Michael Palin / Max Wall / Deborah Fallender / John LeMesurier / Harry H. Corbett / Warren Mitchell / Annette Badland / Bernard Bresslaw / John Bird / Rodney Bewes / Neil Innes / Terry Jones / Brian Glover /  Art Direction  Millie Burns  /  Costume Design  Charles Knode & Hazel Pethig  /  Cinematography  Terry Bedford  /  Production  Julian Doyle, John Goldstone & Sanford Lieberson  /  Screenplay  Charles Alverson & Terry Gilliam  /  Director  Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky has never really known what it was supposed to be, which considering it was inspired by a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem (from ‘Alice, through the looking glass’) is all quite suitable. That said, it is certainly the most dysfunctional of all Gilliam’s forays into cinema, which is quite an achievement in itself, given the number of capsized projects to fall by the wayside, or  else battered by harsh studio edits. *Von Stroheim shakes a small fist at the heavens, and mutters something unintelligible in German..*

Prior to his present incarnation as Director and all round risk-taking auteur, Terry Gilliam was of course the American, animation guy in that bunch of mighty comic surrealists Monty Python. The Python collective mind (along with Mr.Gilliam comprising of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones & Eric Idle), was never truly versed in the poetic cinematic eyes and ears of the business, contented to stick to the tried and tested loose structure of linked sketches when tackling their big screen appearances. Both The Life of Brian & The Holy Grail are largely stitched together gags, that either rely upon one unifying character bounding from one scene to the next (Chapman tending to take to the lead) and an even coating of contextual or atmospheric detail, generally the contribution of Gilliam’s fevered imagination and madcap visual referencing.

To stride out from the comfy confines of Python was never going to be a simple task, especially when it necessitated borrowing fellow Pythons Palin & Terry Jones to keep the backers happy. Killing off Jones in the opening sequence helped provide a little distance, and silence any unwanted directorial influence (Jones not only Directed ‘Brian’, but also took the lion share of the Directors chair on ‘Holy Grail’).  Unfortunately Jabberwocky winds up being far closer to ‘Life of Brian’, than I’m sure Gilliam intended, even regurgitating the beggar scene, albeit with a wry twist (Palin looking on in abject horror at a beggar reduced to chopping off his own feet in improve public sympathies).

Where Jabberwocky truly excels is in it’s extraordinary ensemble cast of comedy royalty. Harry H. Corbett (Steptoe & Son) gives one of his last great performances, dodging the wrath of ‘Carry-on’ giant Bernard Bresslaw ,  Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett) cooks up a delicious role as Mr.Fishfinger, whilst John LeMesurier (Dad’s Army) plays the hilariously camp Lord Chancellor to Max Wall’s blissfully, unstately King Bruno the Questionable.  Curiously what hinders ‘Jabberwocky’ is it’s preoccupation with cramming as much humour in as possible, but at the same time it is that humour which ultimately allows the Period setting to work quite as well as it does. Without the humour we would be left with a series of beautiful visuals, some nice costumes, and very little else.

Every other Gilliam project is characterized by it’s complexity. Jabberwocky is the complete opposite.. which in a way makes it quite fascinating, showing a bare-bones Gilliam, caught with his trouser’s down. er.. that sounds worse than intendid.


In purely cinematic terms, a certain distance, or modern standpoint is required, from which perspective we can observe and remain afloat throughout a realised piece, without losing our way and stewing in the mix. Admittedly we have Michael Palin’s central character attempting to impart a ‘Modern System of Economics’ upon the Mediaeval marketplace, as a sort of pre-cursor to the coming of the ‘so-called’ Age of Enlightenment and Modernity (to be so beautifully explored and despaired at in ‘Baron Munchausen’).. but the wonderful epiphany of equating the past with dreams, and blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, is yet to take hold. This revelation finds it’s birth in Gilliam’s forthcoming ‘Time Bandits’, before taking full, glorious flight in his Walter Mitty nightmare ‘Brazil’. There is though, something oh, so very attractive about standing on the brink of greatness, and enjoying the birth of a new creative genius in the making. Jabberwocky is fun, crude and chock full of dangerous risks. If only all first directorial projects were as full of freshness and infectious vitality. If you peer over the cartoon horizon at the films end, you can just about make out the glorious shape of things to come.. 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘The Jabberwocky’ from ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ (1872)

 by Lewis Carroll – Illustration by John Tenniel