"Time Bandits was a film that... the idea came from an idea I had over a weekend, because it was the result of frustration, of trying to get Brazil off the ground for years, and I... nobody was interested in Brazil, and so one day out of frustration, I said Let's make a film for all the family, and one weekend all this stuff poured out."
— Terry Gilliam, from the commentary sound track of The Criterion Collection DVD of Time Bandits
's Time Bandits
, 1981) has long been one of my favorite films, one that has stayed with me since I first saw it on the big screen some 21 years ago. While being a delightful and remarkable work of children's cinema, the heart of its lasting appeal to audiences of all ages lies in the captivating and multi-layered fantasy-comedy-adventure story that it tells (written by Gilliam and fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin
). Though it was only Gilliam's second foray into directing (following 1977's Jabberwocky
), the well-deserved critical acclaim it received gave only an inkling of the director's artistic genius to follow. Time Bandits
was my introduction to Terry Gilliam's work (I would not discover his animation skills with Monty Python
until several years later), and laid the foundation for my ever-growing appreciation of his skillful mastery of the cinematic arts. I've seen this film dozens of times, yet even today I can still pick up little nuances and subtleties in the dialogue, set design, and cast performances that I had somehow missed before. It is definitely a film that merits repeated viewings, and that in itself lends credence to its status as a classic
. Above all other critera or criticisms, it is consistently entertaining
to viewers across a vast spectrum of religious persuasions, political ideologies, nationalities and ages. It is without a doubt Gilliam's most genial and accessible film.
The film opens with a clever zoom-in sequence that begins on a map of the entire universe, quickly focusing down on a suburban neighborhood somewhere in England. The central character, a bright 11-year-old boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock), is an avid reader who is fascinated with the stories of history and legend. His attempts to engage his parents' attention with the details of his studies are met with benign indifference; they are completely absorbed by consumerism, technology, and the mindless distraction of television game shows. One night while asleep in his bedroom, Kevin is awakened by a knight on horseback that crashes through the doors of his wardrobe (obvious references to C.S. Lewis are at work here, although Gilliam claims to have never read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe). While confused by this vision, Kevin is determined to be prepared the following night, should similar events occur. He sneaks off to bed with a flashlight and Polaroid camera hidden from his parents' view under his jacket. Shortly after falling asleep, he is awakened by six dwarfs that stumble out of his wardrobe looking for the route to their next destination. Their initial meeting with Kevin is cut short by the arrival of the Supreme Being (voiced by Tony Jay and represented in visual form by the giant blue-green face of Edwin Finn), who pursues the now "seven dwarfs" through a secret passage in Kevin's room, where they escape through a time hole. Thus begins our protagonist's great adventure.
Note: If you're the sort of person who doesn't like to read reviews before you see a film, you may want to skip ahead to the next section at this point.
The dwarfs present themselves as a band of amateur bandits, having stolen a map of the universe's space-time flaws from their employer with the intention of committing robberies throughout history. Their inaugural crime involves looting Napoleon (Ian Holm) of his booty from the Battle of Castiglione in 1796, which is then quickly taken from them by Robin Hood (John Cleese) and his band of
thugs merry men upon escaping to the Middle Ages. Unbeknownst to them, they are being watched by an Evil Genius (David Warner), who seeks to steal their map for his own nefarious purposes. He sets up a trap for them, tempting them with "the most fabulous object in the world" while speaking via mind control through the most dim-witted dwarf, Og (Mike Edmonds). The Supreme Being turns up again, and Kevin accidentally takes a detour from his companions to ancient Greece, where he inadvertently saves the life of King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) during a battle with the Minotaur. The king decides to adopt Kevin as his son, and Kevin eagerly agrees to stay for a while. However, the bandits show up again at a banquet held in Kevin's honor, robbing the crowd blind of their valuables, including the king's crown and adoptive son in the process. They escape through another time hole to 1912, where they land on the deck of the Titanic during its maiden voyage.
Flush with the first unthwarted success of their new careers as international criminals, the bandits are soon clad in formal black evening dress while they drink champagne and lounge in deck chairs. However, Kevin is unhappy with his kidnapping, and engages the leader bandit Randall (David Rappaport) in an argument over the ethics of their time-jumping crimes. While Randall waxes philosophic about his plans, the ship hits its infamous iceberg, and the seven find themselves paddling in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Convinced that they have nowhere to go except to the Time of Legends (which can be traveled to simply by believing in it), the dwarfs and Kevin are drawn through their next portal by the unseen hand of the Evil Genius. Arriving on the other side wearing formal white evening dress, they are rescued from the ocean in a fishing net by a decrepit ogre named Winston (Peter Vaughn). Winston intends to eat the tiny morsels he has fished out of the briny drink, encouraged by his doting crone of a wife (Katherine Helmond, in a typically brilliant performance). Thanks to the monster's bad back (which is in dire need of a chiropractor), the bandits outwit the ogre and his wife, ditching them in the ocean and stealing their ship. Before navigational efforts can get under way, the ship is lifted out of the water atop the head of a giant who carries the vessel to shore, but not before the dwarfs drug the mythical beast with sleeping potion.
