To date Terry Gilliam’s directorial career comprises of two stages: 1977-1988 and 1988-the present. The first stage, which encompasses the more idiosyncratic works sees a gradual development in ambition; Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s co-director credit gives way to Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and Brazil, each having a bigger budget than the last and grander ideas. The apotheosis was reached with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a spectacular commercial failure which saw Gilliam over-step himself and resulted in the “exile” of the second stage.
The later works involved studio bosses only allowing Gilliam to work from scripts by other hands (The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys) or, in the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, inherited from another enfant terrible director (Alex Cox, who had made his own Munchausen in the form of 1987’s Walker). Whilst these works are undoubtedly pleasurable experiences, they remain a few steps away from the distinctive efforts of the seventies and eighties. Since Fear and Loathing…, Gilliam has made the effort to return to this territory, but the likes of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote exist only in incomplete form or not at all. As such, the ability to revisit the earlier, unashamedly “Gilliam” films on DVD is a welcome prospect, Jabberwocky especially so owing to its early placing in the director’s filmography, and therefore untouched by studio hands.
Coming at such an early juncture in Gilliam’s career, the most apparent aspect of Jabberwocky is how much of the Monty Python style it retains. Whilst the television series no longer existed, the troupe was still touring and Life of Brian was yet to be made. In fact, a number of New York concerts had been performed just prior to Jabberwocky’s production which may explain the mixture of simple slapstick, complex wordplay and absurdist situations. Indeed, just as Holy Grail’s most memorable moment was the fight with the Black Knight that resulted in him being reduced to a torso whilst still possessing a remarkable bravado, Jabberwocky’s funniest instance involves the decision to settle a jousting contest with a game of hide-and-seek.
That isn’t to say that Jabberwocky doesn’t remain a “Gilliam” film as many of its elements would be returned to throughout the director’s work. His uncanny ability at creating a distinctive sense of place is in full effect here. The Dark Ages setting (“darker than anyone expected”) affords an almost fetishistic approach to all things unclean, the film being awash with blood, gore (surprisingly strong given the PG certificate), dirt, dust and excrement. All the more remarkable is the fact that Gilliam had a tiny budget, yet still has enough skill in the visual department to produce a viable locale (and one, according to the director in his commentary, that is historically accurate).
The setting is also integral to the way in which Gilliam presents his protagonist. Dennis, a cooper’s son who heads of for the city to make good so that he may marry his sweetheart, has obvious connections with the child from Time Bandits and the Winston Smith-alike in Brazil. Just as those characters out of their own time or too much of an outsider to exist fully within it, Dennis is, despite his simplicity, a little too modern with his ideas of efficiency and stock-taking. Moreover, he is seemingly unawares of the eponymous beast roaming the land, furthering his isolation from everyone else.
The other, distinctly “Gilliam” aspect of Jabberwocky is the presence of a huge ensemble of talented players. Whilst, understandably, not in quite in the same league as the internationally flavoured collections that grace Brazil or Baron Munchausen, we are offered a veritable who’s who of British comic talent; as well as three Python members in the form of Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Gilliam himself (“only those under six feet” were allowed, as Gilliam puts it), the likes of Max Wall, Harry H. Corbett, John LeMesurier and even ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Gordon Kaye appear. Their combined experience not only allows for an assured handling of the material, it also prevents Palin from getting lost amongst the numerous big names insofar as they recognise their positions as character actors, no matter how comic their portrayals.
This is, of course, hugely beneficial to the film as a whole. As said, Gilliam takes great pains in creating his principle protagonists, and whilst Dennis may be treated to such discourtesies as being urinated on twice, you feel the genuine connection between the two. Palin himself plays a huge part in making him such a loveable characters, perhaps the only Python who could convey the mixture of cowardice, naivety and incomprehension which he brings to the part. Moreover, the combination of Gilliam and Palin own ideas is such that the audience never thinks of Dennis as a Python-esque figure (unlike the performances of the director and Terry Jones), surely the highest complement either could be paid.
What elevates Jabberwocky to such a high place in Gilliam’s canon, however, is the way in which he manages to escape the over-indulgence that blighted some of his later works. In much the same that Twelve Monkeys was able to rein in any excesses as a result of being adapted from Chris Marker’s 29-minute short La Jetee, Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name serves as the source material here. Certainly, the affinities between author and director are enough to spark Gilliam’s unique imagination, without providing too much for him to get bogged down in. To return to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is a definite narrative progressive going on, but it’s the bits in-between that provide the real enjoyment.
Sadly, the picture quality on the disc isn’t of the highest quality. Whilst often seeming a little too soft and/or grainy, it is worth bearing in mind that Jabberwocky was made on a fairly low budget. However, when comparing the main feature to the excerpts that appear in the accompanying theatrical trailer, the latter definitely looks a little sharper.
The sound is in slightly better condition, here presented in a remixed DD5.1 form. For the most only the front two channels are used making the upgrade appear somewhat unnecessary. That said, the soundtrack is clean and presents few problems.
Any inadequacies can be forgiven to a degree owing to the exemplary commentary by Gilliam and Palin. The pair are chatty enough to ensure they speak enthusiastically throughout the feature, as well as honest enough to point out what they feel to be the flaws (both agree the film would work better if played completely straight). The real reason to listen, however, is for the welter of anecdotes; both Joan Baez and Rock Hudson played an indirect part in influencing the film, for example, and Blake Edwards destroyed the castle set he was using for The Pink Panther Strikes Again at the time to ensure that none of its props would be stolen (although Oliver! and Alfred the Great were unable to escape this fate).
Backing up the commentary are a brief storyboard-to-screen comparison, a poster gallery and the original (and frankly odd) theatrical trailer.