph McGrath), though one could probably trace the tradition as far back as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Here the humor goes beyond sheer silliness and into the purely tasteless, most effectively in a sick dog show skit that bears the unmistakable imprint of Cleese and Chapman. Character actor spotters will also have a field day thanks to the likes of Jess Franco regular and Kind Hearts and Coronets star Dennis Price (in a very funny board room bit), Spike Milligan, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and The Fearless Vampire Killers' Ferdy Mayne, to name but a few. This kind of over-the-top, sprawling comedy was bound to extinct fairly quickly (with the much-maligned Myra Breckinridge delivering the death blow), but it was a thing of strange, misshapen beauty while it lasted.
As with most titles in the Republic Pictures library, The Magic Christian has had a bumpy history on home video with long periods of unavailability every few years. The initial VHS and laserdisc editions looked pretty sickly, while the first DVD from Artisan was several notches sharper at least. The film was shot (very) open matte with plenty of extra headroom and soft matted between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1, depending on the territory in which it played, and the 1.33:1 version was the standard until the 2013 Olive Films bare bones reissue on both Blu-ray and DVD. (No extras have ever existed for any version of this film; the mind boggles at what Starr might have to say about it.) The Blu-ray option is definitely preferable if possible given the film's brief but eye-popping bursts of colorful lighting, especially once we board the Magic Christian itself. The framing looks fine, and there's really nothing to complain about here as it looks like a nice, nearly mint film print. The DTS-HD mono audio does what it can with lots of clumsy ADR work in evidence, and the music recording for Ken Thorne's whimsical score isn't the slickest on the planet; however, the Badfinger tunes sound great, and that's what really counts.
Updated review on August 1, 2013.