Gilliam learned not to be fascistic in the director’s chair on Jabberwocky.
After the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail Terry Gilliam’s first directing job wasn’t going to be Jabberwocky. Producer Sandy Lieberson had hired Gilliam to direct and animate a project called World War Three and All That, a hybrid mockumentary made up of animated sequences, stock footage from World War II and Beatles songs. The project was lagging due to Gilliam’s lack of enthusiasm. When asked what he really wanted to do by the producer, Gilliam pitched Jabberwocky.
Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky,” which lasts all of seven stanzas, would seem an impenetrable source for a film adaptation. But according to Gilliam, “right from the first lines…I could see a world already – with characters, textures, shapes and colors. It’s all there in the words and it came out as a medieval world…”
The world Gilliam and cowriter Charles Alverson created revolves around Dennis Cooper, his last name coinciding with the family business of building casks and barrels. Dennis is a naïve young lad played by Gilliam’s fellow Python, Michael Palin. He is the sort of character that frequently draws the ire of the members of Monty Python in their sketches and films by wanting very little out of life. He has a simple dream – “he wants to have a little business and marry the fat girl down the road who treats him like shit” – and therefore must be punished for his lack of motivation and imagination. Dennis pioneers the traits of future Gilliam protagonist, Sam Lowry, and antagonist, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, both played by Jonathan Pryce in Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen respectively.
Dennis wants to be an accountant. He’s more concerned with taking inventory than learning the craft of the cooper from his father (Paul Curran). Disgusted and on his deathbed, the senior Cooper disowns Dennis, forcing him to head to the city to forge his own path. Before leaving, he bids adieu to his corpulent paramour, Griselda (Annette Badland) who has no concern whether Dennis lives or becomes a victim of the beast that stalks the forest outside the city and its castle.
The kingdom is ruled by King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) and his Lord Chamberlain (John LeMesurier). Together they plan to rid their land of the horrible monster, but forces conspire against them, as locals don’t mind the monster at all—fear is good for commerce has boosted church attendance. After King Bruno and the Lord Chamberlain finally choose a champion to confront the beast, merchants and the clergy hire the black knight to kill him.
You can see hints of Gilliam’s later work here, and the most frustrating characteristic of Jabberwocky is the glimpse of the more interesting director to come. Here, terror is profitable, and conspirators work to keep it that way, while in Brazil such anxiety is good for the government tasked to stop it. Due to his career as an artist and animator, Gilliam acts as his own designer, compulsively sketching the film unfolding in his head. A knight atop his stead, backlit and shrouded in mist, in 1977 foreshadows the ominous Red Knight of The Fisher King in 1991. Now free of the constraints of Monty Python and the group’s factions and politics, Jabberwocky feels like an artist finding his themes, motifs and voice. In interviews Gilliam will list the advantages of being free of his former colleagues, yet he was apparently not ready to truly release himself.
In 1977, Monty Python was not the institution it is today, but it had a considerable worldwide following. Michael Palin is a fine actor and by all accounts the easiest of the Pythons to work with, and for his first solo effort, Gilliam must have found comfort in knowing his lead, but the association makes it seem like a Monty Python movie, and following the success of an absurdist medieval period piece with yet another one does little to distinguish Gilliam from his fellow troupe members.
Furthermore, the film is highly uneven. Never quite funny and never quite dramatic, it is a film in love with its own cleverness, and its lack of an overarching tone makes it at times excruciating. Gilliam was clearly fascinated by the quotidian aspects of medieval life, filling his frames with as much mud, feces and filth as he could, using defecation and urination as plot points that drive Dennis’ journey. While the formula goes that an ordinary man is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and reacts extraordinarily, Dennis remains ordinary throughout. He achieves through accident, which is the driving force of the film and leads to Dennis’ punishment. He wanted one fairy tale – the little business, the wife. – but fortune favored the unprepared and he won the last thing he wanted – the hand of the princess and half the kingdom.
Jabberwocky was not well received. In what seems like the most self-defeating and Gilliamesque of moves, the director wrote a letter to the New York film critics association to explain that he was not offering them a Monty Python film but an homage to 16th century artists Breughel and Bosch. This was 1977, the heyday of film criticism, and there is nothing a film critic then or now wants to endure more than being told how to watch a film by its creator. The reviews came under headlines in the vein of “Gilliam the Questionable” and the movie was sunk. However, like the punch line to a stale joke, Gilliam insisted that Jabberwocky played better in places like Poland where audiences hadn’t heard of Monty Python.
Still, the film is beautifully crafted, and Gilliam speaks lovingly of the guerilla aspects of making a low budget movie look visually stunning. He shot mostly on the same set as Oliver, bought sets from a German production of The Marriage of Figaro for a pittance and got into a row with Blake Edwards’ staff when they destroyed an elaborate set Gilliam coveted rather than let him use it. Gilliam learned not to be fascistic in the director’s chair on Jabberwocky, listening to the best ideas no matter who they came from. His first solo film may have been unsuccessful, but the director learned a lesson in collaboration that would inform the run of classics in his near future.