And now, the thrilling conclusion:
Trying to find the filming location for the final crucifixion scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the detail that drove me the craziest while my friend Ryan and I were planning our Ultimate Nerd Road Trip through Tunisia.
No one on the internet, anywhere, had any tips on where to find it. But somewhere, in some old interview, Michael Palin mentioned El Haddej, a tiny village within the town of Matmata.
Ryan and I had been drawn to Matmata to stay at the Hotel Sidi Driss, otherwise known as Luke Skywalker’s house (but that’s another blog for another time). When we arrived at the hotel, the manager asked us if we’d like a tour of the local area and offered us a guide named Ahmed. Instead of opting for the tour, I pulled up the crucifixion screenshot on my phone and asked the manager if he recognized the location. It was a long shot, but he actually said there were some Australians in town recently on the same mission, and Ahmed had helped them find the spot!
Believe it or not, this wasn’t even the luckiest break of the evening…
We hopped in our car with Ahmed and he directed us to a dirt trail off the main road that ran through El Haddej. After a few yards we had to proceed on foot, and Ahmed guided us along a twisting, unmarked path.
Matmata is known for its traditional “troglodyte” dwellings, which are basically pits dug into the earth, with rooms carved into the pit’s walls that allow the residents to escape the desert heat. We did our best not to fall into anyone’s living room, and dodged other non-specific holes in the ground as well.
Slowly we started to spot mountains that we recognized from the movie. We could sense that we were getting close. And then a man and his wife came out of one of the dwellings to take their herd of goats out for an evening walk…
The wife continued on with the goats, but the man approached Ahmed and asked what we were up to. Ahmed explained, and the man’s face lit up.
Forty years earlier, HE HAD WORKED AS A PA ON THE SET OF LIFE OF BRIAN.
We had just met our new best friend. I can’t even begin to calculate how impossible the odds are that we would be in the middle of nowhere looking for such a specific thing, not even totally sure that we’d be able to find it, and running into a guy who just happened to be taking his goats out for a walk at that exact moment who, forty years earlier, just happened to have been part of the thing we were looking for.
He didn’t speak English, so Ahmed translated as the man pointed out a mosque peeking over the hill near where the crucifixes were set up. You can see it in the movie if you look closely enough. He told us that the filmmakers painted it brown in order to camouflage it against the surrounding hills, and then repainted it white after filming was completed. He also told us that the filmmakers used the mosque’s speakers to call out instructions to the cast and crew during setup and filming.
As we walked over to the spot where the crosses would’ve stood, he pointed to some white rocks buried in the ground. He explained that the rocks marked the locations of the holes that had been dug for the crosses. They were filled in after shooting. He even pointed to one and confidently stated that it was the very first cross-hole they dug.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been as moved by a filled-in hole as I was at that moment. Again, I marveled at our insane luck. Even if other Python fans have tracked down this location, we may have been the first to become aware of the markers where the original crosses stood. To have such a private connection with such a classic piece of comedy history was something we never could’ve expected.
It’s the essence of why I love to travel.
Our goatherding guide posed for an “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” photo with me and Ahmed, and then enthusiastically continued his tour of the area while showering us with other tales from the set. He was paid 25 dinars per day to help build sets; I’ve tried to figure out the math, it seems like it was roughly equivalent to $50. Not bad for the time—and according to our new best friend it was much higher than what other jobs were paying in the area. (He joked that his money lasted longer back then since it was before he had a wife and kids to spend it on.)
He told us three location scouts (two men, one woman) came out to scope the area while staying at the Sidi Driss, and he helped show them around. Soon after their visit, a huge crew came to town with trucks and tents and “big strong Germans with ponytails.” For a month they constructed not only the crucifix set and the harnesses used to attach actors to them, but also scaffolding and rigs for the cameras.
We asked if he could point us to the spot where the “juniper bushes” scene was filmed, having previously deduced that it must have been shot in the same area. He showed us around to a few other spots where he remembered them shooting, but he was saying something about how the desert landscape had shifted over the years, and we were never quite able to pinpoint it. Still, we found ourselves following him through tunnels in the earth that were supposedly used for filming…or for olive presses…it’s possible some things got lost in translation.
We would’ve happily spent several hours with this guy, nerding out over previously unknown Python trivia, and I get the sense he would’ve been more than happy to oblige us. But the sun had set, so we bid him farewell and tried to hand him a tip for his time. He refused with a smile and said he just enjoyed helping us.
I don’t know what a goatherd makes in Tunisia. But this is a man who literally lives in a hole in the ground in the middle of a desert. And he turned down one of the most well-earned tips I’ve ever offered. Because, and I can’t say this enough: Tunisian people are the nicest and most generous people in the world.
For any Life of Brian fans who want to find the same spot for themselves, the GPS coordinates are N 33.5661, E 10.0011.
If you run into our goatherd friend out there, tell him we’ll never forget him.