I was a teenager, it was late at night, and I was alone watching The Magic Christian on television.
There was no internet.
I was at the height of my teen Beatles obsession at the time, and the first thing that struck me was the theme song: “Come and Get It,” by Badfinger. I didn’t know Badfinger from a hole in the ground, but what I heard sounded like The Beatles. Not long after, I obtained the Apple 45 single, by Badfinger, written by Macca, and I was still convinced it was more Beatles than not. Given McCartney’s abilities, he could easily knock off the whole thing on his own.
And Ringo was in it. And, towards the end, it looked as if John and Yoko walked past the camera.
Anyway, I enjoyed it. Thirty-five years later, and I happen to be teaching Swinging Britain as a Film Studies topic. The Magic Christian was my immediate choice. What film could better sum up the madcap hazy days of the late 60s? Plotless, meandering, bonkers, peppered with familiar faces, poppy soundtrack, with Ringo, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, John Cleese… Graham Chapman… Christopher Lee… Raquel Welch… Roman Polanski… Yul Bryner… fuck.
So we watched it. This is not a film to watch for cinematography, that’s for sure. In terms of editing, it has its moments. Its production design, given the budget, is also interesting. There are scenes taking place in train carriages, on a modernist “luxury liner”, and on what appear to be the flooded streets of London-before-the-Thames-Barrier.
In many ways, the film is nasty. Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a multi-millionaire who decides to put his money to use in subverting the class system, humiliating the elite classes and demonstrating how materialistic values bring us all low. Ringo plays a homeless man adopted by Grand, who participates, knowingly and unknowingly, in a series of pranks.
A shooting party discussing their various shotguns is subverted when Grand pulls out a machine gun and uses it to destroy wildlife. (We were watching this film in the week that Chris Packham attempted to get the British media interested in the massacre of songbirds in Malta.)
A boxing match, with a crowd of monkey-suited men and their dates baying for blood and violence, is subverted when the two boxers kiss instead of fighting. The crowd is outraged. It struck me that this controversial 1969 gay kiss would still upset a lot of people, who would indeed prefer to see blood and violence than two men loving each other.
In perhaps the most hilarious sequence, the Crufts dog show descends into chaos when a (literal) black panther (disguised as a dog) attacks and kills the other contestants. Its owner, an African man, gives the Black Power salute from the back of a police van. The scene is intercut with shots of police brutality at anti-war and other protests. (In 1968, two American athletes gave the Black Power salute on the podium at the Mexico Olympics.)
At a gourmet restaurant, Sir Guy orders an astonishingly expensive bottle of wine, then rubs caviar all over his face while his companions dine on Rice Crispies.
At Sotheby’s Sir Guy buys a “Rembrandt” portrait for three times its value and then uses a pair of scissors to cut out the nose. As a parting shot, Ringo calls out, “Keep an eye out for ears.” At the auction, he drives up the price of a painting of two dogs with a series of bizarre (and loud) signals to the auctioneer.
The boat race descends into chaos when the Oxford crew are bribed to ram the Cambridge crew. They then circle back to attack the floundering oarsmen in the water.
A traffic warden (Milligan) is bribed to eat the ticket he’s just issued. He voluntarily eats its plastic wrapper.
The maiden voyage of a luxury liner, with a passenger list of the wealthy elite, descends into, yes, chaos, as homoerotic, black and white male dancers perform provocatively in front of a man already established as a racist. Then the ship appears to be hijacked. Then a vampire starts attacking passengers. A transvestite singer serenades Roman Polanski and turns out to be Yul Bryner. When the ship appears to be sinking, passengers are encouraged to escape through the “engine room”, which turns out to be full of naked, female galley slaves being whipped by Raquel Welch. And it turns out, all along, that the ship wasn’t even at sea at all. It was just a warehouse mocked up to look like a ship. (The QE2, the last great Cunard luxury liner, was launched in 1969.)
In the climactic scene, pinstripe suited businessmen and others dive into a vat of urine, faeces and blood in order to retrieve the money Grand has put in it. They literally immerse themselves in piss and shit in order to retrieve sinking ten pound notes. (The scene is shot on the area of waste ground on the South Bank of the Thames which is now the National Theatre.)
What does it all mean? What strikes me, 45 years on, is how many of the targets of the film are still around. There was a brief historical moment, in the 60s and 70s, when inequalities of wealth were reduced. Britain flowered in the 60s because – for the first time ever – a large number of people educated outside of the elite institutions of private schools and top universities were able to succeed because they had talent. Coupled with this flowering, we had the highest wealth taxes of the modern era. Coincidence? I think not. If you want a brilliant, exciting, culture and an optimistic country, tax the rich until the pips squeak. FACT.
It was the era when the “natural order of things” was questioned, and the powerful holders of wealth were revealed to be no “better” than the rest of us. The decade of change starts with the Profumo Scandal (well, he would, wouldn’t he?) the Chatterly trial (would you wish for your wife or servants to read this?) and ends with Lord Lucan bludgeoning his children’s nanny to death in 1974.
The Magic Christian, falling into the middle of this period, skewers the pretentions of the upper classes, and questions the values of a society which prefers violence and money to love, which has an unfortunate habit of mixing sex with violence (Raquel Welch with a whip), and which conceals racial hatred, class war, and homophobia behind a facade of enforced, supercilious, politeness.
It’s a blunt instrument, The Magic Christian, but it smashes its targets quite effectively.
And worth it for the whole conceit of the black power salute at Crufts!