The Magic Christian at 50+

18 April 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran R Buckhorn realises that HTBS has neglected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a 1960s ‘rowing’ film. However, by doing so, HTBS Types and others can now take 90 minutes of their Coronavirus self-isolation time to spend in front of the screen.

I’m almost a little ashamed to write that not only did HTBS miss to celebrate an important rowing film’s 50th anniversary once, but twice. The ‘rowing’ film I’m thinking of is The Magic Christian, released in the UK in December 1969 and in the USA in February 1970.

This film, referred to as a black comedy, is loosely based on Terry Southern’s novel with the same title, published in 1959. Both in the book and the film The Magic Christian refers to a luxury cruise ship.

Southern co-wrote the screenplay together with Joseph McGrath, who also directed the film. There are quite a few famous, or soon-to-be-famous, actors in this movie. Peter Sellers and the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr are in the lead roles: Sellers plays the stinking rich Sir Guy Grand, who picks up the homeless grown-up orphan Youngman, played by Starr, in a park and adopts him on the spot.

Richard Attenborough, Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr in the Dark Blues Boathouse.

Among other actors in the film are two up-and-coming (Monty) Pythons John Cleese (Sotheby’s auction house director) and Graham Chapman (Oxford oarsman). Christopher Lee is a vampire, Richard Attenborough is the Oxford rowing coach, ‘Spike’ Milligan is a traffic warden (parking meter attendant in American-English), Wilfrid Hyde-White is The Magic Christian’s drunken captain and Raquel Welch is the Priestess of the Whip, to only mention a few of the well-known actors. A memorable non-rowing scene is Yul Brynner, as the cabaret singer, performing “Mad about the Boy” in drag to Roman Polanski, who is having a cocktail at the bar (two scenes at 1:18:27-1:18:57 and 1:19:29-1:21:19).

The Wikipedia page about the film calls it a ‘heavy-handed satire on capitalism, greed and human vanities.’ The film is stabbing holes in many of the British upper-class traditions and events.

I will not even try to re-tell the plot. The article about the film on Wikipedia is trying it here. Or why don’t you spend slightly more than 90 minutes to watch the whole movie on YouTube, where a high-quality version was uploaded in September 2018 (see below).

‘Old Blues’ following the Boat Race. From l.t.r: John Le Mesurier, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers.

But how about the rowing in the film? It’s the Boat Race, of course. There is almost a minute of Oxford rowing (at 0:49:00-0:49:58) and then Boat Race-related scenes (at 1:02:08-1:06:50). In this second ‘rowing’ part are two authentic Boat Race characters. John Snagge is playing a TV commentator – or just himself. Snagge, who was a BBC commentator at the Boat Race between 1931 and 1980, wears his faded Leander cap, while the race umpire is played by Oxford’s Jumbo Edwards. Both Snagge and Edwards have several close-up scenes during the almost six minutes the rowing is on. I’m sure that devoted Boat Race historians can spot other real-life Oxbridge people in the film.

Welch and Starr taking a break.

At the end of the film (1:23:00-1:23:36), when Sir Guy and Youngman are aboard The Magic Christian, panic-stricken passengers are trying to abandon the ship, and a small group of them run into what they think is the vessel’s machine room. What they come into is a room with a hundred chained, semi-naked slave girls rowing the vessels. They are commanded by the Priestess of the Whip/Raquel Welch. Some viewers probably think that Welch’s 36-second scene is the most memorable in the whole film.

Well, without further ado, here is The Magic Christian. Oh, and yes, happy belated 50th birthday!

2 comments

  1. You guys should also do “half a sixpence” with Tommy Steele !!! Doesn’t “he” stroke an VIII in that ???

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