Over the course of writer/director Terry Gilliam’s career, whether it’s been Monty Python-related or not, each of his films have shared a fairly standard commonality: he’s written or adapted them. In the beginning of his career, his intention was to only direct projects he created himself. After 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he broke this guiding principle with the Richard LaGravenese-written (The Ref/Beautiful Creatures) fantastical dramedy The Fisher King, a tale of cruelty and kindness set in the great city of New York City. Though released by The Criterion Collection as a laserdisc in 1993 (spine #149), it returns in one of three modern formats along with all the previously available bonus materials and something new, creating the most comprehensive edition of The Fisher King to date.
Shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) rules the air waves, entertaining audiences by sparing no fools, declaring who rules and who doesn’t with his quick wit and sharp tongue. It all comes crumbling down when Jack says the wrong thing to the wrong person, accidentally inspiring a listener to take violent action at a New York restaurant. Three years later, Jack works in his girlfriend Anne’s (Mercedes Ruehl) video rental store as a manager, mostly drunk and despondent over his loss of fortune. Right when Jack thinks he’s hit his lowest while out drinking one night, he’s attacked by two men who think he’s homeless and, if not for the actions of a man wearing reused material for armor and declaring himself a knight, Jack would surely be dead. This man, Parry (Robin Williams), takes Jack in and declares that Jack is destined to help him retrieve the Holy Grail, but as Jack can’t see past his own needs, he thinks it’s all bullshit. Yet the more he learns about Parry, the more Jack feels compelled to join the quest.
**Though the film is over 32 years old, consider this your spoiler-warning that the following restoration review will divulge details of the film.**
The Fisher King is an unexpected powerhouse of a film. Given the material the script navigates, one would not expect such a tale of horrible grief to reach such heights of hilarity and still stick the landing. Parry, we come to learn, is not just some homeless person who believes himself to be on a holy quest, he’s a former college professor focused on Arthurian legends whose wife was killed in front of him during the attack Jack inadvertently caused with his violent rhetoric. Parry’s visions of the Red Knight, a figure on horseback that shoots fire and whose slapdash visage would be hilarious if not for the crimson-tinge it bears and the sense of horror it carries, we learn are a manifestation of Parry’s unwillingness to face the trauma he bore witness to as he sat across from his wife having a loving dinner until suddenly her insides covered his face. Played by anyone other than Williams, Parry would seem unhinged instead of wholly sincere at all times which makes his pain as gut-wrenching as his joy is uplifting. The Fisher King also exemplifies why the loss of the incredible talent that is Williams will continue to hurt and why it matters that all of us should have easier access to affordable health care in order to address the demons that plague us. This isn’t just an aside about the actor, but about the film itself, which explores the notion that there are the elites and the bottom-feeders, with nothing in between and no-to-very-little support for the bottom. Before 12 Monkeys (1995) gave us an elongated sense of a mental institution in that Gilliam way, The Fisher King showed us the horrible conditions, the extended waits for care, the spread-too-thin staff that only seem to mobilize with any kind of swiftness when food arrives versus the plight of the infirm or injured. The film carries with it the capitalistic notes of Brazil (1985) and the fantasy of Munchausen, yet is executed with a down-to-Earth approach that teeters on the edge of being quixotic. Bridges’s Jack-as-Sancho didn’t want to fuel the delusions until doing so was not only an act of generosity to Parry but demonstrated a true change of personal view on the part of the arrogant, narcissistic, self-absorbed Jack into someone who expels his old notions of happiness for something far more real and healing. Though written by LaGravenese, Gilliam’s particular perspective makes the normal outlandish and, through the journey these two men, bound by tragedy, share, The Fisher King transforms into an opus of hope and wonder. No one else could accomplish as well what Gilliam does here as few can marry the absurd and tragic with logistical and joyous like he can. Thankfully, his cast is more than capable of keeping up with the intent of the script and Gilliam’s perspective as the four principles — Bridges as Jack, Williams as Parry, Ruehl as Anne (a performance for which she won an Oscar for Supporting Actress), and Amanda Plummer as Lydia — each make the most out of respective journeys so that the audience is never left questioning who they are, what they want, or how they inform the intention of the narrative’s themes. The Fisher King is a concerto that’s as evocative now in its messaging of class division, social standing, and the capitalist destruction of joy whose crescendo will miraculously leave you feeling hopeful, with a smile upon your face.
According to the included liner notes, the creation of the 4K UHD restoration was completed by Sony Pictures Entertainment using a 4K wet-gate scan of the 35 mm original negative in New York before a digital image restoration was done in California. Color grading was executed by Sheri Eisenberg of Roundabout Entertainment, while the 5.1 surround sound (using a mix from 2009) was completed by Deluxe Audio. The entire restoration was overseen by SPE rep Rita Belda with color approval by Gilliam. The liner notes indicate that the 4K does include Dolby Vision HDR (high dynamic range), while the Blu-ray is the expected high definition SDR (standard definition range). Considering that the release includes the “Director Approved” sticker, it’s important to recognize that Gilliam only approved the color grading, but if the new 5.1 mix is based on the previously used 2009 sound mix, it makes sense that Gilliam might only focus on the look of the film versus the sound.
