Terry Gilliam Essay - Critical Essays

Gilliam, Terry


Terry Gilliam 1940-

(Full name Terry Vance Gilliam) American director, animator, screenplay writer, and actor.

The following entry provides an overview of Gilliam's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 21.

Gilliam is widely considered one of the most creative writers and directors in contemporary film. He is known for making films which contain fantastical imagery ranging from fairy-tale-like beauty to apocalyptic wastelands. His works typically employ dark humor and unexpected plot twists to prompt viewers to question the meaning of what they are seeing. Gilliam is also widely revered for his work in the seminal comedy troupe Monty Python.

Biographical Information

Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 22, 1940. In 1962, he graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, where he majored in Political Science. He then moved to New York where he was employed as an associate editor of HELP! magazine (where he met John Cleese). In 1967, Gilliam moved to London, England. After two years of selling occasional skits or animated shorts to BBC shows like Do Not Adjust Your Set and We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, he was invited to be a founding member of the comedy team Monty Python in 1969. The BBC show Monty Python's Flying Circus was extremely successful, and its members (Gilliam, Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) achieved sufficient fame and financial success to allow them to develop other creative ventures such as films, books, and recordings. After the series ended in 1974, Gilliam continued to collaborate with the cast members on five Monty Python films. In 1984 Gilliam's film Brazil was awarded Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and received two Oscar nominations. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) also received four Oscar nominations and won three British Academy awards. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1999) was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Gilliam lives in England with his wife Margaret (Weston), and their three children: Amy, Holly, and Harry.

Major Works

As a member of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam wrote sketches, drew bizarre animation and occasionally acted on the show. The group's first film, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), contains short comedy sketches, and was a modest success. Their next film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a farce about King Arthur, was an international success. They followed with three more successful films: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), a Biblical farce (the protagonist, Brian, is mistaken for Jesus Christ); Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a live concert film; and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), a film comprised of sketches relating to birth and death. Gilliam acted in all five films. He also created animated shorts for all but Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl and co-directed with Terry Jones Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Jabberwocky (1977), Gilliam's first non-Python film, is a medieval comic-fantasy starring Michael Palin as a young cooper destined to fight a monster. The film is filled with gritty imagery and is heavily reliant on dark humor. The film struggled both critically and financially. Gilliam's next movie, Time Bandits (1981), is another fantasy which focuses on a young boy who travels through time with a larcenous group of treasure hunting dwarves. In this film, Gilliam makes extensive use of his creative imagination using elaborate sets and sight-gags throughout the film. With a strong supporting cast (Cleese, Palin, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Ian Holm, and Katherine Helmond) and more alluring cinematography, the film was a much larger success than Jabberwocky and prompted critics to view Gilliam as a promising new writer and director. After producing two more Monty Python films, Gilliam returned to solo work in 1984 with Brazil. In Brazil Gilliam creates an odd dystopian world in which people dress in 1940's fashions and use computers with early twentieth-century typewriter-like keyboards. Everything appears to be broken, run-down, or dirty in the film, but characters employ high-tech gadgets with as much frequency as mundane twentieth-century devices. The story follows Sam Lowery, a bureaucrat who encounters trouble with the government when he tries to fix an administrative error and sends an innocent man to jail. Lowery escapes from the grime and drudgery of society through his fantastic dreams and vivid imagination. However, he is unable to differentiate between illusion and reality, and eventually, when he is taken prisoner, he completely escapes to the dream world leaving his body behind to be tortured.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a visually stunning film starring John Neville as Baron Munchausen, a character drawn from European mythology who is known to tell outrageous and unbelievable stories. In the film, Gilliam vividly depicts several of Baron Munchausen's tallest tales. For this movie, Gilliam utilized a large budget and grandiose special effects to depict the baron riding a cannonball, dancing with Venus, and traveling to the moon. In 1991, Gilliam directed a film he didn't also write: The Fisher King, a comic fable that takes place in present-day New York City. Jeff Bridges stars as Jack, a severely depressed ex-disc jockey whose life is rescued by Parry, a homeless man played by Robin Williams. Parry has experienced extensive trauma during his life and is obsessed with all things medieval. He is consumed in a search for the Holy Grail, and he enlists Jack's help in finding it. Gilliam encourages the audience to question Parry's sanity and whether Parry's literal quest for the Grail might symbolize something deeper, such as a search for enlightenment or spiritual fulfillment. In 1995, Gilliam directed Twelve Monkeys, an apocalyptic science-fiction thriller. Based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker, Twelve Monkeys relates the story of a convict (played by Bruce Willis), who is sent back in time to stop a plague that has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the Earth's population. The plague has forced survivors to live underground due to fear of contamination. In Twelve Monkeys Gilliam conveys a bleak future and emphasizes one of his favorite recurrent themes in films—man's distrust of technology. In 1998, Gilliam returned to screenwriting and adapted Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen. The film follows Uncle Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) on a weekend trip to Las Vegas in which they experiment with a wide variety of drugs. The entire movie is seen through the distorted perspective of drug induced hallucinations. The two companions ingest a combination of marijuana, ether, LSD, and alcohol with reckless abandon; and Gilliam, like Thompson, uses their warped realities to lend black humor to their self-abusive behavior.

