Slight spoilers for some jokes in ‘Jabberwocky’.
So last night’s online filmclub night was a movie I’ve seen many times and has a very special place in my heart — Terry Gilliam’s wonderful ‘Jabberwocky’ (1977)!
There are so many things about ‘Jabberwocky’ I adore, whether it’s the cast, the silliness, the violence, the dust, the dirt or the inverted firkins but I think it’s mostly the freedom you can tell Gillam is reveling in in helming his own project and being able to fully flex his directing skills. Plus I’ve always felt Gilliam works best on a low budget; I love seeing his inventive solutions to limited resources and this film is an excellent example of his ingenuity.
For me ‘Jabberwocky’ fits nicely between ‘Holy Grail’ (1975) and ‘Time Bandits’ (1981) as it has some of the anarchic looseness of the former with a touch of the narrative discipline of the latter. Yet this film is still very much all set-up for interesting and bizarre characters, ridiculous situations and flesh-eating monsters as Michael Palin’s protagonist is buffeted to and fro between these elements like a kicked turnip. This means there’s a lot of pin-balling going on but this also allows for lots of variation.
Gilliam pulls everything together less by story but by the world he creates, the dark ages setting the cohesive force binding all the madness into a whole. It’s fun just seeing this world brought to life even if this is life struggling in the mud, filth and crumbling masonry. The best example of this is Max Wall as King Otto the Questionable, a monarch as weather-worn, craggy and shambling as his crumbling castle. He’s fantastic to watch and has some wonderful moments.
And ‘Jabberwocky’ is a movie of great moments of which there are many. I love the lines “I saw a doctor once. He didn’t see me; I was hiding.” and “I seen a gliding hogfish once. Never flying. Not actually flying.” or “It is the middle of the Dark Ages, ages darker than anyone had ever expected.” Although the real stroke of comic genius is after the tournament of hide-and-seek when they declare the champion and when the King asks where the winner is he’s told they haven’t found him yet, that’s why he’s the winner. I also love the King’s food-taster who, on eating some plaster, declares it 11th… no, 12th Century.
‘Jabberwocky’ might not be for everyone with the film doing everything it can to trip up expectations and conventions of the period and even though it does an excellent job of portraying a historical setting it never, for once, takes any of it seriously. But if you can get onto the film’s wavelength, click with its groove it’s an absolute delight.