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The Fisher King, 1991, Terry Gilliam

When I first heard about the release of The Fisher King, I wondered how many times I had seen it already. Even though it had been some time since my last viewing, there were too many to count. This just seemed to be the film that frequently came into my life, either on cable or video, or with friends. It’s an easily delightful and digestible film. As I began watching this new Criterion edition, I found that I practically knew every twist and turn, yet I still enjoyed it close to as much as the first time.

There are some films that are dense and reveal more with every revisit. Good examples of recent films I’ve explored are Black Narcissus and The Great Beauty. They have a level of sophistication, density, and depth that I’ve taken something new with every viewing (and for the Sorrentino, it took three for me to engage).

The Fisher King is not one of those films. That’s not to say that it is not sophisticated or artistic. It is quite an accomplished film, but the themes are overt and easy to pick up on, especially for a Gilliam film. Sometimes that is refreshing. It is not shallow by any stretch, but in a way it is like art-film version of comfort food. You can appreciate it without having to deconstruct and dissect it.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

I’m not a fan of lazily using film mash-ups to describe a film, but it is tempting to do it here. For example, I could say that it is The Holy Grail meets My Man Godfrey meets Sleepless in Seattle. The reason is because the film is such a genre mash-up, and again, that contributes to the charm. It has the Gilliam-esque creativity, although somewhat muted, with a positive portrayal of the values of homelessness (and by extension, anti-commercialism) in New York City. Part of the appeal is that it effectively weaves itself between fantasy, comedy, drama, and gives an important life lesson without relying on over manipulation.

In a way it hurts to watch The Fisher King today, because it was the quintessential Robin Williams role and his passing was tragic. Some of the highs, lows and demons of his character, Parry, may have been closer to Williams’ reality.

the fisher king - robin 8

This was when he was in the midst of a transformation from a strictly silly actor into a serious actor. He eventually became a little of both. I always found him to be a funny man, but I gained a lot of respect for him as a dramatic actor. By this time, he had already turned in two strong performances in Awakenings and Dead Poet’s Society. Later in his career he would put in good work in films such as One Hour Photo and Insomnia. As much as I’ve enjoyed him as an actor, his turn in The Fisher King is my favorite, and is a character that few other than Williams could have pulled off. It is part zany and he often is very funny, yet there is emotional trauma buried down deep, which he has to come to terms with. Meanwhile, he is an endearing character because of his values in life. Who can’t fall in love with the guy who strips in Central Park just because? We also see him as a genuine, hopeless romantic, the type that embodies the definition of chivalry. He is a crazy, disturbed, but ultimately benevolent knight in shining armor.

This was also quite a departure for Terry Gilliam, but he left his indelible stamp on the film. Few could transform New York City into a convincing template for a fantasy world, but through his direction, it becomes wholly believable. The most impressive Gilliamism is the Red Knight, which is simply a beauty to see. We get to see an excellent, original creation that is used to represent a character’s persona. We understand Parry because of how menacing this Red Knight is portrayed. His demon is fierce and relentless, with a burning fire that represents wounds that have not healed.

the fisher king - jeff and mercedes

the fisher king - parry lydia at doorstep

The entire cast is extremely good. Jeff Bridges does a fine job at portraying Jack, the smarmy, better looking Howard Stern whose ambition and thirst for success is the anti-thesis of Parry’s ideology. His straight man performance complements Williams’ manic behavior. Plummer is also good playing Lydia, an odd, quirky and shy homebody. However, aside from Williams, Mercedes Ruehl as Anne steals a lot of her scenes. She is the dramatic center, the other side of the Parry coin that drives Jack towards his character evolution. She is the one that is devoted to him, the one he can count on, but even when he is learning about life through Parry, the one he continues to mislead and mistreat.

Speaking of stealing scenes, how can you not love Michael Jeter as a homeless man? He plays a flamboyantly gay man (or so we would assume). He is about as over-the-top as they come, but he is yet another facet into the appeal and the likability of the homeless crowd. His scene where he sings on behalf of Parry to Lydia in her office is not just a scene-stealer, but is one of the most memorable performances of the movie. That scene was a riot!

the fisher king - the castle

Again, even if not particularly deep, the film’s message on the trappings of materialism and selfishness are interesting. Through the great performances, creative directing, and originality maneuvering through a variety of genres, we have a movie that I can watch numerous times and still find joy in it years later.

Film Rating: 7.5


Audio Commentary: 1991, Terry Gilliam.

