JabberwockyThis relentlessly scatological comedy, the first solo directorial effort by Terry Gilliam, is very likely the most squalid and grotesque depiction of the middle ages ever put on screen—and so probably the most realistic.

The first scene of JABBERWOCKY (1977) has Terry Jones, the co-director of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975), getting mutilated by an unseen monster. The HOLY GRAIL’S other director was Terry Gilliam, who with this film was branching out on his own for the first time, so the killing of Jones had a significance beyond what we see onscreen. JABBERWOCKY for its part has been falsely credited as a Monty Python production, which it isn’t (despite the presences of Gilliam, Jones and fellow Python alum Michael Palin).

Another fun fact about this film is that it was filmed near England’s Elstree Studios at the same time as a certain sci fi movie from the director of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Gilliam claims his crew, who alternated working on the two films, constantly maligned that other production. Once the films were released, though, those crewmembers were singing a different tune, as JABBERWOCKY was a massive flop, while the other became one of the most successful of all time.

In the “Darkest Hour of the Dark Ages” a horrific creature called a Jabberwocky is roaming the land, dismembering anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path. There’s also Dennis the Apprentice, a goofy guy who wants nothing more in life than to settle down with the overweight Griselda—who throws out a rotten potato that Dennis takes to carrying around as a cherished memory of his beloved. His father dies unexpectedly, and Dennis, having no one to apprentice himself to, enters the kingdom of Bruno the Questionable.

In this kingdom Dennis spends much time consorting with peasants and squires, while the king holds jousting tournaments to find a warrior capable of vanquishing the Jabberwocky. This turns out to be a bloody business, literally, as the king is repeatedly splashed with the bodily fluids of the tournament’s losers.

As for Dennis, he somehow ends up in the chambers of the princess, who falls immediately in love with him (the gal’s intended prince falls to his death scaling the castle walls to propose to her). He escapes her clutches but ends up called into service to fight the Jabberwocky, as the chosen warrior doesn’t want the job.

Dennis rides into the countryside where the Jabberwocky lurks. After scuffling with a motley group of bandits whose victims include Dennis’ beloved Griselda, Dennis takes on a menacing figure known only as the Black Knight–and then the Jabberwocky shows up, a horned chicken-like behemoth with talons, dragon wings and knees that bend the wrong way. The knight, despite his obvious fighting prowess, fails to kill the monster…but Dennis somehow succeeds! He’s properly feted by the kingdom but ends up unwillingly thrust into the arms of the princess, and whisked away while his true love Griselda is left in the dust.

Even for those who like this film, as I do, it’s something of an acquired taste. Terry Gilliam is known for his undisciplined style, and JABBERWOCKY is the most chaotic of all Gilliam’s films. Sorting out what’s happening from scene to scene requires close attention, as the frame is more often than not extremely crowded with several different things occurring at once. The main character, played by Michael Palin, has precious little screen time, and he’s often crowded out by the background action. The ever-present chaos also has the effect of neutralizing the gags of this alleged comedy (Gilliam claims he’d cut out most of the funny stuff were he to remake the film).

All this may make the film sound clumsy, but controlled chaos seems to have been Gilliam’s goal. The teeming medieval frescoes of Hieronymus Bosh and Peter Bruegal were Gilliam’s admitted inspirations, and if those paintings were to come to life the results would look a lot like JABBERWOCKY—with all the earthy scatology that characterized Bosh and Breugal’s work transposed to the screen intact.

The film’s real strength is its minutely textured depiction of the middle ages, a nightmarish universe of blood and filth. The art direction is impeccable, as are the costumes and make-up. Everything has an appropriately scuffed, lived-in hue, and the actors all look like they could have stepped right out of the time and place in which the movie is set (right down to the rotting teeth!). Mention must also be made of the Jabberwocky itself, a wondrous creation whose presentation is so skilled and convincing I actually felt sorry for the thing when it was killed off.

Vital Statistics

National Film Trustee Company Ltd.

Director: Terry Gilliam
Producer: Sandy Lieberson
Screenplay: Terry Gilliam, Charles Alverson
(Based on a poem by Lewis Carroll)
Cinematography: Terry Bedford
Editing: Michael Bradsell
Cast: Michael Palin, Harry H. Crobett, John Lemesurier, Warren Mitchell, Max Wall, Rodney Bewes, John Bird, Bernard Bresslaw, Antony Carrick, Peter Cellier, Deborah Fallender, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones