Once I got into them, I quickly burned through all of the Monty Python films and backtracked to Jabberwocky. This is not a Monty Python film. Although Michael Palin is in the lead role and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam make a small cameo appearance as the hunter who is eaten alive by the titular monster, none of the other three members appear. When it was released in America, the film was advertised as “Monty Python’s Jabberwocky,” much to the chagrin of Terry Gilliam. Not only was it a cheap attempt to cash in on the continuing popularity of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” it also played down the role of Terry Gilliam, who was working as a solo director for the first time, after troubled collaborations with Terry Jones behind the camera on the first two Python films.
I remember seeing Jabberwocky on TV many years ago, and not really being able to get into it. This time around, I loved it and think that it might actually be my favorite film of Gilliam’s. Reportedly producer Sanford Lieberson was pushing John Cleese for the central role of Dennis Cooper, a meek but ambitious barrel maker in the dark ages. Cleese’s screen persona was far too confident for the role, but Michael Palin is perfect. There is plenty of comedy in Jabberwocky, most of it dark, but there little of the silliness that can be found in, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Palin’s role is much more human than anything that appeared in any of the Monty Python films. Dennis Cooper, while a lowly cooper’s apprentice to his father, has ideas about commerce and romance that are far ahead of his time. He longs to travel someday, maybe even as far as the nearest town, which is two miles away. When his father renounces him on his deathbed, he decides to set out into the world.
Gilliam’s first film was obviously made on a limited budget, which cut the fantasy elements. The monster, while much talked-about, only appears briefly on the screen for example, but good performances from Palin and others are enough to carry the film. Even so, many of the recurring themes of Gilliam’s work are present. When King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) holds a joust in order to find a knight who can defeat the Jabberwocky, he drops a handkerchief to signal the start of the games. As the silk cloth falls to the filthy ground in slow-motion, the gate are thrown open and the horses burst forth. This breaking through of the wall between dreary daily life and the fantasy of the games is visual motif that appears in nearly every Gilliam film.
This might actually be my favorite Gilliam film, which is saying a lot, for in my opinion he has the best imagination of any director working today.