  • He had three rules when establishing himself as a director. 1) He would never direct someone else’s script, 2) for a major studio, 3) or in America. He broke all three with The Fisher King.
  • He intended to portray Jack as completely unredeemable, a monster. People stuck with him simply because he was played by Jeff Bridges, a big star.
  • The Pinocchio toy doll parallels Parry, who is going to become a real man during the course of the film.
  • He thinks it is funny that the Holy Grail is associated with him. It was only in one film, and he thinks the association is overstated. In this film, the Grail is just a symbol for love.
  • Jack is more of the character of The Fisher King because he has lost the ability to love. Parry still has that ability.
  • His philosophy in film is to obtain the actor’s trust, make them comfortable and respect them. He realizes that other directors have taken advantage of actors and they don’t always have a great experience. A lot of directors probably say this, but the other cast interviews back up that Gilliam is truly an actor’s director.
  • The violent scenes with him and the Red Knight were controversial in production. People tried to talk him out of it, thinking that the gore would be too much. He thought it would be fine and he was right.

Deleted Scenes:

I’m not always crazy about deleted scenes as extras on discs. That was the case here. The additions were minute and it is understandable why they were cut.

The Tale of the Fisher King – two 2015 documentaries with Terry Gilliam, writer Richard LaGravenese, producer Lynda Obst, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl.

The Fool and the Wounded King

LaGravenese wanted to do something that was opposed to the cynicism that was prevalent at the time. They were also into the Holy Grail myth, and how people need a myth to love by. He wrote 4 different screenplays with the same two characters, and discovered Lydia in 2nd screenplay. Disney was involved and it was demoralizing. They basically wanted it re-written in a Disney style. They sold it to Tri-Star where it was assigned to “terrible directors.” James Cameron wanted to do it at one point, but he was in the middle of The Abyss. Tri-Star flew to London to talk Gilliam into doing something that went against his entire philosophy. He didn’t like to work with studios and liked independence and control.

People at Tri-Star had reservations about Terry Gilliam because of his last film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which was seen as a disaster from a studio’s perspective. Robin Williams worked with Terry on Munchausen, so they had a rapport. We’re all lucky he agreed to do it.

The Real and the Fantastical

Jeff was being casted against type. He had played mostly likable people before. Gilliam: “Robin was in awe of Jeff” and didn’t feel like he had to be funny and outrageous. Mercedes Ruehl’s character was based on an Italian-American video store owner that the writer knew. Terry loved Mercedes for this role.

Terry was great with the locations, arranging the big visuals. He was not great with the emotional tones of the actors, but he gave them the freedom to explore. He was great with the “Red Knight” stuff. He says that the idea came from a mixture between something in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Grail legend. They were shooting in the rougher sections of New York, but Gilliam was creating a fantasy world.

Bridges talks about interacting with Robin, wondering whether he was going to be silly and take him out of the role. Robin was actually terrific to work with and would encourage him between takes, and would crack jokes only at the appropriate times. Bridges gets choked up when talking about this, probably thinking about how Robin had passed.

The Tale of the Red Knight – 2015 documentary with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on making the knight.

They had to do create this being with real props and effects. There was no CGI or green screen back then.

They take out the props from the studio. They said, “do you want to work with Terry Gilliam”? They said yes without hesitation, and they had to get a helmet and other junk for him to look at as an audition of sorts. Terry said, “it’s all wrong, but you have the job.” They were always behind schedule because they were hired later. “It was like we were being chased by the Red Knight.”

They did the whole thing with a horse, a stunt guy with a lantern on his head, all painted red.

Jeff’s Tale: Images of the set from Jeff Bridges’ camera.

He takes these images on all of his films. He shows a number of production meetings, script meetings, and Mel Bourne often telling people there wasn’t enough money to do everything. He shows the various departments (sound, camera) on set and of course the actors. It is a fun supplement that gives a feel for what the production was like.

Jeff and Jack: Production footage of Bridges becoming Jack the radio shock jock.

Stephen Bridgewater was a shock jock that stopped radio and became an actor and director.

Bridges is a good fit. They show him doing the show. He talks to some women, tells them to take their clothes off, get some Wesson Oil, and then drink it. He calls a lady that had sex with a US senator. He speaks with an offended lesbian. “Congratulations,” he says. He does a variety of versions of calls that happen in the film, such as the person whose husband finishes sentences, which was as effective in the outtakes as it was in the final film.

Robin’s Tale: 2006 Interview with Robin Williams.

He said that New York City is a magical place, and it really seemed like it when shooting that film. Robin loved Gilliam: “He is the element that makes this work.” He credits everything to Gilliam and it is clear he is genuine. He also contrasted this project with Gilliam’s previous works by comparing it to a mural painter who is asked to paint a miniature.

Robin is goofy when telling anecdotes. He does voices and injects humor, like when talking about homeless people at the Red Knight scene, or talking about Jeff Bridges as a sex symbol. He gets serious when talking about his peers, like Ruehl, Plummer, and of course Gilliam. He gets very serious when discussing the intricacies and meaning of the film. This one meant a lot to him.

Costume Tests:

We see the entire cast trying out costumes to the “How About You?” theme song. It is a fun, short novelty.

