37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, David Warner, , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the dystopian weirdness of Brazil (1985), you can almost see Terry Gilliam transitioning from the absurd wit of Monty Python into the dark forest of fairy tale fantasy as Time Bandits progresses.  The film begins as a series of uneven, if often hilarious, sketches based around Napoleon, Robin Hood and the sinking of the Titanic; it ends on a totally fantastic and reflective note, with the child protagonist having met God, and lost his parents.  In between, the boy meets and is adopted by the legendary Greek king Agamemnon, is almost cooked by an ogre and travels by ship perched atop a giant’s head, is captured by giants with cow skull heads and hook hands and placed in a cage hanging over a void within the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and witnesses a battle between ultimate Evil facing off against an army of cowboys, Greek archers, a tank, and a spaceship.  Not a bad gig for a kid whose life previous suburban life was dull as prime time television.

Spanning across reality, an absurd version of history, and complete fantasy, Time Bandits is nothing if not ambitious, and as might be expected, the resulting film is cluttered and shambolic.  It’s a movie filled with wonderful moments, marvelous visions and memorable lines that don’t quite cohere into a whole; it seems to lacks a center, flitting between light witty comedy and deep existential despair.  It’s the type of movie that inspires love and loyalty in its defenders, precisely because of its imperfections.

What’s funny about the picture ultimately eclipses what’s wondrous in it, at least from an adult’s perspective.  Time Bandits is intended to work on two levels: as a fantastic adventure for youngsters, and a lightly philosophical and satiric comedy for adults.  Young boys will be enthralled by the rambling adventure, but years later, after the thrill of escaping from an ogre has worn off, it’s the infinitely quotable lines of dialogue like “God isn’t interested in technology…  Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!” that will stick in their minds.  Well, lines like that, and the existentially creepy ending.

Time Bandits was marketed based on the bankability of its numerous guest stars. John Cleese, whose role as Robin Hood is nothing more than an extended cameo, gets top billing.  Cleese indeed nails his scene as an unexpectedly effete and detached Hood, exquisitely dressed in snappy green tights amidst a grimy gang of pillaging “Merry Men” in tattered rags.  Looking distracted, he does a meet-and-greet with the bandits, laughing indulgently, punctuating every sentence with “jolly good!” and hardly paying attention to the conversation (“Jolly good!  Four foot one?  Well that is a long time, isn’t it?”)  Other than Cleese, what other cinematic Hood could pull off the line, “Have you met them at all?  The poor?  Oh you must meet them, I’m sure you’ll like them!”  Of all the set pieces, this segment is the most Pythonesque, and not coincidentally it’s one of the film’s most memorable moments.

The other guest stars do well, but are not as memorable as Cleese: one shouldn’t mistake Time Bandits for an all-star comedy revue.  In the time-travelers’ first adventure, they meet Ian Holm, a silly Napoleon with a pronounced Napoleonic complex (“Five foot one and conqueror of Italy! Not bad, huh?”)  He bonds with the dwarfs and their tyke companion because he enjoys towering over them; the joke is amusing, but goes on too long.  Former James Bond Sean Connery is the big name in the cast, but despite his second billing, don’t expect his King Agamemnon to make a huge impression or stretch the star’s range into comedy. Connery plays straight, acting as a heroic, surrogate fantasy-father figure for Kevin.  (The scenes with the half-legendary Agamemnon, who ambiguously slays either a minotaur or a warrior wearing a bull’s head, occur at about the halfway mark and bridge Time Bandits‘ historical and fantasy hemispheres).  Connery also reappears in the denouement in a scene that links Kevin’s fantasy world with the “real” world, adding yet another disquieting element to the already freaky finale.  Also of note are Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall, who appear in multiple scenes across the years as an odd romantic couple whose courtship is eternally doomed to be interrupted by dwarfs falling from the sky.  Their strange, oblique conversations about unstated physical ailments (“No, no, no, I don’t have to wear the ‘special’ anymore”) provide another Pythonesque running gag.

Forgetting the guest stars, its the unselfconscious performance of young Craig Warnock as Kevin (billed 16th) and the cadre of avaricious dwarfs (billed 10th to 15th) that carry the film.  Warnock doesn’t have much to do but to remain sympathetic and stay out of the comedians ways as they rampage across time and space stealing the scenery, and he manages the task admirably.  The ragtag band of renegade little folk, led by the unduly arrogant Randall (David Rappaport), each have idiosyncrasies as shabby as the headgear they’ve pinched from across the eons—an aviator’s hat, a one-horned viking helmet, a colander—but they function as a character unit.  They are greedy, selfish, and more than a bit dim; too slight to be ruffians, they have to survive by their wits, which makes them harmless rather than scurrilous.  They also pull together as a team when push comes to shove, and despite the fact that they are constantly messing up Kevin’s life by snatching him away from the comforts of home, they are also his gateway to a life of adventure. We come to root for them as much as laugh at them.

