Writer: Terry Gilliam, Charles Alveron (screenplay), Lewis Carroll (poem)
Cast: Michael Palin, Harry H. Corbett, Annette Badland, John Le Mesurier, Warren Mitchell, Max Wall, Bernard Bresslaw, Deborah Fallender, John Bird, Rodney Bewes, Terry Jones, Gordon Kaye
Running time: 105mins
What’s the story: In a medieval kingdom, the peasant Dennis (Palin) finds himself on a wild adventure that leads him to battle the Jabberwocky, a ferocious beast spreading fear, famine and death.
What’s the verdict: Though based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, from grimy exterior to fantastical core Jabberwocky is pure Terry Gilliam.
His full directorial debut (Gilliam co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones), this births a style that would become known as “Gilliamesque”.
All the director’s obsessions are present and correct. Fantastical lands. Knights. Hero dreamers. Despicable bureaucrats. Romanticism and cynicism. More knights.
An underperformer upon original release, Jabberwocky became a hit on home video, ironic for a director looking to escape his TV origins. While those of us who grew up in the 80s have fond memories watching Gilliam’s earthy fairytale, what has long gone unrecognised is the film’s visual beauty.
Kudos then to the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, plus the George Lucas Family Foundation who also provided funding, for their 4K restoration. Criterion’s Blu-ray, struck from that restored print, is a revelation for those used to an old DVD or VHS.
Lit like a Brueghel painting, Gilliam creates a living, breathing, pustulating world that looms out from the muck and the mist. Ably assisted by cinematographer Terry Bedford, whose use of velvet shadow is both evocative and canny, disguising half built sets and other restrictions imposed by a $500,000 budget.
The result is a film that sits alongside Barry Lyndon and The Duelists as one of the 1970s’ most beautiful movies.
Not that Gilliam and co-writer Charles Alverson simply let audiences sit back and enjoy a visual feast. Jabberwocky is a film that yanks viewers into a fantastical adventure that delights in subverting fairytale cliché.
Palin’s Dennis is a hero who dreams of middle management rather than dragon slaying and is in love with a fishmonger’s outsized daughter, Griselda (Badland). Deborah Fallender’s tower-bound princess has gone mad waiting for her knight in shining armour. What knights there are participate in comically gory jousting.
This all makes Jabberwocky the comic snotty brother to Ken Russell’s The Devils. While also slotting in neatly between Python movies Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
Gilliam’s debut must also have been seen by Messrs. Raimi and Campbell at impressionable ages. The opening POV shot, when the Jabberwocky descends upon cameo’ing Terry Jones, is pure Evil Dead. That joust bloodbath is a spiritual cousin to Evil Dead II. The medieval milieu is Army of Darkness.
Inhabiting this deliciously dark fantasyscape is a gallery of Brit-com grotesques, all persecuting Palin’s Dennis. Max Wall as none-too-clever king Bruno the Questionable. John Le Mesurier his long-suffering counsel. Harry H. Corbett a randy squire and Bernard Bresslaw the furious innkeeper whose wife Corbett repeatedly beds. Warren Mitchell as Griselda’s dad, Mr. Fishfinger. Gordon Kaye as a nun with something surprising under his habit. Rodney Bewes as a conniving merchant. John Bird as Bruno’s verbose herald.
Final nod must go to Costume Designers Charles Knode and Hazel Pethig who work wonders on a tiny budget to dress all involved in authentic feeling threadbare finery.
Wild, messy and marvellous, welcome home Jabberwocky.
DISC AND EXTRAS
Good things happen when Criterion turn their gaze toward the work of Terry Gilliam. The Fisher King is a five-star Blu-ray. Their deluxe edition of Brazil is one of the finest home entertainment releases of all-time. Seriously, it’s amazing.
Unsurprising then that Jabberwocky receives the bells-and-whistles treatment. Some extras are ported over from a previous DVD release, such as Gilliam and Palin’s informative 2001 audio commentary.
The 40-minute documentary Jabberwocky: Good Nonsense was created for this release and is a similarly engrossing and affectionate look back at the 1977 movie. Gilliam, Palin, Badland and producer Sandy Lieberson recall the effort that went into making the movie and its rediscovery on video during the 80s.
Palin and Badland also read from the original Carroll poem in another extra. A 20-minute excerpt from a 1998 audio interview with Terry Bedford reveals his experiences on this film and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In Valerie Charlton: Making the Monster, creature designer Charlton runs through rare on-set photographs.
A sketch-to-screen comparison was also ported over from the previous DVD release. There are also the original UK opening titles, different to the version in this director’s cut.
Add in a worthwhile booklet and this is another Criterion must-buy.