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Gilliam, Terry (1940-)

Director, Writer, Animator, Actor

Main image of Gilliam, Terry (1940-)

Terrence Vance Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 22 November 1940. His family lived on the city's rural outskirts until 1951, when they moved to California, settling near Los Angeles. The proximity of Hollywood reinforced Gilliam's early fascination with cinema, which had been fuelled by science fiction and animated films; radio, however, was his most creative influence, together with comic books and magazines. His student years saw him as the editor of Fang, Occidental College's satirical journal. After majoring in Physics in 1962, Gilliam left LA for New York, securing a job as assistant editor on Harvey Kurtzman's magazine, Help.

A stint in advertising and as a freelance illustrator followed, but the turning point came in 1967, when Gilliam moved to London and was introduced to television producers. After collaborating on sketches and animation pieces for a number of comedy shows, in 1969 he joined Monty Python's Flying Circus, the ground-breaking BBC series characterised by subversive and surreal humour. Gilliam's ambitious, fantasy-led work was ideally suited to Python, providing the bizarre animated sequences which greatly contributed to the show's cult appeal.

The next breakthrough came as Python made the leap to the big screen, with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) affording Gilliam his first directing role, which he shared with fellow Python Terry Jones. An irreverent take on the Arthurian legend, the film combined narrative and visual surrealism with a realistic approach to medieval mise en scène, a style maintained by Gilliam in his solo directorial debut, Jabberwocky (1977). This film bore little resemblance to its original inspiration, Lewis Carroll's poem, but allowed the director to further explore his vision of the Middle Ages as a Western-like world filled with clear archetypes. Protagonist Dennis Cooper, forced to abandon his dreams by society's powers that be, epitomised Gilliam's key preoccupation, the crushing of the individual by a soulless system; Jabberwocky bore Gilliam's signature on its script and special effects, as do all his subsequent films.

Time Bandits (1981) expanded the theme of embattled individuality by placing a child's vision at its core: the film's hero, Kevin, lives a fantasy life in opposition to his parents' conformist, materialistic values. The victory of fantasy over reality, another favourite subject of Gilliam's, is expounded in Kevin's alliance with six time-travelling dwarfs, relentlessly pursued by The Supreme Being, the heartless creator of a bureaucracy-driven universe. Gilliam's next work was The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983), a short film placed at the beginning of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: featuring a group of elderly, exploited accountants, it charts their rebellion against corporate power, and their transformation into a gang of pirates spreading terror through the world of finance.

Farcical elements are still present in Brazil (1985), a dystopian odyssey set in the future, but they are used by Gilliam to highlight his vision of a society dominated by censorship and bureaucracy: pervasive propaganda posters, designed in the idealised, happy-family style of 1950s American adverts, urge citizens to spy on their neighbours. The result is a highly disturbing film, where protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) vainly tries to escape the clutches of totalitarianism, machinery, and conformity. Gilliam's well-documented struggle to maintain an unhappy ending, against the producers' wish, enhanced the status of both director and film; together with the dense narrative, dream-world imagery, and gloriously monstrous visuals, it gained Brazil its reputation as the quintessential Gilliam film. Critical recognition matched the film's popular success, with awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in 1985, as well as two Oscar nominations.

Gilliam's next and last British film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), acquired a different distinction, as this time the director's grandiose imagination was out-stripped by production costs. A lavish, large-scale rendition of the classic tale, including a whole Turkish army and a journey to the moon, Munchausen rapidly ran into huge debts; although critically praised and nominated for four Oscars, it was given a limited release and lost money.

Gilliam's status as auteur has been assured by his strikingly idiosyncratic style, recurrent themes, and insistence on control of all stages of filmmaking. An open hostility towards the studio system has complemented his criticism of mainstream American culture, pragmatically sealed by a thirty-five-year residence in Britain. While he has had to turn to his native country to finance his most recent films, he has continued to denounce Hollywood as an accessory to the 'lie' lived by American society; accordingly, he has declined the direction of many a US box-office hit.

In Britain as elsewhere, Gilliam's directing skills have been at times overshadowed by the stunning impact of his visual creations: he remains best known as a visionary maker of fantastic worlds, monsters, and machines. Likewise, critics and audiences have tended to overlook the outstanding performances given by his actors: Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro in Brazil, John Neville and Robin Williams in Munchausen, to name but a few.

Following a long film-making spell in the USA, where he made The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Gilliam returned to Europe to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The film collapsed after its leading actor fell ill and although a documentary (Lost in La Mancha (d. Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, 2002)) has been made outlining Gilliam's ideas, he has not been able to re-launch the project and is now working on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens.

Ashbrook, John, Terry Gilliam (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2000)
Christie, Ian, ed. Gilliam on Gilliam (London: Faber and Faber, 1999)
Johnson, Kim 'Howard', The First 280 Years of Monty Python (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999)
Mathews, Jack, The Battle of Brazil (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987)
McCabe, Bob, Dark Knights & Holy Fools (London: Orion, 1999)
Rushdie, Salman, 'The Location of Brazil' in Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta, 1991)
Yule, Andrew, Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga (New York: Applause Books, 1991)

Elisabetta Girelli, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brazil (1985)Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam's pessimistic but dazzling vision of a future Britain

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Controversial but hilarious comedy about a reluctant messiah

Thumbnail image of Time Bandits (1981)Time Bandits (1981)

Rich, witty fantasy from the hyper- active imagination of Terry Gilliam

Thumbnail image of It's Marty (1968-69)It's Marty (1968-69)

Marty Feldman's unjustly forgotten pre-Python sketch series

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Legendary sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy

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