Filmmaker Retrospective: The Bizarre Cinema of Terry Gilliam

In the early 1980s, German filmmaker Werner Herzog shot a film named ‘Fitzcarraldo’ in the jungles of South America, battling against forces of nature as formidable as hostile tribes, and an egomaniacal actor. In that film a 340 ton steamship is moved up and over a hill without the aid of special effects. This ostensibly insane skirmish between nature and film is the stuff of legend, along with Herzog’s characteristic brio. But ‘Fitzcarraldo’ got made no matter what, when so many times it seemed doomed to disaster.

To begin a retrospective of the films of Terry Gilliam in this way may seem off topic, but to give a sense of contrast, Herzog is a perfect model of a filmmaker who has taken on numerous daring challenges and somehow succeeded, whereas Gilliam has seen a film slip right through his hands. This was notably documented in the insightful yet stinging chronicle ‘Lost in La Mancha’ (2002, Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe), and was indeed the most dire example of loss in Gilliam’s career.

During the course of the documentary we see the tentative genesis of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’, an adaptation of Cervantes that had been gestating in Gilliam’s mind for years. Meetings commence, budgets are measured, casting is arranged and all seems good to go until the first few days of filming become plagued by badly rehearsed extras, endless NATO aircraft soaring loudly overhead and a sudden rainstorm, which devolves into a deluge.

Earlier mutterings of a film production of Quixote being cursed suddenly seemed quite sensible. But here was a filmmaker who had fought windmills before, in the guise of studio executives and shady backers. Gilliam remains lucid throughout the film, for the most part, as his dream disintegrates before his very eyes. Rarely has a filmmaker’s own themes and motifs come so strongly to reflect upon the creation of his work.Gilliam’s overarching concerns, from film to film, are the thin line between reality and fantasy, with sanity being the usual conduit between both existences. His characters are in a constant battle for understanding and freedom from oppressive forces, trying to break free from constraint. There are also the trademark crowded frames, witnessed with a fish-eye lens, overloaded with detail like the pages of EC’s MAD magazine.

The overpowering imagery can make viewing one of his films a sometimes daunting task, welcoming return visits to savor the set design. His humorist’s eye, whose potent origins stemmed from the crazy cut-out animations which proliferate throughout Monty Python’s numerous endeavors, lends an off-putting cartoonish spin on the worlds he creates, sometimes balancing a despairing and unsentimental darkness with madcap levity.

His films have a trap door quality where a nearly constant threat pervades, of tone or content, completely flipping the viewer on their head to reveal a nightmare or bring a sense of fantastical relief. Gilliam has also proven a magnificent magician with actors, many prominent faces having delivered diverse performances under almost unrecognizable guises.

The iconic squashing foot of Cupid that punctuated the main titles of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ is an impeccable example of the ethos behind Gilliam’s visual and thematic style. Working with paper cut-outs and only his mercurial imagination, there didn’t need to be any wasted energy on exposition or difficulties with segues. Any minute a giant foot could come raining down from the heavens and SPLAT – over and done with, off to the next item.

The Pythons’ groundbreaking sketch show, and subsequent films, greatly benefited from his stream-of-consciousness animations, linking sketches with a fluidity and imaginative impudence that was breathtaking. Gilliam’s transition into film transmits that sense of narrative disjoint, leaving some critics of his work unsure of his grasp of narrative film, and others barely daunted by the fierce and original voice at work.


1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, co-director with Terry Jones)  and Jabberwocky (1977)

monty python and holy grail

For the first time Gilliam, who had long been the behind-the-scenes animator with scant bizarre character cameos in ‘Flying Circus’, went behind the camera to lend his considerable visual sense to the Pythons’ first non-sketch based film. Adding passages of haunting beauty to the highly comic proceedings, as well as a slovenly embrace of realistic filth and mud, this would go on to become one of the most beloved and oft-quoted films in cinema history.

Sharing directorial duties with fellow Python Terry Jones, who would go on to helm the subsequent Python films, lead to a rather schizophrenic shooting schedule, with Jones and Gilliam shooting in a kind of tandem, one jumping in to shoot when the other was acting.