Critical Reception

Many critics laud Gilliam for his daring imagery while others argue that this extraordinary imagery tends to overwhelm his narratives. Most reviewers, however, tend to praise Gilliam for his utilization of imagination and for creating films that are not only visual spectacles but are thematically critical in hopeful, comedic ways. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone writes: “Even when Terry Gilliam's latest leap into the wild blue of futuristic fantasy is at its most confounding, you leap along with him. Such is the seductive power of his twisted imagination.”

Principal Works

The Cocktail People [with Joel Siegel] (cartoons) 1966

Do Not Adjust Your Set (television sketches) 1968

We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (television sketch animations) 1968

*Monty Python's Flying Circus (television sketches and animations) 1968-1974

*And Now for Something Completely Different [with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1971

*Monty Python and the Holy Grail [with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1975

*Jabberwocky [with Charles Alverson] (screenplay) 1977

Monty Python's Life of Brian [with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1979

*Time Bandits [with Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1981

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl [with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1982

*Monty Python's The Meaning of Life [with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin] (screenplay) 1983

*Brazil [with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown] (screenplay) 1984

*The Adventures of Baron Munchausen [with Charles McKeown] (screenplay) 1988

*The Fisher King [screenplay by Richard LaGravenese] (film) 1991

*Twelve Monkeys [screenplay by David and Janet People] (film) 1995

**Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (screenplay) 1998

*Gilliam directed these works.

**Screenplay based on the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.


Fred Glass (review date Summer 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Brazil, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1986, pp. 22–8.

[In the following review, Glass examines the psyche of Sam Lowery, the main character in Brazil, and the cause of Sam's fantasies.]

During the long-awaited year 1984 a veritable deluge of articles, books, talks, speeches and more were given over to discussion ad nauseam of Orwell’s book and prophecies. Nineteen Eight Four became the province, in 1984, of a battle for the most prevalent interpretation of totalitarian society—whose resembles it more, “theirs” or “ours”: the USSR or the USA. It should have surprised no one that most leftist accounts...

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David Morgan with Terry Gilliam (interview date Autumn 1988)

SOURCE: “The Mad Adventures of Terry Gilliam,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 238–42.

[In the following interview, which took place on location during the filming of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam discusses the progress of the film.]

‘I get the feeling that, a bit like Brazil, the making of the film is going to be like the film itself. Where Brazil was about a nightmare, this one is about impossibility and overcoming it, and trying to push through a lot of things and a lot of people who don’t think they can do it, because they are realistic.’

Terry Gilliam obviously knew, perhaps...