Of the two, the look is far more important than the sound, though the mix is not somehow indifferent to conveying story. However, as this is a restoration, let’s address the look first. Compared to the Blu-ray, the 4K UHD restoration is an impressive improvement. With the HDR, the deeper blacks allow for the initial meeting of the character Jack to take on a greater significance to the audience. In the blocking, the camera looks down on Bridges, the set lit in such a way as for shadows to surround the dark grey walls so that there’s an appearance of bars. With the HDR, not only do we recognize that Jack is the physical center of the scene, but he’s in a cage of his own making yet lacking self-awareness that it’s he who’s trapped. Later, on the night he contemplates ending his life, rather than being entirely overwhelmed in darkness, we’re better able to distinguish the little pieces of color, whether the red from the Pinocchio doll Jack’s given by a child or the lights emanating from the buildings or the gold of the statue he sits beneath as he laments his existence. The HDR really demonstrates the additions in the scenes in Central Park, the beautiful blue of the sky, the lush green of the foliage, the natural tans of the rocks conveying the separation between the gentleness of the natural world and the brutality associated with the industrial world. Of course the HDR, through the greater depth of color, also allows for the Red Knight to be a tad more frightening as we can discern one shade of red from another, the gradients on the figure making more clear the work that artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds put in to create the nightmarish figure that represents Parry’s trauma.
As mentioned in the opening of this Criterion review, the new edition does include a great deal of bonus materials. The 4K UHD disc contains only the movie and the feature-length commentary from Gilliam that was produced in 1991 for the prior laserdisc release. Additionally, the feature-length commentary from that release and the six deleted scenes are also included on the Blu-ray disc. In addition to this, however, the Blu-ray included two new short documentaries under the overall heading “The Tale of The Fisher King” titled “The Fool and the Wounded King” and “The Real and the Fantastical” which include Gilliam, LaGravenese, producer Lynda Obst, Bridges, Plummer, and Ruehl, each adding their own insight into the production of the film. Also new is the featurette “The Tale of the Red Knight” in which artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds guide audiences through a historical journey of the creation of the horrifying figure that haunts Parry. That this begins with opening up a storage chest containing materials they used in the 1991 production makes us feel as though we’re preparing for an archeological dig and the playfulness of the two makes it exciting. Home viewing audiences are also given a unique perspective of the production through “Jeff’s Tale,” a collection of images Bridges took while making the film. For those curious about Bridges’s approach to playing Jack, check out “Jeff and Jack,” which shows how Bridges worked with acting coach Stephen Bridgewater to develop, create, and refine what would be captured on film. In a bit of a bittersweet addition, we can always watch “Robin’s Tale,” which is a 2006 interview with Williams as he talks about and explores making the film. Whether you’re an old fan of the film or someone who came to it late (like me), this edition offers the most inclusive and exhaustive gathering of materials on the making of the film to date.
Along with the on-disc materials, the internal includes a fold-out poster which holds all the restoration information, the essay from critic Bilge Ebiri, as well as the usual production credits, acknowledgements, and more on one side and a scene featuring Parry and Jack on the other, decorated with a touch of flair akin to the cover art from the New York artist Angel Ortiz, known as LA2. With art as inspiration, buyers of the 4K UHD edition will be able to easily recognize which disc is which as the Blu-ray is predominantly blue with red lines, while the 4K UHD disc is reversed in color. As the 4K UHD edition does not include a DVD disc, I cannot speak to what that version looks like at this time.
The Fisher King is a film I didn’t expect to resonate with me as it. Perhaps going in blind, trusting that Bridges and Williams would carry any of the usual nonsense that Gilliam brings to his stories, expectations were to be entertained but kept as at a distance as I am with most Gilliam projects. At first, I was shocked by the catalyst for the story and the way in which there were fewer instances, in real life, of shock jocks inciting such incidents whereas today, shock jocks, pundits, and politicians toss out word-salad accusations without evidence, resulting in threats, assaults, and murder. Then I found myself caught up in how much Parry and Jack were the errant knight and his squire with thoughts of Gilliam’s *actual* Don Quixote story, 2018’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, dancing through my head, as though this project were an accidental precursor to the other. Especially with the sequence of fantastical and spontaneous dancing at Grand Central Station, I was as caught up as Parry in the beauty and wonder (him of Lydia; me of the sequence), almost forgetting the terrible undercurrent of trauma that had yet to be deeply explored. When it did come back around, when Gilliam showed us what Parry sees in all its gruesome and grotesqueness, I felt violated and torn asunder, wondering how much of a grip on reality I would maintain if such a thing would happen to me and my wife. It’s an absolute miracle that this film is as cohesive thematically and narratively, held together by the performances of the cast and the deftness of a director who can block and frame sequences so that the ordinary is extraordinary and the parts of the world in which we fall to acknowledge are all we can see. Thanks to this new Criterion edition, fans old and new cannot only view the film in a modern format, they can then kick off an explorative dive with more bonus features than ever before. That’s a win-win.
The Fisher King Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Terry Gilliam, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
- One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
- Audio commentary featuring Gilliam
- Interviews with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl
- Interviews with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on the creation of the film’s Red Knight (22:41)
- Interview from 2006 with actor Robin Williams
- Video essay featuring Bridges’s on-set photographs
- Footage from 1991 of Bridges training as a radio personality with acting coach Stephen W. Bridgewater
- Deleted scenes, with audio commentary by Gilliam
- Costume tests (3:01)
- Trailers (9:38)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri
- Cover by LA2
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD from The Criterion Collection April 11th, 2023.