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Jabberwocky (film)

Theatrical re-release poster
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Produced by Sanford Lieberson
John Goldstone
Julian Doyle
Screenplay by Charles Alverson
Terry Gilliam
Based on "Jabberwocky
by Lewis Carroll
Starring Michael Palin
Harry H. Corbett
John Le Mesurier
Warren Mitchell
Music by Modest Mussorgsky
Hector Berlioz
Rimsky Korsakov
Jacques Ibert
Cinematography Terry Bedford
Edited by Michael Bradsell
Python Films
Umbrella Films
Distributed by Columbia-Warner Distributors (UK)
Cinema 5 (US)
Release dates
  • 28 March 1977 (1977-03-28) (UK)
  • 15 April 1977 (1977-04-15) (US)
Running time
105 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $500,000

Jabberwocky is a 1977 British fantasy film co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam. It stars Michael Palin as a young cooper who is forced through clumsy, often slapstick misfortunes to hunt a terrible dragon after the death of his father. The film's title is taken from the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871).[1]

The film, Gilliam's first as a solo director, received a mixed response from critics and audiences.[2] It has become a cult film. Despite its unpopularity, Jabberwocky established Gilliam's visual style and dark humour.


  • Cast 1
  • Production 2
    • Monster 2.1
  • Themes 3
    • Commerce 3.1
    • "Creaking bureaucracy" 3.2
    • Accidental and unconventional happiness 3.3
  • Reception 4
    • Critical response 4.1
  • References 5
  • External links 6



The film was shot on location in Wales. There are two castles in the film: Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle. The Jabberwocky battle scenes were filmed in an old Pembroke stone quarry.

The film is close in setting and comic style to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on which Gilliam had worked. As well as Palin, Python Terry Jones and Python contributor Neil Innes appeared in Jabberwocky, giving it a Python-esque feel, with many scenes (such as the "hide and seek" jousting tournament) reminiscent of Holy Grail.[3] For its American premiere the film was advertised as Monty Python's Jabberwocky despite protests from Gilliam.[4]


The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, including the poem "Jabberwocky".

The Jabberwock is a man in costume similar to the classic Japanese Godzilla film effects. In order to recreate the illustrated monster of the 19th century storybook, the costume is designed to be worn by a man walking backwards. Hip and knee joints are reversed giving it a bird-like gait. The actor's head is hidden within the monster's torso — the large marionette head on a serpentine neck is controlled by an offscreen pole and lines, which are unfortunately visible on the print. Long bird-like claws extend out of his shoe heels and his arms become the Jabberwock's wings. Film speed is altered in some scenes to slow the monster's movements and camera angles manipulate perspective in scenes with live actors to depict the monster's immense size. Director Terry Gilliam, during the DVD commentary, stated that the Jabberwock's 'Death Fall' came about accidentally when the actor tripped during filming, but because the fall was so natural it was used in the final print.



One of the most noticeable themes in the film is that of commerce. Dennis Cooper after being gleefully disowned by his dying father, is unable to continue his work as a cooper. Despite his having good ideas about raising productivity, the merchants and businessmen he meets are unwilling to listen to him. Cooper moves from his village to the enclosed town in search of business opportunity. Dennis discovers that the guilds and merchants control business and that outsiders are struggling to survive. While in the city he discovers Wat Dabney, a legendary cooper and inventor of the "inverted firkin". Despite his skill, Wat is excluded by the guilds and has cut his foot off in an attempt to become a beggar — an act so successful that he ends up cutting off his other foot by the film's end. The unusual name is an obvious reference to Wat Tyler, and the revolt of 1381. English landowners profited from the Black Death and they attempted to stop the paid employment of peasants; food shortages caused a large rise in the price of farm produce.

The top merchants in the town profit handsomely from fear of the Jabberwock and are reluctant to help the King end the crisis. The Bishop is happy that fear has led to increased donations to the church and increased attendances at mass and confession ("piety ain't never been higher!"). The Bishop is so unimpressed by the King's choice of a champion to slay the monster that he blesses the champion by simply flicking holy water at him with his index finger. The merchants conspire to send the "black knight" to kill the king's champion and are aghast when Dennis comes back with the monster's head.

"Creaking bureaucracy"

King Bruno the Questionable and his aide, Passelewe are aged rulers in a castle that is falling apart. Darkness, dust, cobwebs and fallen plaster lie everywhere. It is so dark and decrepit that the town outside is refreshing in comparison. So entrenched are these two in their misrule that the only way the King can find an answer to the Jabberwock is to emulate the deeds of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (Max the Vainglorious) and hold a tournament to select a champion; a decision which works because Dennis manages to accompany the champion (Dennis chances to slay the Jabberwock after the champion is killed by the Black Knight).

The "creaking bureaucracy" also includes the inept behaviour of his herald, who is far more concerned with heralding than in the message he is communicating, a process which eventually prevents the King from speaking and ends with the herald losing his head.

Accidental and unconventional happiness

An important theme that Gilliam cited on the film's audio commentary is happiness. By the end of the film Dennis gets everything a fairy tale hero would want (recognition for killing the beast, the princess' hand in marriage and half of the kingdom) by accident. All Dennis wanted was to live a humdrum life, with an overweight peasant girl who didn't even like him.[5]


Critical response

Jabberwocky received a mixed response from critics. It currently holds a 62% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes.[6]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote the film a very positive review, describing it as "...the most marvelously demented British comedy to come along since Monty Python and The Holy Grail, to which Jabberwocky is a sort of stepson."[7] Variety wrote the film a mixed review, praising the monster as "inspired dark imagination," but ultimately describing the film as "...long on jabber but short on yocks."[8]


  1. ^ Shail, Robert (2007). British film directors: a critical guide. Edinburgh University Press. p. 80.  
  2. ^ New York Media, LLC (2 May 1977). New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. p. 76.  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Costa, Jordi; Sanchez, Sergi. "Jabberwocky: Analysis". Dreams. Smart. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  5. ^ Engberg, Mark. "Jabberwocky, 1977". Wildsound Movies. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  6. ^ "Jabberwocky".  
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (16 April 1977). "Jabberwocky".  
  8. ^ Variety staff (1977). "Jabberwocky".  

External links

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