The protagonists engage our sympathy, but it is villain David Warner, as Evil, who steals the show.  The leader of a band of rapidly diminishing demons (he has a tendency to zap them into oblivion on principle whenever they disrespect his authority, even when he immediately afterward concedes they had a good point), he’s a kid’s cartoon vision of the devil, and he hams the role up wonderfully.  He’s obsessed with technology (which Gilliam here loosely identifies with evil), fascinated by digital watches, computers, and subscriber trunk dialing : “If I were creating the world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!”  This Evil Genius sets up a game show in his stone lair to trap the greedy dwarfs and steal the map, and he’s capable of blowing himself up like a giant pin cushion to absorb arrows.  He also gets off some of the best lines, in a movie that’s full of quotable dialogue: “Benson, dear Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”

Villains are typically more interesting than heroes, but Evil meets his match in the Supreme Being (an assured Ralph Richardson), who rides in late to save the day and has some memorable lines of his own: “Back to creation. We mustn’t waste any more time. They’ll think I’ve lost control again and put it all down to evolution.”  The Supreme Being wraps up the messy plot, rather too tidily, but he also suddenly introduces some weighty and disturbing philosophical questions into the movie.  All along we’ve been wondering, as suggested by Evil, whether this Supreme Being is imperfect. How could he build a universe full of holes? (“It was a bit of a botched job… we only had seven days to make it,” Randall explains). How could he let the his bumbling underlings steal his precious map, and why couldn’t an omnipotent Being manage to catch up with the incompetent thieves?

As it turns out, it was all part of an elaborate, frustratingly oblique plan. “Why do we have to have Evil?” Kevin dares ask the Creator, with childlike impertinence.  “I think it has something to do with free will,” answers the Supreme Being, evasively.  That’s the pat answer to the question of evil, and Richardson delivers it in the offhand manner of a theology professor addressing a bothersome student’s question when his mind is really on what he’s going to have for dinner.  That simplistic solution is undermined by the side conversation between Randall and the Supreme Being.  The dwarf tries to apologize for stealing the map, saying he didn’t mean to.  “Of course you didn’t mean to steal it, I gave it to you, you silly man… I am the Supreme Being, I’m not entirely dim. I let you borrow my map,” replies God, while Randall looks earnestly confused.  This conversation raises the specter of predestination—did the Supreme Being really trick the bandits into stealing the map, to serve his own purposes—as he says, to test his Creation?  At the very least, it implies a more complex scheme of free will than his rote answer to Kevin might suggest; one in which the Supreme Being, creates imperfect helpers and depends on his foreknowledge of their flaws to use them as pawns in an elaborate game he seems to be playing against himself.

That odd, deep, and unresolved bit of theological speculation tacked on to the end of a whimsical kids’ adventure secures Time Bandits‘ weird status.  As powerful as he is, the Supreme Being either can’t, or isn’t willing to, control Evil.  A small bit of concentrated Evil rolls under a tank tread and is forgotten (although with this Supreme Being, you can never chalk these things up to chance).  That chunk of persistent Evil follows Kevin back into the “real” world, where he suddenly wakes to find his home is burning down.  The smoldering remnant of wickedness wreaks a spectacularly mean-spirited revenge on the child, in an epilogue that is stranger and more dreamlike than the actual dream.  The ending is the kind of subversive kiddie cruelty that novelist Roald Dahl used to delight in, but taken to a metaphysical level and given a knifelike surreal edge that comes from Gilliam at his most far-out.  Few of the kids who saw Time Bandits in theaters enjoyed  Gilliam’s mystical, downer ending.  None of them forgot it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this surreal adventure fantasy has been conceived as a movie for children and adults… Gilliam has a cacophonous imagination; even the magical incongruities are often cancelled out by the incessant buzz of cleverness. It’s far from a bad movie, but it doesn’t quite click together, either. The director doesn’t shape the material satisfyingly; this may be one of those rare pictures that suffers from a surfeit of good ideas.”–Pauline Kael

“…one of Terry Gilliam’s weirdest and best movies.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper (DVD)

“Childhood is a pretty weird time, and children need pretty weird stories to help them navigate it. [Time Bandits] feels like the kind of story you made up at nine or ten; old enough to have a lot of strange things floating around in your psyche but still prepubescent.”–Matthew Dessem, The Criterion Contraption (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Time Bandits (1981)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Time Bandits – Bruce Eder’s essay on Time Bandits for the Criterion Collection edition

