Tuesday, December 7, 2021

#2,673. Jabberwocky (1977) - The Films of Terry Gilliam


Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial debut (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail a few years before), Jabberwocky stars Michael Palin as Dennis Cooper, an eternally optimistic peasant who finds himself out of a job when his father (Paul Curran), a renowned barrel-maker, disowns him moments before dying of a heart attack.

Determined to make his way in the world - and thus win the hand of his beloved, Griselda (Annette Badland), daughter of local merchant Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell) - Dennis sets off for the big city, which is currently being terrorized by an enormous dragon (the Jabberwocky of the title).

Anxious to rid his kingdom of this horrible monster, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) stages a tournament to find the greatest knight in the land. If the winner of this tournament manages to slay the dragon, he will be married to King Bruno’s daughter, The Princess (Deborah Fallender), and awarded half of the entire kingdom.

Dennis, whose only interest is landing a job, finds himself unwittingly swept up in the quest to destroy the dragon, and in the end may prove the only person capable of accomplishing this very dangerous task.

Sporting a look and feel reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky gets off to a grand start; as the movie opens, a poacher (played by Terry Jones, who was Gilliam’s co-director on Holy Grail) is emptying his traps when he is suddenly attacked by the dragon. This opening is both shocking (though his head remains intact, the poacher’s body is stripped down to its bones) and hilarious (we never see the creature – the entire scene plays out from the dragon’s perspective, and we watch as he lifts the Poacher a hundred feet in the air before dropping him).

In fact, “shocking” and “hilarious” pretty much sum up the rest of the film as well, which features barbarity (the king’s tournament is particularly bloody) interspersed with side-splitting humor (the royal advisor Passelwe, played by John Le Mesurier, tries to convince the King that, instead of having the knights butcher one another, they stage a friendly game of hide-and-seek to determine the winner).

Unlike Holy Grail (which maintained the skit format that the Pythons had perfected in their BBC television program of the early ‘70s), Jabberwocky focuses more on a single narrative – i.e. the misadventures of Dennis Cooper. Still, a number of different characters and side-stories are introduced along the way, from the city merchants and their desire to keep the dragon around (business has never been better) to the Squire (Harry H. Corbett) who would rather bed another man’s wife than serve his master, the Knight known as Red Herring (voiced by Max Wall).

By “bridging the gap” between Terry Gilliam’s Python roots and his later fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, Brazil, etc), Jabberwocky provided the dark humor many had come to expect from a Monty Python alum while at the same time giving the world a glimpse into the mind of a highly imaginative filmmaker.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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