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Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam, Bob McCabe, Orion, 1999, 192 pp.

Many books have been written about Terry Gilliamís movies, and at least two major books about the struggles Gilliam has undergone to make his movies, The Battle of Brazil by Jack Mathews and Losing the Light by Andrew Yule (about the uphill battle to make The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Monty Pythonís Flying Circus is also an extensively documented phenomenon, with many collected videos, retrospectives, and at the minimum, four or five books (McCabe lists four of them at the back of this book). Bob McCabe makes room for himself in this crowded field by focusing on Terry Gilliamís career as a whole and by including as much material of visual interest as possible.

In fact, this excellent biography of Terry Gilliam is crammed to the rafters with movie stills, never-before-seen doodles, alternate movie posters, behind-the-scenes photos, original art, excerpts from Gilliamís Monty Python animation, concept sketches, movie storyboards, some of the propaganda posters seen in Brazil, and even an eponymously titled sketch done exclusively for this book by Gilliam. McCabe has also written a substantial amount of text to accompany all of this visual wealth, including a section on Gilliamís early life, and then chapter-by-chapter coverage of each of the major projects of Gilliamís career.

Terry Gilliam was born in rural Minnesota in 1940. He grew up there as a bit of a country boy. Later, his family moved to California and Gilliam went to college in California, apparently as a straight-A student and a jock. He was always interested in art and cartooning, and in 1962 he showed up in New York on the doorstep of Harvey Kurtzman, the editor of a parodic magazine Help! He got a job because the assistant editor had just quit. He worked for Help! for three years, in that time meeting people like Woody Allen and, notably for Gilliamís later career, John Cleese. After some time in Europe and back in California, Gilliam left America partly because of the Vietnam War and his own feelings of disillusionment. He moved to London, meeting people and getting involved in various TV shows. He became friends with the other members of Monty Python and in 1969, their first episode aired on BBC. Gilliam would be heavily involved with Python projects for more than a dozen years, with his own film Jabberwocky in 1977 and three Python features in the meantime before coming completely into his own with Time Bandits, a movie he would co-write and direct (just like his next two movies). The Meaning of Life in 1983 would be the last major Monty Python project with the entire group.

In 1985, Gilliam directed Brazil, one of the key movies in his career. This is also one of the longer chapters in McCabeís book. Thereís a great deal of material here, but not much new for myself, having seen the Criterion DVD and read The Battle of Brazil. For anyone interested in getting a glimpse into the background of Brazil without the extra work, Dark Knights and Holy Fools is the perfect venue.

The chapter on Brazil is mirrored by the subsequent chapter on the difficulties faced in the making of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1989. McCabe also talks a great deal about how Time Bandits, Brazil, and Munchausen form a trilogy, as the theme of the fantastical is seen from the eyes of a young boy, a middle-aged man, and an elderly man. In hindsight, this forms a neat unit of time and concept to talk about in terms of Gilliamís career.

The next three movies also form a unit, Gilliamís three American movies, or his three movies with which he was mostly involved only as director. The Fisher King in 1991, 12 Monkeys in 1995, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998 were all projects with existing scripts. My personal feeling is that the first two movies of this loosely linked set are the best, but Fear and Loathing was done with an admirable amount of gusto.

All along, McCabe mentions projects that Gilliam could not get made, labelling them The Great Unmade projects. Included are Gormenghast, The Watchmen, A Scanner Darkly, A Tale of Two Cities, Quasimodo, Time Bandits 2, and Don Quixote. The last two are from the post-Fear and Loathing era, and unfortunately to say, as of this writing (2003), Gilliam has not been able to get any projects off the ground since 1998, continuing a common struggle in his artistic career. Apparently, he had a production of something called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in front of the cameras, only to have it sabotaged by a confluence of several different types of catastrophe (two filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who made the documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, have also made a documentary about this failed project, entitled Lost in La Mancha).

All in all, Dark Knights and Holy Fools is a handsome volume, with wonderful art by Gilliam and tons of information assembled by McCabe. Each chapter is capped off by an extensive interview with Gilliam himself, although McCabe interviews nearly every star involved in a Gilliam movie and intersperses this detail in the appropriate locations. This book is clearly a labour of love and it shows on every page. Highly recommended.


Last modified: January 23, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg


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