Wide Angle / Closeup: Time Bandits – an interview with Gilliam after a 2006 screening of Time Bandits (questions are not limited to this movie, but cover the director’s entire career)

Time Bandits at Dreams (the Terry Gilliam fanzine) – This Terry Gilliam fan site contains a lot of material on the auteur’s more recent films, but only a few paragraphs of background on Time Bandits

Time Bandits II Script review – a synopsis/review of an unproduced script for Time Bandits II by Charles McKeown

DVD INFO: Time Bandits has been released in a single disc edition by The Criterion Collection (buy) with the usual extras: a running commentary from Gilliam, co-writer and actor Michael Palin, and contributions from John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock.  It also contains the theatrical trailer and a “Time Bandits Scrapbook.”

It’s an unusual case, but many videophiles complain about the picture quality in the Criterion release: some claim the image is inferior and cropped slightly, and all agree that the transfer is not anamorphic (enhanced for display on widescreen televisions).  For this reason, many aficionados recommend the Anchor Bay Special Edition (buy) over the Criterion release.  This two-disc edition lacks the commentary on the Criterion edition, but includes a second disc of special features including the featurette “”The Directors: The Films of Terry Gilliam,” an interview with Gilliam and Palin, theatrical trailer(s), interactive DVD-ROM content, and a Gilliam bio.  It also comes with liner notes and a fold-out “map of the universe” with more info on the production.

Time Bandits is also available from Anchor Bay in a slightly cheaper budget release (buy) with no special features except for the theatrical trailer. At the time of this writing the savings by buying the single-disc version was only $1.

4 thoughts on “37. TIME BANDITS (1981)”

  1. Jolly good movie! This is an example of “not making them like they used to”. Maybe it’s just nostalgia entering the picture, but I’m really hoping other classic kiddie pictures makes the final list. Here’s a rundown of weird ones that I’ve recently begun to share with my kids…The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Neverending Story and two crap ones that definitely have some weird elements to them…The Beastmaster and Flash Gordon. CGI special effects or stop-motion animation doesn’t always do the trick. Puppetry and good ol’ fashioned latex and furry costumes spur the imagination quite well. It mesmerizes me and also my brood. That is why I had high hopes for Where The Wild Things Are, but it was a big let down. Rarely do you get to see robed figures with bony hooked hands and cattle skulls coming after you.

  2. Your review speaks in passing of Kevin’s adventures as a dream, but glosses over the little details where the supernatural part of the story are mirrored in the real world (a feat which Gilliam repeated in “12 Monkeys” (1995)), so we’re given these clues that it could all just be in the protagonist’s mind after he’s seen these details in the real world (for example, the toys and their arrangement in Kevin’s room and the game shows his parents watch on TV, and in “12 Monkeys” it’s the hospital’s CRT tube resembling the time machine a lot by which Cole is sent through time, and a janitor is wearing similar stilts as does a prison guard in the future).

    Of course, both films shatter that rational assumption that it “wasn’t real” in the end (as that smug, belittling ignorance is punished in the end both times), but it’s a nice touch with those details. Terry is pretty much warning us not to fall pray to conventional consensus reality and ignore the wonder, the fantastical, and our imagination, telling us through his dark fantasies that we should remember the world can be a million possible things, we only need to see it so we can work towards it.

  3. I have a different take on what many critics consider the “imperfections” of “Time Bandits.” Like Gilliam I am a folklore and mythology nut. I’m absolutely fascinated by the way stories appear and develop over time collectively rather than by the imaginings of a single author. I am equally fascinated by the fact that the same stories form independently over and over again in different times and cultures, suggesting a collective unconscious populated by Jungian archetypes. Many of the untidy flaws in Gilliam’s films, especially those in “Time Bandits” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (his two most folklore-inspired works), feel completely organic and contribute to the magical folk/myth atmosphere. Myths and folk tales are untidy by their nature and it is this uneven quality that makes them feel so powerfully human. They are an expression of the magic and mysticism in our collective human psyche. No one could ever accuse humanity as a whole of always making exquisite and perfect logical sense. It is this very senselessness that gives myth and folklore the power to feel satisfyingly real despite their objective unreality. Gilliam knows this intrinsically and, consciously or not, he creates sprawling, messy visions that are somehow perfect and powerful because of their mess and sprawl. The informal “Imagination Trilogy” represents Gilliam’s genius in its most powerful and undiluted state. “Tideland” is damned close, but he has never been more compelling than in those three mind-blowingly gorgeous films.

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