Gilliam would have his first directorial skirmishes with the famously nitpicky John Cleese, who called Gilliam out on his treating people like his animated paper cut-outs, focusing more on the smoke hazing the background instead of the jokes in the forefront. No matter, the film is a classic of deadpan ridiculousness, aided by Gilliam’s earnestness with the graphic nature of the atmosphere. Such high ridiculousness photographed against such beauty only makes things funnier.

‘Holy Grail’ is meticulously studied in its knowledge of Arthurian history, which it gleefully subverts and diverts from, while maintaining a wickedly sly critique on an array of cinematic pretensions and ubiquitous violence. The battle with the Black Knight remains one of the funniest and shocking scenes ever captured, as entire limbs get hacked away with little fanfare, blood spurting from wounds with pre-Tom Savini rapture.


Gilliam’s first sole directorial effort, the slight curio ‘Jabberwocky’, continued with the tropes and a style familiarized by ‘Holy Grail’, making both films a wonderful double-feature due to their similarities. Initially referencing Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem from ‘Through the Looking Glass’, ‘Jabberwocky’ is best remembered for introducing Gilliam’s own singular brand of eccentric worlds filled with familiar themes culled from childhood tales, yet tinged with a sardonic spin.

Python Michael Palin played Dennis-the-cooper’s-son who becomes embroiled in a quest to hunt down and kill a vicious monster in a fairy tale land, designed with the same preoccupation with filth, torture, sudden death and viscera as ‘Holy Grail’. The most eye-popping visual here, lending the film its shades of horror (and knowing nods to ‘Jaws’), are bodies left devoured by the titular monster, stripped down to the bones like fish.

As a primer to Gilliam’s hand-made style, at a career crossroad, working with tight budgets and a colossal imagination, keeping within the Python boundaries more than subsequent creations, the film is a must see for Gilliam completests.


2. Time Bandits (1981)


Here begins Gilliam’s informal trilogy of imagination, a triptych of films that explore the function of fantasy and escapism in a modern world he saw as increasingly skewed and as nonsensical as any nightmare.

Superficially a children’s film, the original screenplay by Gilliam and Michael Palin follows a young boy (Craig Warnock) who gets caught up in adventures through time with a rogue band of dwarves who have stolen a map of the universe from The Supreme Being. This type of high-concept fantasy adventure aimed at the family market was hard to come by in the early 80s and the trademark Python edge was apparent all the way.

This was the first Gilliam film firing on all cylinders, utilizing surreal and highly memorable imagery as a backdrop for extremely quirky characterizations and self-reverential humor, following main characters across a vivid fantastical terrain. There was also his unmistakably critical eye aimed at the boy’s parents, consumer dopes so preoccupied by their modern household devices that all other affairs, particularly their son’s imagination, have paled in comparison.

Funded by former Beatle George Harrison’s production company HandMade Films, which was initially created in order to fund the Pythons’ second film ‘Life of Brian’, Gilliam was able to assemble an impressive cast: John Cleese (a hilariously oily Robin Hood), Sean Connery (a standard, sturdy Connery turn as Agamemnon), Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm (a height-obsessed Napoleon), Michael Palin, Ralph Richardson (The Supreme Being), Peter Vaughan, David Warner (an uncommonly droll performance as Evil), Jim Broadbent, and as the time travelling thieves David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross.

The film was made on a budget of $5 million and went on to great success earning over $40 million. Terry Gilliam had proven his mettle as a filmmaker and went on to fight a massive battle with a major studio over what many believe to be his masterpiece.


3. The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983, short film preceding ‘Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’)

The Crimson Permanent Assurance

To be screened before ‘Life of Brian’, the Pythons produced a parody of trite travelogue opening featurettes called ‘Away From It All’ where narrator John Cleese describes the vistas of Rome, Venice, Ireland and ends with the usual Cleese craziness, desperately haranguing the audience about the meaning of existence.

Intended as a short feature opener to what would prove to be their final (and most hilariously offensive) film, Gilliam took this conceit one step further with a small work of genius, originally intended to be one of his animations, but which Gilliam inflated, with his usual enthusiasm, into a half-hour short film. Whittled down to over fifteen minutes, the piece opens ‘Meaning of Life’ with a most winning daydream of elderly clerks staging a mutiny over their bosses.

