2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Ingmar Bergman’s classic existential drama The Seventh Seal. Below, Terry Gilliam recalls the first time he saw the film and the effect it had on his career.

When and where did you first see The Seventh Seal?

“It must have been in late 1958, in LA. There were several art houses showing European films then. I had just started college and my taste in movies was rapidly expanding from Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin films. Reading subtitles proved a way to speed the pace of slower, brooding films.”

What impact did it make?

“It blew me away! Here was a film that dealt with the problems of death and the search for belief in something worth believing in - especially since God was proving elusive and humourless to a college student on a Presbyterian scholarship.

Why do you think it was so successful when it was released?

“I'm curious just how successful the film was in financial terms of actual numbers of viewers. I do know that our generation was searching for new ideas and keen on discovering the world outside of provincial America. We were like young plant shoots in need of nutrients. Foreign films were fresh manure to us. The Seventh Seal seemed alive with so many new shades of humanity and philosophical ponderings. It was intelligent. Simple. Pure. Obviously, the cinema-going public then was interested in more complex ideas than Spiderman 3,4,5 has on offer today.”

Did it influence your filmmaking career?

“Very much. Watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky: I am a victim of The Seventh Seal. It is my seminal film. Along with Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr, Bergman's ideas and imagery bounce around my brain continually. Unfortunately, I don't have the simplicity or wisdom of Bergman. The animations in Holy Grail are derived from images in illuminated medieval manuscripts - the same sources that Bergman used for his live-action images. Flagellants, knights, monks keep popping up in different forms in my films. So many of my characters are obsessed with death or trying to understand the lack of meaning of life.”

What is the film’s lasting legacy?

“I hope its lasting legacy is long. It shows us that films dealing with serious ideas can still reach audiences. If it keeps inspiring young filmmakers perhaps it will encourage them to try to make meaningful films as be expect intelligence from the audience. Then again, it might just be to remind us of a time when cinema was as important as literature.”

Do you think that the way the film has been parodied over the years, infilms such as Woody Allen’s Love and Death and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, has had a negative impact on the film's reputation?

“Probably more people have seen Seventh Seal parodies than the actual film. Nevertheless those parodies keep the film alive and perhaps occasionally some curious cat bothers to rent a DVD of the film and discovers the real experience. I did it the other day and was once more blown away - after probably more than 30 years since last I saw it. I was amazed at how much I had forgotten.”

INGMAR BERGMAN 1918 - 2007

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007



"It was a dangerous and delicate move, which could have failed," said Ingmar Bergman of his decision to depict Death incarnate in The Seventh Seal. To his relief, "nobody protested" when actor Bengt Ekerot appeared on a rocky beach, his face painted white, to be challenged to a game of chess by the knight (Max von Sydow) whose life he has come to take. "That," Bergman recalled in Images: My Life in Film, "made me feel triumphant and joyous."

Since then, the film's motifs, the chess game and the black-cowled Grim Reaper in particular, have been parodied relentlessly - albeit usually affectionately - in films ranging from Woody Allen's Love and Death to Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Monty Python's Meaning of Life and The Last Action Hero, as well as on TV by the likes of French and Saunders.

Settling down to watch the film for its 50th anniversary release, I wondered whether it was possible to take it seriously today.

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