Jabberwocky was a very important film in Terry Gilliam’s career, because it was first film as a director outside of Monty Python. He had been interested in directing films well before he ever met John Cleese and ended up doing animation. His love of cinema grew during his time in New York while working on Help! magazine with the city’s cinemas, which were showing imported European and Japanese films. He fell in love with the work of Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini and Luis Buñuel in particular. He was also a fan of some American films of the time, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Marlon Brando’s only film as a director One-Eyed Jacks, and of course the work of Stanley Kubrick.
Gilliam also had a lifelong love for the work of Lewis Carroll, but was never interested in the “nerdy” mathematical stuff he had in his work. He loved the surreal worlds Carroll created in the reader’s mind and the nonsense wordplay the author was a master of. Jabberwocky is inspired by a nonsense poem of Lewis Carroll’s, which is found in his Alice sequel, Through the Looking Glass (the darker of the two Alice books.)
Gilliam wasn’t the first surrealist filmmaker to adapt the poem, Jan Švankmajer had made his classic short film six years previously. Gilliam is a fan of Švankmajer’s, but I’m not sure he was aware of the short at the time—he has admitted that he came slightly late to the Czech director’s work, and has said that the first film of his he saw was Alice, which is Švankmajer’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. It’s still the best and most faithful adaptation of Carroll’s book. Gilliam did his own Alice film with his little seen and underappreciated masterpiece Tideland, which is based on the book of the same name by Mitch Cullin. Like the film, the novel references Carroll’s book constantly and plays around with the tropes of Carroll’s creation.
Jabberwocky the film is largely an original story about an everyman, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), a country bumpkin who is in love with Griselda Fishfinger. Griselda is an obese woman who seems straight out of a Fellini film. His father dies and he needs to find work so he can marry the woman he loves, but the town is under threat from a mysterious monster. The crazy bureaucracy of the kingdom is falling apart around them, and they are doing jousts to find out who is the best knight to fight the monster. Dennis, of course, ends of being the chosen one by pure accident.
Jabberwocky might be Gilliam’s worst film, even though his big-budget The Brothers Grimm gives it a run for its money. However, it’s a fascinating insight into arguably the greatest living filmmaker, and a lot of the themes that he would later revisit are on full display here. Critics who liked the film at the time saw parallels to the creeping ascent of Thatcherism in UK politics, Being pretty much an anarchist (although he has constantly rejected political labels), Gilliam had a dislike of her politics and policies, but it’s also equally critical of unions in the form of the Guild, which controls who can work and who can’t. One of the Guild’s victims has actually chopped his own foot off to be a more successful beggar!
Palin is perfectly cast in the simpleton everyman role: it’s a sort of proto-Sam Lowry in many regards, but his fate is less pessimistic. Most of the supporting roles are played by veteran British comic actors who Gilliam knew from being a fan and from working with them on TV, such as John Le Mesurier, Warren Mitchell and Max Wall as the king. John Cleese has admitted he based a great deal of the much-loved “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on Well’s routines.
Jabberwocky remains an incredibly enjoyable and really gorgeous looking film, even if at times the narrative is slightly aimless. Gilliam’s films are often criticised for being narratively all over the place, but usually they aren’t in the slightest. Jabberwocky is the possible exception. It’s beautifully photographed by Terry Bedford, who cut his teeth working on Ridley Scott’s commercials throughout the ’70s, Bedford ended up being a director, but never shot another feature in his life. It’s of course very funny, and there are plenty of great blood spurts—Gilliam is undervalued as a master of the cinematic blood spurt, it’s something seen at the beginning of many of his films.
Criterion, which has released many of Gilliam’s films over the years, has done an exceptional job here. The transfer is a 4K restoration, which Gilliam approved—it’s a shame Brazil didn’t get the same treatment, but there is still time! The major new feature is a 40-minute documentary with interviews with Gilliam, Palin, producer Sandy Lieberson and Griselda herself, Annette Badland, and it’s well worth watching, with lots of funny stories about the making of the film. The old commentary by Palin and Gilliam is included. Bedford talks about his work with Gilliam on this and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in an archival audio interview, a new video interview with Valerie Charlton (who designed the Jabberwock), and a gallery of Gilliam’s great sketches and storyboards are also included. The trailer and a booklet with an essay by Scott Tobias round off this excellent package.