The fantasy of ‘Time Bandits’ and the pending criticisms of bureaucracy in ‘Brazil’ are fused here as surreal images take over: drawers reveal long shelves extending out of windows to become planks and ceiling fans come apart to construct swords, climaxing with the whole building pulling an anchor up out of a city street and setting sail like a pirate ship (with the scaffolding of cleaners ingeniously standing in for the rigging).

Gilliam shot the piece with a separate crew from the main production of ‘Meaning of Life’ and the whole undertaking went over-budget, taking on a life of its own, to the astonishment of his fellow Pythons. Eric Idle even wrote a version of his beloved ‘Galaxy Song’ for the accountant pirates to croon titled ‘The Accountancy Shanty’.


4. Brazil (1985)


‘Time Bandits’ centered on the world of a child and his escape from a closed-minded modernity through the outlet of imagination and all the while remained an accessible, family-oriented picture with a twist. ‘Brazil’ couldn’t have been more different.

Taking the loose trilogy into its next phase, the film focuses an unblinking eye – sometimes hilarious, sometimes rather solemn, if not despairing – on life in the 20th century for a middle aged man caught up in the assembly line of the weekly grind, taking place in a completely fictional world. Some wrongly perceive ‘Brazil’ to be a vision of a near-future instead of its intended representation of the very century in which it was made, plainly Gilliam’s litany of concerns and exasperations with society at large.

Utilizing a wide array of influences (the oft-mentioned Orwellian overtones are heavy) to depict a totalitarian state run amok, this attack on stifling bureaucracy is somewhat curbed by a Python-esque attention to nonsensicality. Very little works as it should in this comical world overrun with bizarre gadgetry but that bumbling whimsy, reminiscent of Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’, only masks the corruption run rampant behind the endless paperwork and consumerism.

“Brazil’ is a truly nightmarish vision at its core, of feckless humanity, zeitgeist paranoia to rival Thomas Pynchon, a world enslaved by its own rules as it decays under its own weight, reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’, and under constant terrorist attack. Throughout the film characters wish each other a ‘Happy Christmas’, passing useless toys back and forth, and one gets the sneaking suspicion that it’s always Christmas in this soul-deadening, consumerist metropolis.

Aging women obsess over gruesome plastic surgery procedures, Central Services is the only place to call when your ducts are on the fritz and they’re unreliable buffoons, people are arrested for no apparent reason and tortured into confessing crimes they may not have committed, and a single bug falling into a machine sends the system into total confusion. This was Gilliam pulling out all the stops.


Aside from all this madness is the main character, Sam Lowry, a low-level paper pusher who is willing to turn a blind eye on this corrupt world in favor of his own complex fantasies (which we are given regular visits to) as a winged warrior. Giving us not one but two diverse fictional worlds, one a metaphorical dream representation of the other, pushes ‘Brazil’ into the far reaches of ambitious filmmaking. It is in Sam’s mind that the societal juggernaut he’s caught in finds its symbolic form as a giant samurai warrior surrounded by doll faced, skeletal minions.

Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect as Sam and surrounded by another impressive cast, with many faces from ‘Time Bandits’ working with Gilliam again: Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Jack Purvis, Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughan and Ian Holm. Kim Griest gives phenomenal support as a very unconventional dream woman for Sam, and Robert DeNiro pops up as Harry Tuttle, a renegade repairman who restores plumbing with the precision of surgeon.

‘Brazil’ was funded by an increasingly tentative Universal Studios, and Gilliam entered into a much publicized battle over the fate of the film with the chairman of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. Mirroring the themes of the film in a remarkable way, Gilliam had to go above and beyond the normal duties of a filmmaker to ensure that his vision wouldn’t be tampered with by a studio system that had assembled their own preposterous happy-ending cut of his film, without his participation.

Gilliam’s decision to screen the film clandestinely, without the studio’s permission, made it known to the world that Universal was withholding and wringing their hands over a modern masterpiece. Jack Mathews’ invaluable book ‘The Battle of Brazil’ and the Criterion Collection’s all-encompassing box set dedicated to the film cover these behind the scenes scuffles extensively.

‘Brazil’ did not recoup its budget at the box office but has gone on to become one of the most influential and well-regarded films of the twentieth century. It stands as a wary reminder of where we came from and where we are headed, as well as a heroic example of a singular artistic vision succeeding over business.