The Magic Christian is one of those zany oddball ’60s comedies which was made under an epic cloud of marijuana smoke. It lacks any real narrative cohesion because you know they were too high to write that into the script. It stars Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, yes that Ringo Starr who was the butt of all the jokes in The Beatles.
Peter Sellers portrays the eccentric billionaire Sir Guy Grand who decides to adopt a random homeless hippy, who becomes known as Youngman Grand (Ringo Starr) and together they go on a spree of practical jokes. Guy wants to show that everybody has their price so he pays people to do things, one of the highlights is when he pays a Shakespearean actor to strip off during that speech in Hamlet. The pranks get increasingly elaborate as the film moves along. It all climaxes on the luxury cruise ship The Magic Christian of the film’s title.
The film has an overt anti-capitalism ’60s counterculture vibe which is partly down to it being written by Terry Southern, who also wrote the novel which it’s very loosely based upon. Sellers was a long time friend and fan of Southern’s work and is the man who single-handedly got Southern the job to revise the script for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, when Kubrick decided to make it into a black comedy. Southern was already a counterculture icon by his association with the beat scene, he was one of the main people who got William S. Burrough’s satirical masterwork Naked Lunch published by Olympia Press in 1959. However his work on Dr. Strangelove made him a hot property and he soon got lots of screenplay work which climaxed with the releases of The Magic Christian and more notably Easy Rider in 1969.
The Magic Christian wants to be this incredibly biting satire on evils of capitalism and the bourgeoisie but it falls flat more than it succeeds in that regard. They clearly want it to like one of Luis Buñuel’s savage take downs of the same targets but they get far too wrapped up in the film’s silliness and farcical nature. Lindsay Anderson a few years later did a great take down of capitalism in a similar vein with ‘O Lucky Man.
However it’s amusing throughout and is full of all the hippest cats around from swinging London in the late ’60s. Perhaps most notably John Cleese and Graham Chapman appear in pre-Python roles. The film certainly has a Pythonesque feel due to its episodic nature which feel at times like they belong in a skit show than a film. Roman Polanski, Laurence Harvey are some of the famous faces that appear.
The highlights however are Christopher Lee as a vampire (of course) and Raquel Welch in a slave master outfit which looks strikingly similar the Slave Leia costume in Return of the Jedi. The most bizarre cameo however is Yul Brynner in full drag and makes a better-looking woman than you would expect! Sellers is great as usual and Ringo has a bit of comedic timing talent and chemistry but he couldn’t carry a whole film.
The Magic Christian is an enjoyable mess and a very ’60s one at that. It’s not as funny as it should be but it’s full of bizarre surreal moments that fans of Monty Python or Spike Milligan (who has a cameo too) will probably get a kick out of it. The notable gay critic Vito Russo had a profound hatred for the film calling it “viciously homophobic” which is probably a bit unfair but it certainly wouldn’t get any PC marks today.