Once the giant sits down for a nap and removes its "ship chapeau", the bandits escape and find themselves wandering through a deserted wasteland, bickering about the path to their destination. Wally (Jack Purvis) is convinced that Randall is leading them on a wild goose chase trying to find the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (which contains "the most fabulous object in the world"), and protests even after they all run in to an "invisible barrier", which the map shows surrounding their target. A scuffle ensues, and Randall hurls a human skull at Wally which misses him, shattering the invisible barrier and revealing the immense Fortress beyond. When our seven unsuspecting heroes get inside, they quickly discover that the most fabulous object in the world is in fact a new kitchen, straight out of the TV game show that Kevin's parents watch every night. Even the game show host (Jim Broadbent) is there, along with Kevin's parents (clad in rhinestone-studded costumes) to beckon them on. Kevin immediately recognizes this as a trap, but the dwarfs are oblivious to his warnings, and they quickly scamper through a maze to reach their goal. The illusion is broken at the moment the map is handed to the game show host, revealing him to be the Evil Genius. He cages them all with an evil laugh, and goes off with his henchmen to study the map and formulate plans to remake the world in his own image.
At first there seems no way out, until Kevin finds in his satchel a Polaroid picture he's taken of the map. He and the dwarfs devise a plan and escape their cage, but Kevin insists that they try to recover the map from the Evil Genius in order to save the universe. No sooner do they have the map back in their hands than their escape is discovered, the Evil Genius turning Og into a half-pig and summoning forth towering beasts with cow heads to capture them. After a chase through the Fortress (which is revealed at this point to be made of giant LEGO blocks), Kevin and Og decide to take the map and split up from the others, distracting the monsters and allowing the rest of the dwarfs to escape and return with reinforcements. The Evil Genius finishes turning Og into a proper pig once he eventually corners Kevin, who momentarily gains the upper hand by threatening to burn the map unless the henchmen and cow-headed monsters are dispersed. The Evil Genius complies, blowing them all up in a showering display of pyrotechnics that serves as a momentary distraction, allowing him to take the map. Just as the Evil Genius prepares to destroy Kevin, the time bandits return with a WWII armored tank, a laser-shooting space ship, cowboys on horseback from the Wild West, knights on horseback and archers from the Middle Ages. They all take their turn trying to defeat the Evil Genius, but are no match for his magic powers. As the Evil Genius makes his theatrical preparations to destroy them once and for all, there is a flash of light and a cloud of smoke. It clears to reveal the form of the Evil Genius, who has suddenly been transformed into a black statue that cracks and explodes into pieces.
Kevin and the time bandits turn around and look up to see the giant face of the Supreme Being, who has finally caught up with them again. Knowing that they cannot escape this time, they prostrate themselves to await their fate as the columns of smoke clear away, revealing Sir Ralph Richardson in a grey business suit. Rather than being angry and vengeful, he is at most annoyed at the inconvenience, and instructs his miscreant employees to gather up all the bits of concentrated evil, where they are placed in a British postal box for transport back to Creation. Kevin is left behind as the bandits and their employer disappear in a rising column of smoke, and Kevin finds himself back in his bed in the midst of a raging house fire. Firemen from the local fire brigade burst through his bedroom door, picking him up from his bed and delivering him to the front lawn of the house, where we find his parents selfishly absorbed with the thought of rescuing their appliances from the blaze.
So it was all just a dream... or was it? I could go on and reveal the ending, but I'm not that much of a spoiler. If you've read this far and haven't seen the film already, don't worry — I haven't given away nearly as many details as you think I have.
An achievement in visual storytelling
The story that Time Bandits tells is a wonderful combination of history, legend, fairy tale and Pythonesque fantasy. When it was released, it became the most critically well-received children's film in nearly two decades, and is considered to be the most challenging and rewarding fantasy-adventure movie since Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, released some 41 years earlier. (Eder) Much of this acclaim is attributed to Gilliam's unique style of visual storytelling, but I feel that an equal amount is due to Palin's strong writing, particularly with regard to character development. The pair's strengths are perfectly matched here: Gilliam's genius for inventing and directing the outrageous story's numerous twists that happen at a breakneck pace; Palin's clever attention to absurdly minute details and dialogue, as well as his fondness for innuendo and dark humor. Of course, it helps quite a bit that the cast performances (including a surprising number of highly regarded and famous actors) throughout the film are exceptional.
