Twelve Monkeys: Michael Gebert on Terry Gilliam

Buy this video from
The first question you have to ask about Terry Gilliam is, what was a nice boy from Minneapolis doing in a troupe of British collegiate performers, the sort of insular society that you ordinarily have to be born into (and most certainly have to be a British collegian to be part of)?

The answer goes back to New York in the early 1960's, where Harvey Kurtzman, the original editor of Mad Magazine, had broken off to start a series of his own magazines. A young cartoonist named Gilliam wound up doing work for Help!, where the pay was so good that he was reduced at one point to living in Kurtzman's attic. But along the way he met a British collegian (aha!) named John Cleese, and when he went off to Europe with his ill-gotten gains to do what young men do in Europe when they quit their jobs, Cleese helped make the introductions that got him writing work on a TV show called "Do Not Adjust Your Set" and later on Marty Feldman's show "Marty!" (not to be confused with the Paddy Chayefsky play, nor is Ernest Borgnine to be confused with Marty Feldman), both of which used assorted combinations of future Pythons among their writers and performers.

"Do Not Adjust Your Set" and "Marty!" also used, for the first time, Gilliam's animations-- though their surreal and interruptive nature never quite meshed with the more traditional sketch comedy of those programs. At last, in 1969, it was decided to let all those bright, annoyingly-full-of-their-own-ideas young men have their own show, and "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was born, Gilliam's bizarre animations being exactly the glue needed to hold together the anarchic non-structure of the program. Indeed, it was the stream-of-consciousness nature of Gilliam's animations that convinced the other members that the entire show could have that sort of aimless, non-sequitur feel.


Three seasons of Python followed and in 1975, the Pythons decided to make a true feature film (there had been an earlier filmed anthology of sketches). Two Pythons, indeed, Two Terrys (as they were known) expressed interest in directing-- Gilliam and Terry Jones. For a jolly satirical spoof of the Arthurian legend, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" had a surprisingly consistent artistic vision of the medieval era as nasty, brutish and full of ants, a view carried on in Gilliam's little-seen solo directing debut, "Jabberwocky" (1977), starring Michael Palin as a medieval lad who winds up fighting the beast of Lewis Carroll's invention.

In 1981 Gilliam's "Time Bandits" helped him escape the Python mantle and establish a name as a promising director. A fantasy about a kid who is kidnapped by a band of dwarfs and taken through time, meeting characters ranging from King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) to Robin Hood (Cleese), it enjoyed enthusiastic reviews for its imagination, charm-- and Pythonesque humor.

That promise was amply fulfilled by "Brazil" (1985), a visually dazzling fantasia on the themes of Orwell's "1984." To get it released without drastic cuts and a happy ending, however, Gilliam had to take out ads in the trade papers demanding that Universal let it be released. Partly as a result of the controversy, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted it their best film of the year-- after Gilliam reportedly arranged a screening for them over the Mexican border. More trouble followed with "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen" (1989), which went way over budget on production in Italy and was more or less dumped when the regime at Columbia changed hands.

Despite their production difficulties, however, "Brazil" and "Munchhausen" are both extraordinarily rewarding and delightful films, treats for the eye and, with a shared theme of the value of fantasy as an escape from reality, not so bad for the mind, either.

At last Gilliam had a conventional hit with 1991's "The Fisher King," in which the fantasy belongs to Robin Williams, a homeless man whose own idea of a quest helps rescue both himself and a depressed ex-DJ (Jeff Bridges) from their respective despondencies. "The Fisher King" enjoyed great critical success, winning a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Robin Williams and a Supporting Actress Oscar for Mercedes Ruehl.

Terry Gilliam's new film is "Twelve Monkeys," starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.

Back to "Twelve Monkeys"

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.