The Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 2: Escaping the Shadow

Paul Risker continues his Terry Gilliam retrospective…

Jabberwocky sits as an important entry in Gilliam’s canon, representing the realisation of his directorial aspirations. It afforded him a solo directing credit, as well as the opportunity to pursue what he considered to be the aesthetic vision of a professional director he found difficult to pursue previously.

From the animator who dreamt of directing, to the co-director who aspired to achieve a solo directorial credit, Jabberwocky was a comedy whose narrative compromised of sketches, and starred three Pythons: Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. If that was not detrimental enough the more than noticeable Pythonesque humour would cost Gilliam the earlier opportunity to break free from his identity as the sixth Python, to finally assert: I am Terry Gilliam.

Though perhaps I have interpreted this wrong, and perhaps I am not alone. Jabberwocky should be defined not as an exit but rather as a stepping stone, a bridge if you will between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and 1981’s Time Bandits – the latter when Gilliam finally steps out of the shadow. In discussion of Jabberwocky, Gilliam has stated that he does in fact perceive it as a transitional film, an attempt to not escape Python so much as to avoid boxing himself into the comedy genre. I would imagine the irony is not lost on anybody reading this, dare I say even Gilliam himself who remarked, “… in my naiveté and arrogance I thought we could make a medieval film with a lot of comedy, have three Pythons involved  […] and not be accused of making a Python film.” Gilliam did however perceive in Jabberwocky an opportunity to be a more ambitious romance and adventure story. Here I would play devil’s advocate and argue that Holy Grail could be described as a comedy adventure: Arthur and his knights on a quest to recover the Holy Grail.

The renaming of Jabberwocky for U.S. distribution was against Gilliam’s wishes, but Don Rugoff, head of Cinema 5 distribution had little idea how to market the movie, and believed it would fare better with the title Monty Python’s Jabberwocky. Gilliam’s ensuing protests to both the distributor and the critics can be perceived as an early move towards Gilliam’s identity as a maverick director. In his correspondence with the critics, he explained to them that it was not a Monty Python film, and suggested that the film would be better written up as an homage to Breughel and Bosch. The critics were unlikely to ever compare what they perceived as an underwhelming medieval comedy to two such respected artists. The backlash was inevitable, with Newsweek derisively labeling him, ‘Gilliam the questionable’ – an attempt at an amusing comparison of the director to Jabberwocky’s King Bruno the Questionable. Inevitably this conflict over the film’s title serves to show the difficulty Gilliam encountered in escaping the shadow of Python. If Holy Grail was a baptism by fire for the first time co-director, the experience of Jabberwocky was a harsh one, though it could be argued that he was his own worst enemy.

If only as a technical example of filmmaking, the movie set Gilliam aside as a competent visual storyteller; though I believe it does more than that. It is shot with the aesthetical eye of a professional filmmaker, scenes shot from a variety of angles, and the introduction of the Jabberwocky is possibly Gilliam’s crowning achievement. At first limited to Dennis’ point of view of the terrified expressions of the other characters, Gilliam follows that shot up with Dennis’ restricted point of view through his helmets visor. Whilst most monsters are a guy in a suit, the legs and the limbs bending the wrong way, Gilliam with a film designer’s eye simply corrected this by having the guy in the suit stand with his back to the camera. The scene is a testament to Gilliam’s skill as a visual storyteller, no doubt attributed to his animation background, a skill he would continue to exploit to great effect.

Ironically, Gilliam only ended up making Jabberwocky because a previous project stalled. This original project would have been tantalisingly distinct from Holy Grail; in fact even now it would sit as a stylistically original entry in the Gilliam canon. The project was World War Three and All That, a film that would mix animation, World War II footage, and a soundtrack comprised of Beatles songs.

Fast forward to 1981’s Time Bandits. If Gilliam was ever to escape the shadow of Python, it was paramount for him to break free from the style of humour that had featured so predominantly in Jabberwocky. So, in contrast to the Pythonesque medieval comedy, his time travelling movie would introduce Gilliam as the maturing narrative filmmaker.

Gilliam’s first three directorial efforts rely heavily on situational comedy, a mockery of events to drive the narrative forward. Time Bandits is no different, featuring comical situations in the past with the likes of ‘obsessed with his own height’ Napoleon Bonaparte. It would however feature a more maturely constructed narrative, void of sketches, one complimented by the comedy, a generically broad film, and full of characters who we laugh with rather than at.

In truth, neither Jabberwocky nor Time Bandits were about Gilliam escaping the Python shadow. Python is in his blood. He cut his teeth on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Python films. A friend steeped in Python comedy recently remarked to me “He never quite escapes the humour of Python, because it is his humour. When he is funny it is Pythonesque.” For me the genius of Gilliam is embracing his Pythonesque roots and combining it with his own auteurial vision, realising that he can transcend the limits of Python whilst incorporating the comedy of his roots. Gilliam is a director of two halves, the man and his shadow, both of whom leave an imprint on his cinema; the Gilliamesque imagination and the Pythonesque humour. Time Bandits is when this first occurs, and from that point on, Gilliam has taken his place as one of American cinema’s true auteurs. Such a cinematic vision could never have been realised were it not the air of seriousness that derived from his maturing as a narrative filmmaker.

Even as early as Time Bandits, ambition was becoming a characteristic of the director. Jabberwocky featured a subversive ambition, a fairy tale story with the wrong happily ever after ending, a running commentary on corrupt commerce, and the value of the monster to the bureaucrats. Meanwhile Time Bandits, in consideration of genre, was a revolutionary film for its time. Gilliam has asserted that it was made with everyone in mind, a film for everyone. In 1981 that was a problem. Family entertainment had yet to take off; in fact it was not until a year later when Spielberg’s E.T. was released that family entertainment became the lucrative sub-genre the studios would embrace. At that time only Disney were doing broad family entertainment.

An additional problem for Gilliam’s film was that it couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Time Bandits is an amalgamation of genres: action, adventure, sci-fi, fantasy and comedy. I agree with Gilliam that whilst Jabberwocky was somewhere between his singular directorial vision and Python, it nevertheless features a visual and narrative ambition that gets overshadowed by this criticism. I would also agree that any connection to Python is shared with a connection to two prominent European artists – Breughel and Bosch, the influence of whose art are evident in Gilliam’s postmodern fairy tale.

Whilst Jabberwocky demonstrates Gilliam’s fulfillment of a directorial aesthetic, Time Bandits serves to demonstrate his evolution as a narrative storyteller. His first time travel narrative represents a director discovering himself, an auteur full of creative ambition, making peace with his two selves to merge the auteur and the Python. Never was it about escaping the shadow.

Sadly, it would be this ambition that was to set him on a collision with Universal and Sid Sheinberg, for what has become known as ‘The Battle for Brazil.’

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.