Like all of Gilliam's work, Time Bandits is filled with eye candy at every turn. Subtle details of costume and set design are woven into the story itself, most notable of which being the references to toys and objects in Kevin's bedroom that are carefully placed in the background throughout history. These become considerably less subtle toward the end of the film. Visual jokes are rampant, such as the Evil Genius turning his cape into a pincushion to thwart the archers' arrows (complete with a gigantic spool of thread visible in the rubble next to him), or the dozens of severed human feet which dangle from hooks in the galley of the ogre's ship, as his wife busily grinds one of them up... to make foot powder for the ogre's fungal infection.
The visual feast that unfolds before the filmgoer is at the core of Time Bandits' lasting appeal to adults, allowing them to willingly suspend disbelief and accept storytelling on this level. Elements of J.R.R. Tolkien's work, as well as nods to The Wizard of Oz and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind pop up along the cinematic rollercoaster ride that Gilliam takes us on, transporting grownups back to their own childhood through the director's weird, ecstatic vision. (Eder, et al.)
The underlying messages
Gilliam, being the pot-smoking hippie that he is, had a much more subversive goal in Time Bandits (and the films that followed) than simply telling a funny children's tale that adults can enjoy. The themes he plays with operate on many levels, and serve to underline the "moral" of the story, which is somewhat complex.
"It's the pettiness of people's dreams, is what we're really dealing with here. Kevin reads. Kevin's literate. In books, he discovers history and heroes and fantastical things. His parents are typical, you know, closed-minded materialists, whose highest hope is to have a nicer kitchen, or a new mix master. It's been interesting, because I find a lot of modern kids don't read, so I don't know where they're getting their myths from, or their ideas from... they're getting from television and movies, which are very limited compared to what books have. And all of this was very important to me when we were making the film." — T.G.
One of the lessons that he seeks to convey, most prominently through the characters of Kevin's parents and the Evil Genius, is the folly in believing that technology
is the answer to all of mankind's problems. Another is that parents need to listen to their children
, and that those who don't will suffer the costs
, as evidenced in the film's rather startling conclusion. Still another is that dreams and fantasy are an essential part of what makes us human, not only in childhood, but throughout life. These messages are supported by a host of minor moral
s, such as Kevin's lessons in the realities of hero worship, that are presented in fairy tale fashion throughout the story. It stands to reason that Gilliam's view of fairy tales in general takes into account their purpose:
The trilogy theory
"This is my big problem about kids' movies. Grimm's fairy tales served us well for many, many years, and modern education... advisors, modern parents are frightened of frightening their kids. And to me the whole point of fairy tales is to frighten the kids, and... because at the end, it ends up with happy endings, normally, and the kids come out having gone through (gasp!) these nightmare situations, these terrifying things, and they come out and (gasp!), and they made it! And it's like an exercise for life, for all the dangers that are going to be confronting them, all the complicated situations, that will be confronting them. If you take that away from a kid, and you end up with kids that aren't prepared for life. And to me, that's always been what fairy tales are about. They're not about beautiful, romantic (things), they're about danger and fearful situations." — T.G.
Time Bandits is considered by many to be part one of a trilogy of films directed by Gilliam, this chapter representing the fantasies of childhood. Part two, presenting the fantasies of adulthood, is found in the director's greatest cinematic masterpiece, Brazil (1985), while part three shows us the fantasies of an old man as seen through the eyes of a young girl, in 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. "Both Time Bandits and Brazil have bleak endings, but Baron Munchausen circumvents the reality of his death in his own tall tales, achieving immortality through his storytelling. Considering that Gilliam was on record calling Baron Munchausen the third in the trilogy before production on the film ever began, it is definite that even if Gilliam was not thinking of making a trilogy as he wrote and filmed Time Bandits and Brazil, he certainly considered them at the end, and made Baron Munchausen with that in mind." (trond.com)
Making the film
"In the original image, the first image I had, was of the horse coming through the wardrobe. And I thought, oh that's good, and let's make a film from a child's point of view so the camera's always low. And I thought, well, the problem with that is the idea of one kid trying to hold the whole film together would be difficult, so let's surround him with a gang of people of a similar size. And so we ended up with with a group of dwarfs around him. And once, you know, the horse's coming out of the wardrobe and a gang of dwarfs and a kid came together, the film followed very quickly on. It was easy." — T.G.
