By 1977, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had completed its outlandishly successful run on the BBC and the revolutionary comedy troupe had stunned and delighted audiences with their first true feature film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)—1971’s And Now for Something Completely Different simply reshot sketches from the first two seasons of their television program. The members of Monty Python were branching out—more or less—on their own. Most of the team were working in television in one capacity or another. Graham Chapman was working on a television pilot and soon films; John Cleese appeared in his celebrated Fawlty Towers; Eric Idle attempted to catch lightening in a bottle for a second time with his sketch show Rutland Weekend Television; Michael Palin and Terry Joes were writing Ripping Yarns. Terry Gilliam, the American Python, decided to build on the experience he had gained as co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and soon released his first solo directorial effort, Jabberwocky (1977).
It is perhaps a characteristic move on Gilliam’s part that his first film should derive its subject from a nonsense poem that Lewis Carroll employed for the opening of his second Alice book: Alice Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). That book finds Alice in an inverted world, with everything turned from back to front, the world of Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty, a world that literalizes our social maneuvering by reducing it to the awkward movements of the chess board. Even within that topsy-turvy world, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a standout, a bizarre tour-de-force of wit, oddity, and imagination. Its neologisms are so memorable that certain among them (e.g., “galumphing” and “chortle”) have been adopted by the English language while others have left an indelible imprint on the minds of its readers (how often have we lovingly but hopelessly attempted to imagine those mome raths outgrabing?). When Alice concludes her initial reading of the poem, she declares: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.” With no actual narrative beyond this to hinder the creative impulse and with elusive but penetrating images in abundance—rife, one might say, with the imaginative power of the unimaginable—this should have been the perfect vehicle for the directorial spirit that would later produce such beguilingly bewildering cinematic feats as Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985). Sadly, it comes up short while still managing (especially for devotees of Gilliam’s later films) to adumbrate the penetrating élan and engaging wit that would come to inform this director’s finest work.
The problem with this film is that it takes the enticingly evocative, nearly blank canvas—among the most tantalizing instances of “negative space” to appear in English literature—and fills that canvas with a parody of medieval banalities that make the film a grimier but far less amusing companion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No wonder promoters of the film’s US release mis-marketed it as Monty Python’s Jabberwocky, inspiring Gilliam’s understandable indignation. If this film was meant to be Gilliam’s break with Python, it fails utterly by carrying along so much Pythonian baggage—particularly since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of the most quotable films of all time among fanatics of British comedy, was not even two years in the past upon Jabberwocky‘s release.
Jabberwocky attempts a similar level of lunacy (the king and princess become increasingly covered in blood during an ill-advised jousting match), a similarly ironic stance toward characters that stick to type beyond the point of absurdity (a page is so obsessed with his own eloquence that his introductions prevent the king from ever speaking and thus lead to the page’s demise), and a similar revelry in the distance between medieval mores and our own (most characters urinate and defecate outdoors, often on other characters). There are several vignettes that strike one as sketches that have infiltrated the film—a beggar finds that he makes more money after cutting off one foot, so he soon removes the other; a licentious man seduces a bawdy housewife only to be crushed beneath her bed by her returning husband. All-in-all the film can’t seem to escape Gilliam’s Pythonian past but neither can it manage to build on that past in a way that is all that amusing or engaging.
Gilliam interprets the non-narrative of Carroll’s poem as a fairly trite misadventure of a bumbling nobody who accidentally backs himself into glorious victory against a seemingly undefeatable foe. Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin) apprentices as a cooper to his father. While his father considers himself a fine craftsman, Dennis is more interested by the business side of things—stock taking, efficiency, making a good deal. Dennis is reviled by nearly everyone in his life—particularly the woman he adores, the preposterously grotesque Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland), who ignores Dennis’s presence altogether and allows her young brother to piss all over him while her mother (inadvertently?) douses him with garbage. On his deathbed, Dennis’s father disowns him and so Dennis heads off to the city to make his fortune. Within the city walls, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall)—the name itself demonstrates the on-the-nose attempt at humor that suffuses the film—decides to find a champion to kill the monstrous Jabberwocky that is terrorizing the city and its environs. His method for doing so is a jousting tournament, which, because he makes it a series of jousts to the death rather than a mere test of mettle with blunted swords, decimates the knights in his realm. Meanwhile, the merchants and the bishop of the town, realizing that the monster is good for business and piety, attempt to thwart its destruction. In to this melee, our anti-hero Dennis emerges—unwittingly and without valor—a hero. It’s everything a young nobody could possibly hope to attain, only Dennis wants none of it.
This standard misadventure plot hardly requires the peculiar and bewildering “Jabberwocky” as inspiration. While Gilliam’s visual brilliance is clearly emerging within this film (the ending scenes with the monster itself are visually engaging, even if the plot was settled within the film’s opening scenes), I can’t help but feel that this film (unlike, say, Jan Svankmajer’s inspired 1971 short film of the same name that runs in absurdist tandem to the poem rather than attempting to interpret it), fails to engage its ostensible subject. Instead, it substitutes for its strange urgency a tired satire that is far more desiccated than the poor beast that appears at its conclusion. Granted, really coming to grips with Carroll is a manxsome challenge; it forces us to gyre and gimble with its tortured illogic and one can hardly be frumious with someone who attempts the challenge and fails. But as we contemplate the film, lost in uffish thought, we have to ask of it, “And hast though slain the Jabberwock?” The answer would come back, “no”, that frabjous day was simply not yet within Gilliam’s grasp.
Criterion Collection presents Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial debut, Jabberwocky, in a restoration approved by Gilliam himself, replete with the extras that it lavishes on all of its releases. These include a 2001 commentary track with Gilliam and Palin; a new documentary on the making of the film; a new interview with Valerie Charlton, who designed the creature; and a 1998 interview with the cinematographer Terry Bedford. The Criterion Collection bills itself as presenting a “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films.” In this case, one can’t help but feel that they are attempting to manufacture a classic out of a film that predates the development of its director’s mature voice.