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Posts Tagged ‘Jabberwocky’

I first saw Terry Gilliam’s 1977 filmĀ Jabberwocky on its British TV premiere, over thirty years ago. It almost goes without saying that the world was a very different place back then – the fact that a film could be ten years old before turning up on a TV channel or streaming site in itself confirms that we are discussing a very different world. And of course, if you’ll forgive a little personal reminiscence, I was a very different person myself at that time in my life: most specifically, I was barely familiar with Monty Python except from what I’d read about it in books and magazines – I hadn’t seen any of the TV shows or movies, and to be perfectly honest wasn’t really sure which members of the group were which. As I say, another time, another place.

Then again, as a 1977 fantasy movie, Jabberwocky is a product of the pre-stellar conflict era, and – perhaps appropriately enough – is a rather peculiar beast in many ways. It is, as I hope you do not need telling, based on (or perhaps inspired by would be more accurate) Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same name. The poem’s setting is essentially indeterminate, but the script (by Gilliam and Charles Alverson) relocates the story to the Dark Ages, at a time when the land is being ravaged and despoiled by a ferocious beastie, causing panic and upheaval.

None of this penetrates the notably thick brain of Dennis the Cooper (Michael Palin), a young man who seems less interested in actually making barrels than in time-and-motion studies and efficiency in the workplace. This so disgusts Dennis’ father that his dying act is to disinherit him, and in order to win the hand of the girl he loves (a young Annette Badland), Dennis is forced to set off and seek his fortune.

He ends up in the city, which is bursting at the seams with survivors fleeing the depredations of the jabberwock, causing some consternation to King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) and his chamberlain (John le Mesurier). The chamberlain hits upon the plan of holding a contest to select a champion to slay the monster, with the hand of the King’s daughter (Deborah Fallender) and half the kingdom as a reward, and Dennis inevitably finds himself caught up in this. The crisis, however, is proving a bonanza for the wealthy merchants and guild leaders of the city, who have embarked upon their own scheme to ensure continuance of the monster…

This was Terry Gilliam’s first film as sole director; he had previously co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there is perhaps an obvious sense in which the two films are connected – they share the same Dark Ages setting, and various members of the Python collective appear on screen (in addition to Palin, there are cameos by Terry Jones and Gilliam himself, not to mention associate Python Neil Innes). Gilliam was unhappy to find the film being billed as Monty Python’s Jabberwocky for its initial American release, and unsuccessfully tried to have this stopped.

That said, however, Jabberwocky isn’t just a product of members of the Oxbridge tradition of British comedy, although various members of it appear. This is one of those films which is stuffed with familiar faces from both the big and small screen, drawn from a broad range of comic backgrounds – Max Wall started his career as a music hall clown, John le Mesurier was a hugely familiar face from both films and mainstream sitcoms, as were Warren Mitchell and Harry H Corbett. Bernard Bresslaw, who only a couple of years earlier had been appearing in Carry On films, also turns up.

If it isn’t quite a who’s who of British comedy in the middle 1970s, then it’s certainly a film with no shortage of talented comic performers. Which really forces one to wonder why it is that Jabberwocky is not actually particularly funny. You can certainly recognise the jokes as they go by, but you just don’t feel especially inclined to laugh – which is odd, as it’s the same kind of humour that worked quite well in Holy Grail, specifically the subversion of the conventions of this kind of fairy tale, and also the insertion of modern stereotypes into a historical context. There are also occasional forays into slightly laborious absurdism – the horrifically high casualty rate amongst the knights taking part in the joust forces the King to cancel the event and choose his champion via a hide-and-seek contest.

The strange non-funniness of Jabberwocky is perhaps explicable by the fact that while most of it is written and played as comedy, on the whole it is filmed and edited like some kind of art house film or costume drama. It is certainly very atmospheric, with an almost palpable sense of the mediaeval. Of course, this usually takes the form of filth, squalour and brutality, to the point where the film is probably quite off-putting to viewers of a sensitive disposition: Jabberwocky is filled with spraying blood and severed limbs and people taking care of bodily functions out of windows or off the top of battlements. It’s all quite authentic, though not necessarily what you associate with an actual comedy, except in its sheer grotesqueness.

Also notably grotesque is the titular beast of the film, the jabberwock itself. This isn’t really a monster movie per se, although there are a few nods in the direction of the form. When the beast finally appears, it is through the magic of suitamation, with perhaps just a touch of puppetry also involved. It’s quite amusing to look back at responses to Jabberwocky from close to the time it was released – one 1980 book asserted that the jabberwocky was the best monster in the history of cinema, up to that point. Well, to me it seems like a qualified success at best, a brilliant design somewhat sabotaged by somewhat clumsy execution.

The same is really true of Jabberwocky as a whole – it’s a minor miracle that the film looks as good as it does, given it was clearly made on a very low budget (at one point Dave Prowse, doubling up as two characters, has a fight to the death with himself). You come away from it feeling entertained, and impressed by the consistency of the film’s vision and atmosphere, even if it is a view of the middle ages more inspired by Hieronymous Bosch than Hollywood. But you most likely won’t come away having laughed your socks off. Gilliam seems to have felt obliged to make a comedy, given his career up to that point, when he was really more interested in something more ambitious. Subsequent films would be considerably more successful, but this is still a pretty good and very interesting debut.

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