When Gilliam and Palin had worked out the script for Time Bandits,
their efforts to shop it to a variety of film studios were repeatedly met with rejection, until the script found its way into the hands of George Harrison
, the former Beatle
whom both writers had met through their fellow Python colleague, Eric Idle
. Harrison (a big Python fan) loved the story, and agreed to let HandMade Films take on the project, a production company he had set up with his business manager Denis O'Brien
in 1978 for the making of Monty Python's Life of Brian
(1979). Harrison's initial vision of the film was akin to a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Heigh ho, heigh ho" sort of thing, which he saw as an opportunity to prominently feature his music. In the end, however, only one of his songs was included; "Dream Away
," which he wrote for the movie, plays during the end credits. He later featured the song on his 1982 Dark Horse album, Gone Troppo.
Much of the film was shot on a sound stage at Lee International Studios in the UK, but exterior scenes were filmed at various locations throughout England, Wales, and Morocco (which apparently resembles ancient Greece). Produced on a modest budget of US$5 Million, there are very few special effects in the film, and most of the scenes involving moving sets (such as the ogre's ship) were shot by moving the camera rather than the scenery. After the final edit was completed and the film was ready to go, O'Brien set about looking for someone to distribute the film in the US, but had a difficult time finding anyone in Hollywood that would have anything to do with the picture. He finally cut a deal with Avco Embassy Pictures to distribute the movie, but had to provide an additional US$5.5 Million for prints and advertising. (pythonet.org) The movie proved to be a success at the box office, which prompted Gilliam's comments on the subject:
The last word
"You listen to these people and you just shake your head. They are so goddamned sure they know what they're talking about, and all they are doing is guessing. They invent their own research, then depend on it as if it were science. They have no respect for the intelligence of the audience. Then when they succeed, they break their ass telling you how brilliant they were in doing it." — T.G.
Time Bandits is a movie that has everything: midgets, magic, drugs and alcohol, crime, monsters, Monty Python, fractured fairy tales, music, war, revisionist history, explosions, Sir Ralph Richardson, violence, dancing, chase sequences, stunts, sexual innuendo, fantasy, time travel, children, animals, the battle of good vs. evil, and a run time just four minutes shy of two hours. If you think Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987) is the best send-up of fairy tales you've ever seen, you'll really appreciate Time Bandits for the masterpiece it is. It gets five stars from the maus.
David Rappaport . . . . . . Randall
Kenny Baker . . . . . . Fidgit
Jack Purvis . . . . . . Wally
Mike Edmonds . . . . . . Og
Malcolm Dixon . . . . . . Strutter
Tiny Ross . . . . . . Vermin
Craig Warnock . . . . . . Kevin
John Cleese . . . . . . Robin Hood
Sean Connery . . . . . . King Agamemnon
Shelley Duvall . . . . . . Pansy
Katherine Helmond . . . . . . Mrs. Ogre
Ian Holm . . . . . . Napoleon
Michael Palin . . . . . . Vincent
Ralph Richardson . . . . . . Supreme Being
Peter Vaughn . . . . . . Ogre
David Warner . . . . . . Evil Genius
Selected supporting cast
Sheila Fearn . . . . . . Kevin's mother
David Daker . . . . . . Kevin's father
Jim Broadbent . . . . . . Compere
Charles McKeown . . . . . . Theatre manager
Derrick O'Connor . . . . . . Robber leader
Derek Deadman . . . . . . Robert
Jerold Wells . . . . . . Benson
Roger Frost . . . . . . Cartwright
Ian Muir . . . . . . Giant
Produced and directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam
Executive producers: George Harrison and Denis O'Brien
Director of photography: Peter Biziou
Editor: Julian Doyle
Production designer: Milly Burns
Art director: Norman Garwood
Costumes designed by Jim Acheson in association with Hazel Côté
Hairdressing and make-up by Maggie Weston and Elaine Carew
Musical score composed and orchestrated by Mike Moran
Music produced by Ray Cooper
Songs and additional material by George Harrison
MPAA Rating: PG
Australia: PG, Finland: K-12, France: U, Sweden: 15, UK: PG, Germany: 6
Information about The Criterion Collection DVD of Time Bandits is available at www.criterion.com
The Criterion Collection DVD of Time Bandits, ©1981 HandMade Film Partnership, ©1999 The Criterion Collection
Eder, Bruce. Liner notes to The Criterion Collection DVD of Time Bandits, 1999.
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