Making Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Python team had a great idea: seeing as none of them had ever directed a film before, why not split the job of direction between the two members who wanted to do it, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam? Though up to that point Jones had primarily written with Michael Palin and Gilliam had worked alone, it seemed that the Terrys had complimentary skill-sets; Jones could focus on narrative and character, while Gilliam took care of visuals. It didn’t work. By all accounts, Holy Grail was a difficult shoot, as the perfectionist Gilliam repeatedly clashed with Jones’s pragmatism. There was a happy ending - the film was brilliant - but everyone agreed that the experiment should not be repeated. When the Pythons made their next film, The Life of Brian in 1979, Jones directed alone, and Gilliam became production designer.
In between, Gilliam made his debut as solo director with Jabberwocky, a project of his own devising away from the Python brand. Loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem about the killing of a monster, it allowed him to return to the medieval setting from Holy Grail and fully impose his own vision for the period. Still, he found space for two Pythons in the cast. Michael Palin got the lead as Dennis, an apprentice cooper and aspiring businessman who stumbles into the monster-slaying quest. Terry Jones, on the other hand, was given the role of a poacher who is gorily slaughtered before the opening credits.
Though by this point they were back on good terms, it’s hard to see Jones’s demise as anything other than a statement of intent: that this was to be Gilliam’s film alone. It is remarkable how fully his signature style was developed in this early low-budget feature (especially given his famous struggles to complete far more expensive projects in later years). With only £500,000 to spend, Gilliam managed to present a dense, dirty and detailed past on a surprisingly epic scale, using built and existing sets swathed in smoke. His usual mix of despairing satire and chaotic slapstick is also much in evidence, as Palin’s commerce-minded protagonist blithely suffers one indignity after another.
In the special features, Gilliam announces that Jabberwocky was also his chance to step away from the sketch format and attempt a longer narrative, but what is here is pretty thin. Without much help from Carroll’s short poem, particularly in its middle section the film is built from a series of comic sequences in which Dennis is often only a minor player. Many of the supporting cast are familiar TV faces including Warren Mitchell, John Le Mesurier, John Bird, Rodney Bewes, Harry H. Corbett and Bernard Bresslaw. Each gets their turn to shine, with mixed results. Corbett and Bresslaw have an adultery sub-plot straight out of ‘70s sitcom. Le Mesurier probably comes out best, as a slimy assistant and companion to the king, Bruno the Questionable (who is entertainingly and energetically played by vaudevillian Max Wall). Some sequences also suffer from Gilliam’s instinct to cram as much as possible into every frame. It’s rare that dialogue is trusted to carry a scene without some visual joke or gruesome unpleasantness offering background distraction.
But with so much going on, there are more hits than misses, and the general impression is of a grimy, violent, macabre cartoon. The final confrontations in a quarry festooned with dead horses provide a satisfying climax and the monster, when it appears, is great: huge and festering and functional enough to shoot in bright sunshine. Jabberwocky is a work of considerable ingenuity and promise. Gilliam would go on to bigger, better, and even more chaotic things, but this was an effective and entertaining early demonstration of his talent.
The task of encoding a Gilliam film is not for the faint hearted. Between the dark and the detail and the endless smoke, there’s plenty that could go wrong, so it’s great to report that Criterion have got Jabberwocky absolutely right. From dingy interiors to sun-lit glades, the image is uniformly clear and sharp. The sound is also impressive, from the grunts and clashes of the jousting tournament to the blast of Night on Bald Mountain during the final fight.
Once again, Criterion have assembled a wealth of extras, possibly more than the film really needs. There’s an excellent commentary track from Gilliam and Palin from the 2001 Columbia DVD. The ever-amiable Palin serves as a sort of interviewer for Gilliam, and both honestly assess the film’s strengths and failings while recounting anecdotes from the shoot. The pair reappear in a new 50 minute documentary on the film, along with producer Sandy and lead actress Annette Badland. Here the tone is more congratulatory and there’s some repetition from the commentary. The best of the new features is a 15 minute interview with Valerie Charlton, who designed the creature. She gives a very entertaining account of how the monster was created, her good working relationship with Gilliam, and her struggles with gender politics in the 1970s effects industry. An audio interview with cinematographer Terry Bedford from 1998 is also worth a listen, although the sound quality isn’t great. The package is rounded out with a 7 minute comparison between some of Gilliam’s sketches and their implementation in the final film, an alternative set of opening titles (they were altered for the American release), the original trailer, and a new short film of Palin and Badland reading the Jabberwocky poem.
Review by Jim Whalley