Jabberwocky (1977)

Terry Gilliam’s first film as sole director, lovingly restored by the BFI and Criterion, is an energetic and amusing yarn with a strong visual style. Even the mud looks beautiful.

This London Film Festival screening, the premiere of its restoration, was followed by a Q&A with Gilliam and actors Michael Palin and Annette Badland. Their joyful enthusiasm recounting their memories of the shoot was infectious.

Set in the Middle Ages, Palin plays Dennis Cooper, our hapless hero. Not the brightest, Dennis rejects his father’s barrel-making craft to seek a life in Business. Leaving his tranquil country home, Dennis travels to the big city, where he finds to his surprise that his limited skills are not in demand.

In the meantime, a terrible murderous monster is terrorising the land: the Jabberwock. The king is implored to select a knight to slay the beast, offering his romantic daughter’s hand in marriage and half his kingdom as a reward.

Inevitably, our accidental hero gets implicated and ends up pursuing the mighty monster.

Jabberwocky is a collection of incidents and sketches, collected around a loose overall narrative, much like the Python films ‘Life of Brian’ and ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (the latter co-directed by Gilliam).  It’s funny, not as hilarious as the Python films, but it has a winning energy and its humour still works forty years later.  Michael Palin was pleased to get the role of the sort-of-hero, but less enamoured to discover that he would spend most of the time being beaten up, peed on and covered in mud.  He joked that every morning he’d get up early, go into make-up where they would carefully rub mud into his hair and underneath his fingernails.

And the mud prevails.  There’s a delicious grotesque quality about this film.  Gilliam was keen that the medieval setting felt authentic.  Although ostensibly based on Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name, Jabberwocky was more inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, severed limbs, bare arses and all.

Jabberwocky Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)
Jabberwocky Bruegel
Pieter Breugel the Elder: Peasants (detail)

Behind the manic narrative, Gilliam was keen to make a political comment.  Like Brazil, it features a non-hero who is obsessed with bureaucracy and (in this case) stocktaking, compelled against his will to be brave and bold, to fight the system.  It’s about the detachment of the merchant class and the rulers / monarchy from everyday life.  It looks back to the Holy Grail, and forward to Gilliam’s better known films.

There are some fun cameos, not least fellow Python Terry Jones who plays a poacher who comes to a grizzly fate by the monster in the very first scene.  It must have been a nice joke on the unsuspecting audience to introduce Jones and kill him off so swiftly.  Interestingly, Jones’s ridiculous large-brimmed cap reappears in Gilliam’s classic ‘Brazil’, on the head of Central Services repairman Bob Hoskins.  Gilliam himself makes a brief appearance, and there are recurring roles for a young John Bird and Neil Innes (Bonzo and often cited as the seventh Python) as the king’s heralds.

Jabberwocky (2)
Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Annette Badland at the UK premiere of the Jabberwocky restoration, 5th October 2017

The new restoration is a preview of The Criterion Collection’s imminent blu-ray and it looks great.  Typical of a film from the seventies it’s still grainy in places.  The colours are deliberately a little muted; this is a stylistic choice by Terry Gilliam who was very involved in the restoration, spending many hours with the BFI team.  Like for many of his films, there are several variant cuts; this is his preferred version.  The BFI have put a lot of effort into this, sourcing several different prints as well as the original negative and spent as much time on the soundtrack as the visuals.

Jabberwocky (3)
Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Annette Badland at the UK premiere of the Jabberwocky restoration, 5th October 2017

Jabberwocky is a fun film.  Minor compared to Brazil, Time Bandits, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, but a pleasure to revisit.

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