It was rather a rough start for Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial career. While 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam co-directed with Terry Jones (whose next film was 1979’s Life of Brian), became an iconic, seminal film of the decade, he would follow it up with the less well-revered Jabberwocky in 1977, a haphazard medieval comedy inspired by the famous Lewis Carroll poem, the adaptation co-written by fellow HELP! (the magazine which featured Gilliam and John Cleese) alum Charles Alverson in his only screenwriting effort. The Criterion Collection aims to revitalize the obscured early work by Gilliam, which was met with so-so critiques and wasn’t even available on DVD until a 2013 edition surfaced courtesy of Sony. Part of the difficulty in revisiting Gilliam’s sophomore effort is the level of comic idiosyncrasy we’ve come to expect from the director based on his unique filmography. At the time, the move was a distancing from the Monty Python troupe with which he’d been heavily associated, and what he delivered as a mostly straight-faced fairy tale filled with various hijinks which have been aped so many times since they now seem cliché.
Michael Palin stars as Dennis Cooper, of a family of coopers (makers of wooden barrels and other staved vessels) working as an apprentice. With his only goal in life to marry Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland), daughter of their equally poverty-stricken neighbors, he becomes motivated to make something of himself when his father uses his deathbed speech to demean his son. Unwittingly, Dennis becomes the heroic destroyer of the Jabberwock, a dreaded dragon-like creature which has been terrorizing the citizens of the kingdom lorded over by Bruno the Questionable (Max Wells).
What’s perhaps most marvelous about Jabberwocky is how undeniably troubling its depiction of the medieval period is. Gilliam eschews any sort of romanticizing, allowing Michael Palin’s daffy Dennis Cooper to stumble around tangentially (and with mounting frustration) before he becomes streamlined into the film’s dark, ironic approach on heroism. The tone feels like a strange mix of the droll reverence seen in Pasolini’s Life Trilogy mixed with the untoward violence and various body functions bluntly depicted in Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh+Blood (1985). Max Wall plays the decrepit ruler Bruno the Questionable, who vows to offer his daughter as the reward to whoever can slay the dreaded Jabberwock. When the willowy Deborah Fallender protests at the idea of marrying a non-royal, she’s soothingly told they’ll simply make the victor a Prince, which plays with the comic and classic tropes of Garrone’s Tale of Tales (2015) and Beowulf.
Those salivating for Gilliam to unveil the dreaded creature might be sorely disappointed, though it makes a grand entrance in the climax, looking like a dusty prototype from the creations of Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island (1961) and enabling the sort of impressive standoff witnessed in Fritz Lang’s classic Die Nibelungen (1924). Otherwise, the film is mostly an episodic collection of gaffs, featuring a series of serio-comic happenings which aren’t quite as funny or as strange as Gilliam’s masterworks, such as Monty Python or the insane Brazil (1985). Gender (the two prominent women include the dumb but beautiful princess and the greedy, grotesque Griselda Fishfinger, the peasant girl who has Dennis’ heart) and class are explored in superficially, (and haltingly) subversive strokes, but somehow always feels about as fluffy as Carroll’s funny gobbledygook which inspired it.
Criterion releases Jabberwocky with a new, director-approved 4K digital restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, presented in 1.85:1 with 5.1 Surround Sound. Picture and sound quality are superb, maintaining the integrity and gritty textures of Gilliam’s pronouncedly dire mise-en-scene. Gilliam also provides an audio commentary track with Michael Palin (recorded in 2001), while several other bonus features are included on the release. It is the fourth of Gilliam’s titles to be added to the collection following Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Fisher King (1991).
Jabberwocky – Good Nonsense:
Criterion produced this forty-minute documentary on the making of Jabberwocky in 2017, featuring interviews with Gilliam, producer Sandy Lieberson, and actors Michael Palin and Annette Badland.
Valerie Charlton – The Making of a Monster:
Special-effects artist Valerie Charlton discusses the creation of the Jabberwock in this fourteen-minute short program produced by Criterion in 2017.
DP Terry Bedford spoke with writer David Morgan in the twenty-two minutes of excerpts from this 1988 interview on his experiences shooting Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky.
The UK opening title sequence is included here (Gilliam had to trim Jabberwocky for its 1977 US release, but Gilliam’s preferred version of the film is the longer UK cut paired with the American opening title sequence).
This short program from 2001 presents Gilliam’s sketches and storyboards with the resulting scenes from Jabberwocky.
Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:
Michael Palin and Annette Badland provide a reading of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky.
A prologue to the brilliance of what was to come from Terry Gilliam, Jabberwocky is at its best an exciting experiment from the auteur in tone and form.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