Criterion Rating: 9/10

Criterion: Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam, 1981

Time Bandits came at a curious time in the career of Terry Gilliam. It could be considered a crossroads. He had cut his teeth animating for Monty Python, which eventually led to him co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones. From there he moved towards imaginative fantasy worlds like Jabberwocky, where he was still finding his craft. Time Bandits was yet another step forward into exploring a fantastical world, while still clinging to his Python roots and trying to achieve a mass appeal. What resulted was a blending of the Python comedy, the Gilliam fantasy, and another stepping stone towards the career of a unique auteur.

Gilliam uses a child’s perspective to establish the fantasy, contrasted with the crass commercialism of the adults – Kevin’s parents – and a yearning toward the adventures of yesteryear. While he is dreaming of historical and fantasy worlds, his parents are dreaming of an appliance that prepares their food just a little quicker. Meanwhile, they sit on furniture that still has the plastic covering seemingly to keep it from becoming worn and old.

The mise-en-scene of Kevin’s bedroom is a template for the entire remainder of the film. The pictures represent locations where Kevin and his Time Bandits will later travel, while the toys will similarly reappear as objects in later scenes. This is a clever and creative way of planting a gun in the first act to have it reappear in the third. Gilliam places everything in the first act, which begs the question as to whether the events take place in reality or whether they are in the dreams of a child’s mind.

The fact that Kevin’s travel companions are dwarves help anchor the camera to a child’s perspective, so that virtually everything in the movie is shot from below. All of the adults (save for Napoleon) tower over the camera. This also suggests the mystery between this being a child’s imaginary world or whether the bandits and their perspective are real.

John Cleese and Michael Palin are the link with Gilliam’s Monty Python roots. While they are funny in Time Bandits and steal every scene they are in, they restrain Gilliam’s artistry and imagination. It is no coincidence that his best work would come when he was ultimately divorced from the Python aesthetic. We laugh when Cleese steals the rich bounty from the bandits only to give it away to the poor, or when he turns a blind eye to those poor being punched for no apparent reason. We also laugh when Michael Palin tries to hide an ailment from his beloved Shelley Duvall, whether it is in the forest or on the Titanic.

When the Python actors are not on the screen, the film becomes less of a comedy and more of a deeper examination of the spirituality of this world. In this sense, Time Bandits is two different movies. It is in part a Pythonesque comedy and in part an artistic examination of commercialism, the concept of good versus evil, and at it’s core, a coming of age story. Given that it is so many things and is partially effective at each, I feel that it falls short of its potential, yet remains wholly entertaining.

Film Rating: 6.5/10


Commentary: – Gilliam discusses his experiences with the film in a decent commentary. I did not realize that this began as a children’s film while he was struggling to make Brazil. I can see that ambition in Time Bandits, and for that reason I’m glad he used a mainstream canvas to stretch his creative legs, and that experience probably helped Brazil become a great film. It is interesting that he used Python actors and dwarf actors from Star Wars, yet was inspired by Visconti in terms of production value. This is readily apparent by the terrific historical set pieces, which stand on their own for any genre of film.

There are other participants in the commentary. Child actor Craig Warnock played Kevin and shares some of his fond memories of the experience, since he was young during the filming, he does not have the sharpest memory of how everything came together. He share some interesting stories, such as how he got the part, which of course would be difficult to forget.

Also participating in the commentary are Michael Palin, John Cleese, and David Warner. Palin helped write the movie. He was initially going to only write the dialogue, but he ended up contributing to the plot as well. And he casted and wrote his own part. It was a short shoot for John Cleese and he did not know entirely what the movie was about, but he enjoyed his scene. Warner enjoyed playing the evil genius, which was a sort of comic villain that he had not played before.

“Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits” – This piece is about the set and costume design. Like many good Criterion features, it points out things that are easy to miss when first viewing the film. One thing I missed was that the bandit characters had relics from history as part of their costumes. Talks about different locations – Ancient Greece was Southern Morocco. The Napoleon scenes were filmed in Wales. There were other scenes shot in Kent, and a lot on the studio. The Titanic was shot in a studio by just creating a deck, but it worked well. The sinking was from A Night to Remember.

Terry Gilliam and Peter von Baugh – This is a conversation between the director and film scholar from 1998. Gilliam talks about films he loves as a kid, like epic films (Ben Hur), which can be seen in his personal and Monty Python works. Talks about using movies as escapes, which makes sense since his major works – even the most artistic — really are about escaping into a sort of fantasy world. He did not know art cinema as a child, but adored people like Jerry Lewis. Of course he would eventually discover art films. At one point in the interview he references La Jetee, which of course he would remake into 12 Monkeys.

Shelley Duvall – Interview with Tom Snyder in 1981 on his Tomorrow show. He introduces her as a big star, which she really was at the time, but her film career derailed afterward and she worked more on children’s projects (Fairy Tale Theater). She talks about how smart Monty Python guys are, which is true as they are all Oxford scholars, and many of their post Python works have been academic. This was a short, promotional segment where they showed a clip.

Criterion Rating: 7.5/10