The Battle of Brazil Review

Author: Jack Mathews

Terry Gilliam’s an interesting, funny bloke. And the story of his battle with MCA-Universal to preserve the director’s cut of his film Brazil is a good wee tale. So it would be a little embarrassing to end up writing a dull book on the subject.

Luckily, Jack Mathew’s a good journalist and his narration in The Battle of Brazil motors along nicely. It’s an enjoyable read, even for the not-so-film-buffish, outlining the key players and events on both sides of the fight to save the full-length version of Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil and providing an insight into the machinations of the Hollywood filmmaking process.

As Mathews says, The Battle of Brazil provides “a textbook example of how the creative process is so often subverted by commercial interests in Hollywood”. The clear-cut, good-vs-evil nature of the story means he has to some extent been able to let it tell itself, simply outlining the facts and trusting they’ll be enough to keep the reader engaged. And generally they are.

The text works best when it reads as it did in its original form: a series of Los Angeles Times columns providing a blow-by-blow account of the battle as it unfolded at the time. Mathews’ style is simple, chatty, direct and unobtrusive. While being unashamedly and affectionately biased towards Gilliam, he does give Universal head Sidney Sheinberg a chance to tell his side of the story, which provides an interesting balance and that much-needed sense of drama.

There’s enough detail to give the book substance, providing informed explanations of the processes involved in film production and promotion, but it’s the characters that drive this story. Gilliam and Sheinberg both have character in spades, and the fight seemed often to boil down to a clash between these two big personalities – something Mathews manages to convey well.

First published in 1987, the revised 1998 version of The Battle of Brazil is the “writer’s cut”, as Mathews calls it, and offers its readers more than the basic rundown of the story provided in the original. Nice little extras include Gilliam being given a chance to respond to passages of reviews by film critics and the “where are they now” epilogue. And for the true film buffs, the book includes the storyboard for the film’s never-completed “eyeball sequence” and the full screenplay of the director’s cut.

However, occasional flights of fancy in Mathews’ uncut version  – attempts to describe Gilliam excitedly pitching scenes from the film, for example – don’t work quite as well. Mathews is no novelist, and the book loses pace when he deviates from his snappy journalistic style. Somewhat ironically, the book in many places needs a damn good edit.

Kathy Alys

Share this!