Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, has made a career of bringing the fairy tale and the phantasmagorical to the screen. His career is a testament to auteur visionary power and carries on the sci-fi and fantasy interests of the cinema’s first pioneers like the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies. He carried that torch for a long time as the sole working fabulist in the Western film tradition and arguably allowed for the continuing existence of a space from which filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro could one day emerge.
In his first solo film as a director, Terry Gilliam presented producers with a seemingly arduous task: a development of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. The poem appears within his second Alice novel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Alice emerges through the other side of the titular looking glass and finds a book wherein a poem is displayed. But the text is problematic, it is backwards. She holds the book up the mirror where it reflects the contents in the correct order and renders them legible.
The poem has a definite arc. Some thing is tormenting some place and a young man kills that thing with his vorpal sword, which then elicits the praise of the king. But the text is filled with nonsense vocabulary created by Lewis Carroll (who was a linguist, as well as mathematician, logician, poet, essayist, and novelist). Alice has difficulty understanding the poem and only comes to the conclusion that some one killed some thing. Most producers would be terrified at the prospect of financing a film with so little information. But Gilliam was lucky to have producers who understood what Monty Python was about and that letting the auteurs of that comedy troupe make what they desired would probably be the best way to ensure a good, marketable film resulted. So, Gilliam had a ton of freedom in the process.
What he created was a tableau of medieval Europe where people lived lives of destitution. Dirt, decay, and death cloak people, crumble buildings, and claim all in equal measure. Kings are insane and common, the product of many incestuous unions and a lack of genetic diversity within their bloodlines. All the while, the merchants are the ones who look truly noble and beautiful. People find entry into the guarded city nearly impossible if they do not already have skills and wealth to offer, and even once they enter the city, they may remain destitute and broken down as most average people had to members of guilds to get their jobs.
A beast is roaming the countryside and all of the peasants want it destroyed and plead with the King to entreat the powers of local knights and champions to dispose of the beast. But the clergy have seen their attendance numbers and tithing rise exponentially with the fear of death by Jabberwocky. They plead opposite to the people in an attempt to keep the beast around as a tangible symbol of darkness and evil in their midst. Eventually, the King folds to the people. However, not because he cares one way or the other (he is quite crazy and power-mad as well), but because he can enlist knights to do battle in a joust tournament, which will determine a champion to fight the beast, but will also give him some much-wanted entertainment in the form of gladiatorial-like bouts.
Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin) lives in a small hamlet two miles from the local castle. There are reports of the Jabberwocky’s presence in the environs around the hamlet, but it has not attacked any villagers there as of yet. Dennis is, as his name suggests, the son of a barrel-maker. But whereas his father has a high attention to detail and values the craft, Dennis is a bird-brain type who thinks nothing of the art of the craft and cares more about making a quick buck and taking stock multiple times a day. Dennis has fallen in love with a brutish, portly young woman of ill-manners who has no regard for him and treats him like dirt, yet he plans to make a fortune somehow and win her hand in marriage. When Dennis’ father has a stroke and is laying on his death bed, he tells his son how much he hates him and leaves nothing of the family business or wealth to Dennis, thereby prompting Dennis to leave the hamlet for the big city.
Through a series of odd events, the dunderhead makes his way there unharmed after encountering the Jabberwocky. He causes a ton of calamity in the city, but gets himself roped into going out to assist the champion in his fight against the Jabberwocky. While in the wastes, they find a band of rogues attacking the family of Dennis’ betrothed one and manage to scare them off after the knight falls off of his horse and lands on one of the assailants, smashing him into a pile of blood and guts in the process. Dennis’ betrothed tries to proposition the knight, and not Dennis, for marriage, much to Dennis’ dismay. The knight, being sensible and of good taste, rides away from them fast as possible while Dennis follows behind on his donkey.
Finally, in one of the most atmospheric, foggy, and cinematically exciting moments of the film, the knight approaches the field where the Jabberwocky resides, but the rogues from earlier have brought the Black Knight along as well who commences to fight and destroy the white knight and do battle with Jabberwocky. Somehow Dennis manages to leave as the last one alive with the head of the Jabberwocky in his possession. He is greeted with acclaim in the city upon his return. His betrothed is there and takes the opportunity to finally offer her hand in marriage. But the King has different plans. He gives half of his kingdom to Dennis only upon the agreement that Dennis take his own daughter, the princess’s, hand in marriage. He is forced to do so and rides off into the sunset, unwillingly and all the while calling out for “Griselda,” the one he actually loves who has given up on finding a man and has been committed to a nunnery.
Dennis’ stupidity seems beyond belief, but reflects a real problem within peasant communities of the time. A lack of education and access to a healthy, stable diet can limit intelligence and brain growth respectively. Plus, most of the water available would have been running through lead-laden piping or polluted streams. These facts lend credulity to his utter buffoonish nature. The opportunism of Griselda and her family reflects upon the fact that most marriages were not love-based or love-initiated. They were often set up by parents or go-betweens and made as economic compacts meant to improve the fortunes of one’s family.
The film presents an interesting picture of a dark time in human history (at least for Europeans), whilst presenting powerful fantastic elements in an inventive retelling of medieval knight’s tales. For a long time, this film has been nearly impossible to find on home video releases and has rarely been shown on television. As such, I was excited and surprised to see that the Criterion Collection released the film a few months ago. I picked it up as soon as I found out about the release and have enjoyed seeing the first realization of Terry Gilliam’s auteur mind at work in the cinema.