When Alice climbs through the large mirror overhanging the fireplace mantel in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the first thing she discovers, in the reflected version of her own drawing room, is a poem called “JABBERWOCKY.” This being a looking-glass world, of course, the poem appears to her in reverse as “YKCOWREBBAJ,” but while holding it up to the glass makes it readable, it scarcely makes it more comprehensible. From the nonsense words and phrases, a simple story can be puzzled out about the “Jabberwock”—a beast with “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch” and “eyes of flame”—and an unspecified hero who fells it with a “vorpal blade” that goes “snicker-snack.” As Alice concludes after reading these lines, “somebody killed something,” and the rest is open to interpretation.
Though Humpty Dumpty later assists in decoding the poem for Alice—albeit in a way that muddies rather than clarifies its meaning—the critical takeaway is that “Jabberwocky” evokes a state of mind: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” It’s significant that Alice encounters the poem immediately after she steps through the looking glass, because it creates the context through which she’ll see this upside-down world of magic and horror. She’ll be prompted to reimagine and reinvent, to look at things from another angle. Assumptions will be upended. The familiar will turn peculiar and uncanny. Anything is possible.
In other words, she’ll experience something like a Terry Gilliam film. For a director who would come to be known for taking on seemingly impossible projects, adapting a poem composed of made-up gibberish seems like an appropriately perverse way to start a solo career. The only fidelity Gilliam needed to show to Carroll in Jabberwocky (1977) was to produce a fearsome, birdlike creature that would eventually die by the sword, and he dutifully obliged, though neither the creature nor the killing conform to storybook expectations. For Gilliam, an animator by trade and by sensibility, “Jabberwocky” was an idea to sketch around: Carroll’s poem isn’t the first about a hero slaying a beast, after all, and there’s enough narrative backbone in that premise to hold the film together and allow the director to doodle away in the margins. Yet Gilliam so thoroughly embodied the spirit of “Jabberwocky” and Through the Looking Glass that the project set the tone for a career of unpacking and reconfiguring fairy tales and fantasies, looking at oft-told stories and histories through a distorted lens, and letting his imagination run wild.
First, though, Gilliam had to get some distance from the sketch-comedy troupe Monty Python—a task that was both essential and impossible, since his identity and sensibility could never be entirely untangled from it. Since Monty Python’s Flying Circus went on the air in 1969, Gilliam’s comic-surreal cartoons had been the transitional glue that bonded disparate bits in Monty Python’s output, and his love of the silly and the absurd, combined with his rejection of authority and yen for deconstruction, fit snugly into the troupe’s irreverent brand. Before striking out on his own with Jabberwocky, Gilliam codirected (with Terry Jones) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a fractured lark on Arthurian myth that would become perhaps the most quotable comedy ever filmed—at least for a certain species of nerd-kind.
For Gilliam, Holy Grail served as both a blueprint and a point of departure for Jabberwocky (though the film’s American promoters attached the Monty Python possessive to the title nonetheless, infuriating the filmmaker). Jabberwocky revisits the medieval period with a similarly jaundiced view of its royalty and men in armor, and the adventures that transport its heroes from one kingdom to the next, vorpal blades flashing. With Michael Palin in the lead role and other Python alums like Jones and Neil Innes making appearances—to say nothing of Gilliam himself, who turns up as a deranged man hawking rocks as diamonds—the film could be superficially mistaken as a companion piece to Holy Grail, but the comparison melts away under closer scrutiny. Gone are the anachronisms, the blackout sketches, the frequent breaking of the fourth wall. This is a far grimier vision of history, with many of the jokes playing bleakly off the day-to-day hardships of the time and the pathetic ironies embedded in its story.
There is, however, one bit of dialogue in Holy Grail that could double as the thesis statement of Jabberwocky:
“Who’s that, then?”
“I dunno. Must be a king.”
“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”
Set in the Dark Ages—“ages darker than anyone had ever expected”—Jabberwocky opens in a death-haunted landscape where frightened villagers, fleeing the monster that has ravaged the countryside, seek protection behind the city walls, where they’re likely to starve to death anyway. The situation on the ground is humbler still for Dennis, whom Palin plays as the most put-upon of his formidable gallery of put-upon heroes. Gilliam makes comic sport of Dennis’s blinkered reactions to the unending barrage of profanity and garbage lobbed in his direction, but he also suggests that onslaught is just a sign of the times. When Dennis paddles over in his boat to court Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland), the grotesque woman he seeks to marry, he is showered with urine and table scraps, on top of the hot sting of his beloved’s utter indifference. But he also carries on a casual conversation with her father as Mr. Fishfinger hangs his behind out the window and we hear telltale plops in the waterway below. This is not another show of contempt by a Fishfinger. This is just the milieu.
