FANTASIA OBSCURA: Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers Sink ‘The Magic Christian’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, yeah, you should walk away from a fool and his money.

The Magic Christian (1969)

Distributed by: Commonwealth United Entertainment

Directed by: Joseph McGrath

So what happens when you can’t sustain the surprise?

What do you do when shock and awe no longer allow you to move forward? Where do you go from there when you find that no one’s wanting you to make the trip?

It’s something that doesn’t seem to bother the characters in McGrath’s film — all of them getting by with a little help from their friends and enablers — as much as it does the director himself.

Our film, based on the novel of the same name by Terry Southern from 1959, opens with a singalong, first with a standard that’s been popular since 1745, followed by an invitation from an off-screen Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) before introducing a new song, one written by Paul McCartney and performed by Badfinger:

From there, we watch Sir Guy get his day started in his digs in Westminster, while over in the park we watch a homeless guy named Youngman (Ringo Starr) start his day as well, being harassed while roughing it.

As the credits roll, we watch Sir Guy meet and talk with Youngman (with us unable to hear their conversation thanks to Badfinger); by the end of it, Sir Guy has adopted Youngman, making him his son and heir. Which is part of Sir Guy’s MO: to use the vast fortune he has (being the “one percent” of the One Percent) to find someone’s price then pay them to embarrass themselves and/or others.

The film pretty well meanders, much the way Southern’s novel does. In fact, in Southern’s screenplay adaptation, most of the chaotic acts and practical jokes found in the book make it intact into the movie. This includes the Magic Christian herself, a vessel meant to go from London to New York whose passage is promoted as the event of the season. This also turns out to be one of the biggest tricks Sir Guy plays upon her passengers, which he gets away with much the way he does with all his gags.

Other than Southern’s script adding Youngman for Ringo to play (possibly as payback for the Beatles putting Southern on the cover of Sgt. Pepper?) and making Grand a British citizen as opposed to an American, this is one of the more faithful page-to-screen adaptations ever mounted.

Which is problematic in that going from outrage-to-outrage with little linear guidance gets tiring after a while, certainly in prose and even more so in cinema. Midway through the film, we have a scene where Guy and Youngman get a parking ticket issued by a traffic agent (former fellow Goon Spike Milligan) that best encapsulates the film just enough to get a sense of where things are not going without overwhelming the viewer.

As much as you might want to see people who are full of themselves as vainglorious fools, especially members of the over-privileged upper class, after a while, you feel like you should have stopped a few drinks ago. The more you keep going, the more the evening turns into a blur.

And as the story/novel/film moves on, it has to get more outrageous to keep people from tuning out, again with acts from the novel making their way as-is on screen. Which can be a problem for the modern viewer, as acts that pushed the envelope in 1959 and 1969 may well seem tame to someone years removed from the acts.

There’s less shock from the acts perpetrated by Sir Guy and Youngman on the self-satisfied at-large than from seeing faces you would never have thought were in the film. Walk-on for gags by the likes of Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, Roman Polanski, Yul Brynner, and Graham Chapman and John Cleese (who also got credit onscreen for contributions to the script, as they at one point were trying to adapt the book before Southern took over, and most likely wrote their own bits in the film) keep the audience from asking too many questions and watching to see who shows up next, as opposed to what happens next.

And it’s the fact that the film feels so passé that makes it a tragedy in the form of farce. While Sellers seems to be slumming it as Sir Guy, Ringo makes a halfway decent try at it. As an actor, he tends to be one hell of a drummer, brought in to bring an audience that has interest in seeing a Beatle on screen. (That there are a few shots of Ringo and Sellers set up on a train to remind viewers of A Hard Day’s Night suggests such calculation being behind his casting.) That said, Ringo is actually complementing his (admittedly somewhat absent) co-star, and their chemistry together works pretty well.

They manage to work with what they have, which includes, beyond the repetitive script, a little too much “Come and Get It.” Not only do we have Badfinger’s piece showing up multiple times on the soundtrack, we also get three performances of the song re-scored for marching band by Ken Thorne that gets tiresome after a while.

Thanks to all this, we find ourselves feeling distant from the movie. Which is probably for the best; after all, it’s not like anything in this silly film, like bamboozling everyone with a ticket to the maiden voyage of the Magic Christian , could ever really come to pass, now could it?

Wellll, actualllly…

The thing about the Fyre Festival debacle is, in hindsight, how much it feels like it could have been one of Southern’s stops for Sir Guy and Youngman as they maliciously meander along. In fact, it’s hard to say what’s more shocking, that this film is one of those cases where the era ultimately catches up with the fiction or that in the 50 years since the film we still have a privileged class that needs to be trolled, one with enough members who could make a concert like this a thing.

And comparing what happens in the film with what happened in the Bahamas, who’s to say that the ghost of Southern didn’t find a way to make its presence known through this act?

Nice job, Guy — er, guys…

NEXT TIME: So, about that film based around apes in the lab causing a disaster… no, not that one, the comedy

About James Ryan 118 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…