Looking back at Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky

Terry Gilliam turned his surreal talents to directing in his debut solo feature, Jabberwocky. Andrew takes a look back at a flawed yet entertaining black comedy…

Firstly, before you read further, I just want to mention this: if you have any plans of seeing Jabberwocky but have not seen it before, then stop reading this immediately. I know it goes without saying that these articles contain spoilers, but this film is one where there’s a significant chance of you not having seen it before. It’s not Spider-Man 3, which a great many people have seen it (whether they like it or not).

Jabberwocky is a film which is all the more impressive if you go into it without being spoilered, and it may lose its inability to surprise if you read the rest of this article. However, if you want a cross between Monty Python And The Holy Grail and Brazil, then this is definitely a film you should watch, but with as little prior knowledge as possible. Then you should head back to your computer, read this, and see if you agree with the following:

Terry Gilliam’s first solo feature, Jabberwocky, is a PG-rated fantasy that features horse carcasses, full frontal female nudity, men being crushed to death by Bernard Bresslaw having sex on a bed, and a gleefully mucky depiction of Medieval life. There’s a clear link from Spike Milligan to Monty Python, to Roald Dahl, to Jabberwocky, through to contemporary writers like Andy Stanton and his Mr Gum books.

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It’s sordid, it’s silly, and it’s very, very entertaining. There aren’t many films being made that have such a visceral sense of humour these days, even if you include Terry Gilliam’s later works. There are some very dark chuckles to be had from the totally grim fates of many of the characters, and the overwhelming abundance of mud, death and bleakness.

What’s obvious from the start is that Gilliam is fond of filling his screen with busy backgrounds. People grub about on all fours in the mud, peasants live in mud huts and cheerfully shit out of the window, the king’s courtyard is full of bustle and hierarchies and mud. There’s a pervading sense of silliness, creeping in from the sensibilities of Monty Python, and a sense of a real, lived in world that twists the trappings of a fairytale into a grimmer, depressing shape. That’s where Gilliam would head with his later movies, finding ways to integrate the comedy scenes with the main narrative more successfully than in his debut feature.

It’s not that scenes such as the Hide and Seek Tournament aren’t funny, it’s just that they feel like leftovers from another film. The central idea behind Jabberwocky is that Dennis (Michael Palin) just wants to marry the girl next door, but ends up instead going on a quest to slay a mythical beast and marry the princess. In the process he meets endless British character actors.

Dennis is a quintessential Palin patsy. He’s basically nice, but a bit dull and witless, and easily walked over. He loves Griselda (Annette Badland), who despises him. He in turn cherishes a potato she throws out of a window. He wanders through life seeking only to marry her and have a quiet, humdrum life in his village, but is forced to leave. The son of a cooper, his dying father gleefully disowns him despite his gift for administration, so he heads for the city.

In the city, merchant guilds profit handsomely from fear of the titular monster, and the king and his advisers are parts of an atrophying bureaucracy epitomised by dusty, echoing corridors and inept old men – a theme more fully developed in Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil. From this starting point, rather than going down the George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie route of backstabbing politics and Hobbesian philosophies, the fantasy collides with a pitch black comedy of misunderstandings, farce, and slapstick.

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There’s a demented group of fanatics, led by Graham Crowden (and including Kenneth Colley, AKA Jesus in The Life Of Brian), flagellating and catapulting themselves into walls. The great cooper Wat Dabney mutilates himself to earn money begging as the guilds have excluded him from trading. Harry H Corbett as the squire has an affair with innkeeper Bernard Bresslaw’s wife, only to be caught in the act and forced to hide under the bed, which collapses when the innkeeper and his wife have make-up sex, crushing him in the process. And the ever-reliable John LeMesurier and an ancient-looking Max Wall playing aide Passelewe and King Bruno the Questionable.

You may have noticed, by now, the list of recognisable British comedy actors appearing in this film. I’ve barely scratched the surface. Jabberwocky is a minefield of “Oh, that’s him. You know. Him. He’s in that thing, you know, with the hats. Him!” moments.

Dennis’ problem is that he’s either loathed or seen as an easy target, so people take advantage of him. As he veers from one batch of grotesques to the next, his nice-but-dim qualities lead him astray, until the point where he ends up taking the Squire’s place and going on a quest to kill the Jabberwocky. The merchants and Church, meanwhile, hire the Black Knight to stop the king’s champion from doing so, as both have benefited from the creature’s presence.

Amid the chaotic adventure, there’s an ongoing subtext concerning population control via fear and economic deprivation, also themes developed further in Brazil. Gilliam also asserted his intention to make films with less than happy endings, as Dennis’ eventual fate is to marry the princess whom he has no real affection towards, having defeated the Jabberwocky through nothing more than luck, and a little bit of cowardice.

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As a reaction against saccharine interpretations of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Jabberwocky successfully inverts the happily ever after trope, turning the standard ending of a Disney film (itself a twisting of the usually darker Grimms’ Fairy Tale endings) into a wholly miserable fate. It begs the question: what if, at the end of Aladdin, Jasmine had some children and they’d slowly drifted apart, growing to hate each other? Hardly surprising, really, since Aladdin always struck me as a bit of a cocky bastard. As soon as Jasmine was pregnant, I expect he was on the lookout for some fresh crevices to plough. Gay, straight or bi, Aladdin’s probably up for it. And the Sultan likes to watch.

Anyway, you get the point. It’s a fantasy story that reacts against storytelling conventions. It’s not the best of Gilliam’s films, but for a debut feature, it’s well above average; full of the ideas, themes and styles that he would later develop more fully. For the budget it was made on, the sheer volume of bustle on the screen is especially impressive, as is the cast.

Perhaps it lacks the confidence to disassociate itself more fully from Python in terms of tone, as Gilliam would manage with Time Bandits (casting John Cleese and Michael Palin notwithstanding), but this makes the film unique in the director’s output. It’s a steppingstone on to greater things, while still being worth watching on its own merits.