In Gilliam’s world, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) isn’t covered in shit, but he looks and behaves like a half-mad street-corner vagrant, despite the bleating trumpets and lofty honorifics that precede his every incoherent pronouncement. (The son of Olaf the Loud and great-grandnephew of Otto the Bent, he’s also billed as the “conquerer of Freedonia,” an homage to the anarchic tradition of the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup.) Gilliam doesn’t introduce him on the throne but in his dust-choked bedchamber, where he curls up in white bloomers like a frail child, and is roused from his slumber with a bucket of water like a common drunk. Under King Bruno’s rule, the most optimistic man in the kingdom has severed his own foot to improve his prospects as a beggar, and the monarch’s only clear act of domestic policy is to have the kingdom’s bravest men kill one another in a jousting tournament for the opportunity to fight the Jabberwock and win his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Even the monster itself seems like an ugly manifestation of the times. Fantasies are supposed to end with knights in glistening armor fighting majestic, fire-breathing dragons, but the Jabberwock is a spindly, desiccated menace. Two years after Jaws ushered in the modern blockbuster, Gilliam applied a similar strategy to his creature: mostly POV shots, escalating strings, and offscreen violence until the big reveal in the climax. With all that buildup, Gilliam finally delivers an ungainly creature with oversize chicken legs, a hideous visage of thick horns and blazing red eyes, and wings so tattered by the elements that it’s a wonder the thing can fly at all. It’s one of many examples of Gilliam turning the limitations of a shoestring budget into a hidden asset, the homespun authenticity of total destitution.
The foul tactility of Jabberwocky isn’t limited to the horrors we can see, either. The Jabberwock’s first victim, played by a happy-go-lucky Terry Jones, is shown picking up trapped animals and tossing them blithely into a sack, where they fight to the death. Humans are as cruel as the monster that’s picking them off, Gilliam implies, and there’s going to be nothing noble about the effort to slay it. Through the wide-angle lens that would become one of his stylistic signatures, Gilliam views his characters as active participants in their own misery, like individual figures plucked from one of Bosch’s or Brueghel’s medieval tableaux and imagined to the last repulsive detail. If Jabberwocky weren’t so ruthlessly funny and absurd, it might be considered Gilliam’s darkest film.
Within the chaos of Jabberwocky, poor Dennis provides little relief. It is a credit to Palin’s genteel positivity that Dennis draws any sympathy at all, given the comprehensive deficit of his imagination. Perhaps the closest descendant in Gilliam’s filmography is Jonathan Pryce’s low-level functionary in Brazil (1985), although unlike that character, Dennis is supposed to be a man of destiny, the fairy-tale hero who emerges from humble roots to save the kingdom and marry the princess. But since Carroll’s poem only makes it clear that somebody kills something, Gilliam and his cowriter, Charles Alverson, have the freedom to defy expectation and redefine who that somebody is. And it isn’t a knight in shining armor.
A cooper’s apprentice with no interest in the craft, Dennis is everything his father accuses him of being before he dies, a “shallow, dull, pretentious little stock-taker” with no discernible values or skills of any kind. He lacks the pride and self-respect to imagine a bride more suitable than Griselda, to whom he attaches himself like a barnacle to a barge. And that’s not just a starting point, either: he learns nothing in his long, wayward, ironic journey to the Jabberwock, and his eventual triumph is accidental, his blade happening to point in the right direction from the coward’s crouch he has assumed. For him, the fairy-tale ending is like a prison sentence. Awarded half the kingdom and the princess’s hand in marriage, he screams for Griselda, forever blind to the Fishfingers’ naked opportunism. Throughout the film, he hangs on to a potato Griselda discarded, as a token of her affection, clinging to it even as it takes on unexpected value as currency or sustenance in a city that has gone without food for 147 days. He doesn’t seem to notice that the symbol of their love rots as it grows.
Gilliam examines other fairy-tale tropes from behind the looking glass, too, as with the addled conscience of his princess locked in a tower—pure of heart and spirit, perhaps, but empty-headed and naive in the expectation that her fate will conform to legend. When Dennis finally ascends the tower by accident, she lacks the wisdom and experience to recognize that this sad, boring, craven little man isn’t the intrepid knight of prophecy. (That poor fellow can be heard falling to his death in the background, a victim of the castle’s crumbling facade.) This impostor prince and dull-witted princess may well get married, but the happily-ever-after ending will surely elude them. And any official power given to Dennis, who couldn’t negotiate a deal on a fish barrel, does not inspire optimism over the kingdom’s health, either.
The magical-realist twist of Jabberwocky is simple: follow the arc of classic fairy tales and fantasies through the extraordinary filth and torment of actually living during those periods in history. Gilliam steps through the mirror and a familiar room is transformed into a foreign and disturbing place, where everything happens as prophecy dictates but has the opposite of the presumed effect. Though Gilliam would go on to treat the past with the same irreverence and lowbrow wit in Time Bandits (1981), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and The Brothers Grimm (2005), never again would the darkness prevail so handily. Here’s a world where the devoted argue over who gets to be catapulted across the sky in a phosphorescent blaze as a testament to their piety. Few can expect to die so spectacularly.