This relentlessly scatological comedy, the first solo directorial
effort by Terry Gilliam, is very likely the most squalid and grotesque
depiction of the middle ages ever put on screen--and so probably the
The first scene of JABBERWOCKY (1977) has Terry Jones,
the co-director of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975), getting
mutilated by an unseen monster. The HOLY GRAILíS other director was
Terry Gilliam, who with this film was branching out on his own for the
first time, so the killing of Jones had a significance beyond what we
see onscreen. JABBERWOCKY for its part has been falsely credited as a
Monty Python production, which it isnít, despite the presence of
Gilliam, Jones and fellow Python alum Michael Palin.
Another fun fact about this film is that it was filmed
near Englandís Elstree Studios at the same time as a certain
big budget sci fi
movie from the director of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Gilliam claims
his crew, who alternated working on the two films, constantly maligned
that other production. Once the films were released, though, those
crewmembers were singing a different tune, as JABBERWOCKY was a massive
flop, while the other became one of the most successful of all time.
In the ďDarkest Hour of the Dark AgesĒ a horrific
creature called a Jabberwocky is roaming the land, dismembering anyone
unfortunate enough to cross its path. Thereís also Dennis the
Apprentice, a goofy guy who wants nothing more in life than to settle
down with the overweight Griselda--who throws out a rotten potato that
Dennis takes to carrying around as a cherished memory of his beloved.
His father dies unexpectedly, and Dennis, having no one to apprentice
himself to, enters the kingdom of Bruno the Questionable.
In this kingdom Dennis spends much time consorting with
peasants and squires, while the king holds jousting tournaments to find
a warrior capable of vanquishing the Jabberwocky. This turns out to be a
bloody business, literally, as the king is repeatedly splashed with the
bodily fluids of the tournamentís losers.
As for Dennis, he somehow ends up in the chambers of
the princess, who falls immediately in love with him (the galís intended
prince falls to his death scaling the castle walls to propose to her).
He escapes her clutches but ends up called into service to fight the
Jabberwocky, as the chosen warrior doesnít want the job.
Dennis rides into the countryside where the Jabberwocky
lurks. After scuffling with a motley group of bandits whose victims
include Dennisí beloved Griselda, Dennis takes on a menacing figure
known only as the Black Knight--and then the Jabberwocky shows up, a
horned chicken-like behemoth with talons, dragon wings and knees that
bend the wrong way. The knight, despite his obvious fighting prowess,
fails to kill the monsterÖbut Dennis somehow succeeds! Heís properly
feted by the kingdom but ends up unwillingly thrust into the arms of the
princess, and whisked away while his true love Griselda is left in the
Even for those who like this film, as I do, itís
something of an acquired taste. Terry Gilliam is known for his
undisciplined style, and JABBERWOCKY is the most chaotic of all
Gilliamís films. Sorting out whatís happening from scene to scene
requires close attention, as the frame is more often than not extremely
crowded with several different things occurring at once. The main
character, played by Michael Palin, has precious little screen time, and
heís often crowded out by the background action. The ever-present chaos
also has the effect of neutralizing the gags of this alleged comedy
(Gilliam claims heíd cut out most of the funny stuff were he to remake
All this may make the film sound clumsy, but controlled
chaos seems to have been Gilliamís goal. The teeming medieval frescoes
of Hieronymus Bosh and Peter Bruegal were Gilliamís admitted
inspirations, and if those paintings were to come to life the results
would look a lot like JABBERWOCKY--with all the earthy scatology that
characterized Bosh and Breugalís work transposed to the screen intact.
The filmís real strength is its minutely textured
depiction of the middle ages, a nightmarish universe of blood and filth.
The art direction is impeccable, as are the costumes and make-up.
Everything has an appropriately scuffed, lived-in hue, and the actors
all look like they could have stepped right out of the time and place in
which the movie is set (right down to the rotting teeth!). Mention must
also be made of the Jabberwocky itself, a wondrous creation whose
presentation is so skilled and convincing I actually felt sorry for the
thing when it was killed off.
National Film Trustee Company Ltd.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Producer: Sandy Lieberson
Screenplay: Terry Gilliam, Charles Alverson
(Based on a poem by Lewis Carroll)
Cinematography: Terry Bedford
Editing: Michael Bradsell
Cast: Michael Palin, Harry H. Crobett, John Lemesurier, Warren Mitchell,
Max Wall, Rodney Bewes, John Bird, Bernard Bresslaw, Antony Carrick,
Peter Cellier, Deborah Fallender, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones