Jabberwocky (film)

Jabberwocky is a 1977 British fantasy comedy film co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam. It stars Michael Palin as Dennis, a cooper's apprentice, 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]

Theatrical re-release poster
Directed byTerry Gilliam
Produced bySandy Lieberson
Screenplay byCharles Alverson
Terry Gilliam
Based on"Jabberwocky"
by Lewis Carroll
StarringMichael Palin
Harry H. Corbett
John Le Mesurier
Warren Mitchell
Music byModest Mussorgsky
Hector Berlioz
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Jacques Ibert
CinematographyTerry Bedford
Edited byMichael Bradsell
Python Films
Umbrella Films
Distributed byColumbia-Warner Distributors (UK)
Cinema 5 (US)
Release date
  • 28 March 1977 (1977-03-28) (UK)
  • 15 April 1977 (1977-04-15) (US)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film, Gilliam's first as a solo director, received a mixed response from critics and audiences.[2]


Dennis Cooper is a young cooper apprentice living in poverty, working for his father and determined to marry Griselda Fishfinger. Dennis' father becomes terminally ill, and at his deathbed, his father speaks badly of Dennis. The young man resolves to make a pilgrimage into the city and find work before returning to Griselda. Griselda throws a potato at him, which he keeps as a cherished memento.

When Dennis arrives at the city, the people are in a sustained state of fear of a mysterious monster. The king, Bruno the Questionable, considers pitting the land's knights against each other in a jousting tournament to determine who will be sent to slay the monster. Upon returning, the knight will be promoted to prince and married to the Princess, who lives in a tower, wishing a true prince will arrive and marry her. The tournament is announced, while Dennis is told there is no work in the city for even the most skilled and famed cooper. When Dennis accidentally enters the tower, the beautiful and naked Princess mistakes him for her prince, assuming he was forced to don peasants' clothes in the midst of a perilous adventure. She has him disguised in a nun's habit and sent out, but the peasantry believe he is Satan in the guise of a nun, or a nun in the guise of Satan, and decide to send him to the monster.

Face to face with the monster, in the form of the bizarre Jabberwocky, Dennis accidentally kills the creature. Bruno the Questionable in turn promises to wed Dennis to the Princess.



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. 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 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.[citation needed] 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 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" (portrayed by David Prowse in his last pre-Darth Vader role) to kill the king's champion and are aghast when Dennis comes back with the monster's head.

"Creaking bureaucracy"Edit

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 happinessEdit

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 responseEdit

Jabberwocky received a mixed response from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a rating of 50%, based on 18 reviews, with an average rating of 5.88/10.[6]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote the film a 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 gave 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. ISBN 978-0-7486-2231-3. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  2. ^ New York Media, LLC (1977). New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. p. 76. ISSN 0028-7369.
  3. ^ Gilliam, Terry; Sterritt, David; Rhodes, Lucille (April 2004). Terry Gilliam: interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-57806-624-7.
  4. ^ Costa, Jordi; Sanchez, Sergi. "Jabberwocky: Analysis". Dreams. Smart. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
  5. ^ Engberg, Mark. "Jabberwocky, 1977". Wildsound Movies. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  6. ^ "Jabberwocky (2017)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 16 July 2017.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (16 April 1977). "Jabberwocky". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  8. ^ "Jabberwocky". Variety. 31 December 1976. Retrieved 21 August 2012.

External linksEdit