Cult Movie: The Magic Christian is silly and indulgent yet oddly praiseworthy

John Cleese, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian
John Cleese, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian

THE work of writer Terry Southern is woven deep into the fabric of the 1960s. He may never have achieved household-name status but look closely and his words are propping up many of that decade’s grooviest creations.

His slyly subversive novels were centrepieces of the counter culture and remain perfect time capsules for that era of idle daydreaming and dangerous decadence. His hipster wit is all over the scripts of Lolita and Dr Strangelove, which he polished up with a cynical sheen for Stanley Kubrick, and he played his part in the collective that finally brought Easy Rider to the big screen, changing the face of American cinema as we know it in the process.

With such cultural credits to his name, it’s no surprise that his work was swiftly and mercilessly plundered by Hollywood as they tried desperately to look like they were down with the kids and wise to the revolutionary ways of hippy movement.

Freshly reissued on DVD by Fabulous Films, The Magic Christian (1969) is perhaps the finest example of his work on the big screen. A seriously whacked-out oddball of a film based on Southern’s novel of the same name from 10 years earlier, it’s as daft, druggy and downright drowsy as they come but great fun to watch all the same.

Directed by Joe McGrath, it tells the tale of a crazy millionaire, Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), who befriends a young homeless guy (Ringo Starr) with the intention of setting out to prove that everybody in society “has their price”. This mission entails a dazzling array of guest stars from Spike Milligan to Christopher Lee getting involved in all manner of pranks and set pieces that send up the cool hipsters of Swinging London, jobs-worth traffic wardens and self-satisfied art critics with real glee.

The result is a series of loose comic vignettes, many penned by script polishers and soon to be key Monty Python heads Graham Chapman and John Cleese, all played out to the sound of Badfinger.

Of course alarm bells should have been seriously ringing when the production reunited McGrath and Sellers who together had delivered the almost unwatchable Casino Royale in 1967 and indeed the duo continue their downward slide here, with McGrath struggling to make much sense of Southern’s Swinging 60s satire and Sellers clearly going through some kind of mid-life crisis on camera as he sleepwalks his way through proceedings like a man having a big-screen breakdown.

Ringo is undeniably good as the affable loser. nyone familiar with his previous film work won’t be surprised by this – he was the only member of the Fab Four to show even a modicum of screen presence in either A Hard Day’s Night or Help.

Silly, indulgent and very much of its time The Magic Christian still deserves your praise.