Throwback Thursday: All Aboard The Magic Christian

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

If there was one comic actor in the ’60s that typified the idea of Swinging London, I would have to state that it was probably Peter Sellers. He got his start in radio and was in a ton (seriously, there’s a lot) of films both before and after that decade. The ’60s stand out as unique in Peter Sellers’ career due to what was tried to be accomplished in comedy and mixing with the counter culture of the time, with films that attempted to look at stuffy society and break down those barriers, such as What’s New Pussycat, The Bobo, The Party, and especially his last film of the ’60s, 1969’s The Magic Christian.

Theatrical poster for The Magic Christian.

Theatrical poster for The Magic Christian. Note: Raquel Welch is only in the film for two minutes, but hey, sex sells. *sigh*

Loosely based on the book of the same name, the film follows Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), one of the richest men in England, as he decides to adopt a homeless person (Ringo Starr) and induct him into the family business, which seems to primarily involve pranking and finding out what people will do for money. The film tackles the aristocracy and their values, but also makes the audience question themselves and their beliefs.

Screenshot of Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers

Ringo Starr becoming Youngman Grand to Peter Sellers Guy Grand

Watching the film, Ringo and Sellers seem to just have wanted to make a film together so they got the rights to the novel and set about making a movie. It’s almost just enough to watch Sellers and Starr bounce off of each other. Sellers doesn’t seem to have a care in the world about whether he’s making a good film or not—he’s just happy to be making a film. The direction itself, by Joseph McGrath, is nothing to write home about, but it gets the point across. One scene involves a much hyped boxing match for the heavyweight title. The buildup to the match takes a number of minutes, showing the fighters, their staff, and all the fans who are expecting a knock down dragout fight. Sir Guy and his family are watching the fight on TV at home and you, as the audience, know Guy has bought-off someone to do something, but you don’t know what, until the bell rings. The fighters circle each other, ready to attack, when one fighter raises one of his gloved hands, says “You’re too much,” proceeds to spit out his mouth guard, then goes in for a kiss. The crowd goes wild—booing, yelling, and throwing things into the ring—while the announcer on TV says, “The crowd seems to be sickened by the sight of no blood.”

That scene throws our entire violent culture under the bus. Why should two men kissing be worse than purposefully trying to injure someone and get them to bleed? Even though it was an experimental time in cinema, there were certain things you couldn’t show on screen if you wanted to get past the censors—two men kissing being one of them. So right as the fighter leans in, the camera cuts to the feet of the boxers, showing one man going up on his tippy toes and the other’s toes curling a bit—a great way to get their point across without being able to show things.

Screenshot of John Cleese, Ringo Starr, and Peter Sellers in conversation.

John Cleese, Ringo Starr, and Peter Sellers having a moment. P.S. Don’t Google “Magic Christian fighters;” you won’t get images from the film.

There are scenes like this peppered throughout the film, dealing with parking tickets, snooty auctioneers, and the aristocracy. The main thrust of the film is a 30-minute segment focusing on a boat called the Magic Christian, a luxury liner that accepts applications, but only allows the “cream of the crop” to book passage. Setting it up as very exclusive of course means that it’s the must-have ticket. Hilarious hijinks on the boat ensue. In the book, the ship is the definitive prank. However, in the film there is one additional set piece that was moved to the end for impact. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a nice button to the film and the points it’s trying to get across.

The words "FREE MONEY HERE" spray painted on a platform in a field.

Who wants free money?

While not visually ground breaking, there’s a lot of fun points in the film and it’s interesting to see that some of the things that the counter culture were railing about in the late ’60s are unfortunately still front and center over 40 years later. Also, pay close attention to the celebrity cameos from Richard Attenburough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Raquel Welch, Yul Brynner, Christopher Lee, and more. It is a fun film that deserves a wider audience.

Postscript: It should also be known that this film gave us the band Badfinger, who hit it big with a cover of the Paul McCartney penned “Come and Get It”.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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