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Elizabeth Drucker (review date September 1991)

SOURCE: “The Fisher King: Terry Gilliam Melds the Modern and the Mythical,” in American Film, Vol. 16, September, 1991, pp. 50–1.

[In the following review, Drucker offers an analysis of Gilliam's directing technique in The Fisher King.]

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is New York’s top shock disc jockey—that is; until one of his careless on-air remarks triggers a horrific tragedy. Three years later, at rock-bottom, Jack encounters Parry (Robin Williams), a former professor of medieval history who roams the streets living in a world he’s invented to block out memories of a personal trauma. Only Parry, an innocent, has the power to help Jack recover his...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Philip Strick (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: A review of 12 Monkeys, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 56–7.

[In the following review, Strick describes 12 Monkeys as a confusing, muddled film that was inspired by, but is not as good as, Chris Marker's La Jetée.]

Philadelphia, 2035. Sheltering underground from a virus that has killed most of the world’s population, a group of scientists sends randomly selected criminals to monitor conditions in the derelict city above. One such ‘volunteer’ is James Cole, a surly and violent convict haunted by the childhood memory of a man shot down in an airport corridor. Impressed by Cole’s toughness and powers of observation,...

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Barbara Fister (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Mugging for the Camera: Narrative Strategies in Brazil,” in Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1996, pp. 288–92.

[In the following essay, Fister explains that Gilliam's use and misuse of cues in Brazil makes the viewer rethink what is “real” in the film.]

Brazil has a curious history. Terry Gilliam, a former member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, created a dystopia so devastating, and yet so compelling, that Universal refused to release it without a massive editing job, reshaping it to match the expectations of the public—and the studio marketing strategists. Gilliam would not agree to their changes and made a...

(The entire section is 3495 words.)

Bob McCabe with Terry Gilliam (interview date June 1998)

SOURCE: “Chemical Warfare,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1998, pp. 6–8.

[In the following interview, Gilliam discusses adapting Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen.]

In 1967—amid the turbulence generated by the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the build-up to the San Francisco summer of love and the explosive Los Angeles race riots—Terry Gilliam left his home country of America for England. Thirty years later he went back to take “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” by bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen. Thompson’s 1971 book began...

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J. Robert Craig (essay date August 1998)

SOURCE: “Trapping the Simians in the Scottish Highlands: A Viewer Response to the Hitchcock MacGuffin in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys,” in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 19, Nos. 3–4, August, 1998, pp. 244–9.

[In the following essay, Craig analyzes the misleading aspects of 12 Monkeys in an attempt to discern the actual meaning of the film.]

In a key scene in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), James Cole (Bruce Willis) and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) take refuge from their pursuers in a movie theater holding an Alfred Hitchcock film festival. As the two plan their next move and discuss their feelings for each other,...

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Linda Ruth Williams (review date November 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 8, No. 11, November, 1998, pp. 48–9.

[In the following review, Williams discusses the over-the-top excesses in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.]

1971. Journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a red convertible, beginning a huge drugs binge. They check into the Mint Hotel so Duke can cover the Mint 400 off-track race the following day, take more drugs and run up a huge room service bill. They visit Bazooka Circus casino on ether.

The next day Gonzo departs and Duke drives to Baker, California. On the way be is stopped by a...

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Further Reading


Grenier, Richard. “Hollywood's Holy Grail.” Commentary 92, No. 5 (November 1991): 50–3.

A discussion of The Fisher King, the legend of King Arthur, and the film's attempt to address spiritual matters.

Mathews, Jack. “Earth to Gilliam.” American Film 14, No. 5 (March 1989): 34–9, 57–8.

Describes the difficulties that Gilliam faces trying to capture his wild fantasies on film.

Rushdie, Salman. “The Location of Brazil.American Film 10, No. 10 (September 1985): 50–3.

Rushdie, a critically-lauded Anglo-Indian novelist,...

(The entire section is 110 words.)