Fellow Python-alum, Michael Palin, stars as Dennis.
Jabberwocky was Terry Gilliam's first solo-directing effort. Prior to this movie he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with fellow Python Terry Jones. This movie can be viewed as his transitional film. Python's influence is still very strong, but it contains more of his visual trademark look than his previous Python work.
The story is based very loosely on Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem of the same name. Michael Palin plays Dennis Cooper, a small-village boy who dreams of nothing more than marrying local girl, Griselda (despite her gross appearance and repugnant manner), and taking over his father's barrel making business. His plans are disrupted by his father's disownment of him on his death bed and Dennis is forced to make his way in the world by traveling to the big city.
Life in the city is in chaos. The countryside is being terrorized by a horrible monster; the Jabberwocky. And the king decides to hold a tournament to find a champion to defeat it. Much to Dennis' surprise he ends up finding himself the eventual champion's squire and rides out with him to face the monster.
Gilliam's view of the middle ages is pretty clear. It's a view that contains a lot dirt, dust, muck and mud. Being pissed on is used as a joke, not once, but twice. The King's castle is in a state of utter disrepair and is crumbling slowly around him. Only the merchants of the city are shown clean and prosperous looking.
While this movie has more structure than Holy Grail, which is just a series of sketches, it doesn't have much more structure. The humor, while actually the most entertaining part of the movie also hurts the movie. It's as if Gilliam didn't quite have the faith to make a straight movie and felt as though he had to throw in jokes. One of my favorites is when the Knights end up playing a game of hide-and-seek to determine a champion when the King realizes that a regular tournament is resulting in so many dead knights that soon there won't be any left to fight the monster.
There also seems to be a message in this movie and the message is corporations and big business are bad. Dennis' dad disowns him because he doesn't see the art and craftsmanship of barrel-making. The Merchants in town don't want the monster killed because the shortage of goods is causing prices to skyrocket and they're making a fortune. And a beggar that Dennis meets (who's cut off his own foot to improve his takings) is actually the greatest cooper who ever lived, but is unable to find work because the guilds won't allow anyone who isn't a member to get a job in the town.
Despite the hit-or-miss feel to the movie, it still entertains. It's only 90 minutes or so long and it flies by. And since this is a Gilliam film, even if it's an early one, there is plenty to look at in every scene.
The titular creature faces off against the Black Knight in Jabberwocky.
Like Scott I enjoyed the humor more than the adventure aspects. Although it includes only a few Python members it definitely feels like a Monty Python movie. Their unique mix of violence and humor is all over it. In fact it could almost be a sequel to Holy Grail.
Terry Gilliam's remarkable visual talents were already apparent in his first feature. He made a fairly memorable movie with a limited budget. Many scenes were shot in one take due to lack of funds. Michael Palin is great in the lead. He was perhaps the funniest (and along with Terry Jones the most underrated) Python of them all.
The monster turns out to be a giant muppet-like creature that was a costume with a man (Peter Salmon) inside it. To give the Jabberwock a bird-like gait Salmon wore the costume backwards. The way the fight between the monster and the Black Knight is filmed was brilliant.
In my favorite shot Gilliam shows the Jabberwock and the knight as they face each other. The winged creature towers over the kneeling man (see photo). The ending was a chance stroke of genius. Salmon tripped and fell in the middle of the fight scene. It looked so natural and real that Gilliam seized the opportunity and kept this inspired accident in the finished film.
In addition to deriding corporations and big business, Gilliam also targets religion, which was another common Monty Python theme. In one scene Dennis disguises himself as a nun to escape from a castle tower. After making his escape he is glimpsed changing out of the nun's habit by several religious fanatics. They speak the following lines, “Look! It's a nun in the guise of the Devil!” “No! It's the Devil in the guise of a nun!” “Get her!” “Get him!” “GET THEM BOTH!”
The fact that Jabberwocky was shot on location at several real castles in Wales gives it an authentic Dark Ages feel. As Scott wrote, Gilliam doesn't stint on dirt, muck and grime. By the time the movie ends you may feel the need for a shower.
Michael Palin in Jabberwocky
Disgust was the first thing that I thought of in reference to the time period and location. Even the Narrator notes, “It is the middle of the dark ages, ages darker than anyone had expected.” Then we meet Griselda Fishfinger and disgusting hits a whole new level of low. "I gotta scratch." As Scott wrote, the King’s castle is crumbling around him, but not slowly. At one point he tells his daughter that after she marries he will make a particular tower into her apartment. As he says this, we see the tower he is referring to collapsing in the wind.
I agree with my brothers that there are things to laugh at. I liked how the starving guards were impressed with the partially eaten “gift” Griselda “gave” Dennis. I smiled at the King’s announcer who kept expanding King Bruno the Questionable’s introduction just to mess with the visitors seeking the Kings audience. Every time they sit he keeps going on with the titles, forcing them to stand back up.
When the princess meets Dennis, she thinks he is a hero come to take her. She raises her arm as the sun comes through her silk gown, revealing all of her womanly charms and asks, “Do you find me beautiful?” An impressed Dennis smiles stupidly and says, “Oh yes, thank you.” My favorite scene has always been when the princess and her father watch the tournament and get splattered with blood during each joust. They become more and more covered in blood as the contest continues yet they barely react to the gore.
There is humor here but there is also something off with the film. I never cared what happened to Dennis as he is a gullible moron. I have always liked Michael Palin and agree with Patrick that he is one of the funniest Monty Python members but he suffers from the same weakness as all of the other members. None of them were ever considered leading men material and for good reason. They always worked great as an ensemble team, but none had enough charisma or presence to carry a film alone.
Photos © Copyright Cinema 5 (1977)