(1981) Directed by: Terry Gilliam; Written by: Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam; Starring: Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, John Cleese, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, David Warner, David Rappaport, Michael Palin and Craig Warnock;
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: **** ½
Terry Gilliam’s films are notorious for being love-it-or-hate-it affairs, bemusing some while enchanting others. His trademark visual style and frequently dark themes seem to captivate and alienate audiences. Gilliam’s frequent tug o’ war with studio executives has become the stuff of legends, representing his constant struggle with artistic integrity versus commercial viability. Time Bandits, which was arguably one of Gilliam’s more accessible works, was no exception. When he brought the script (co-written by fellow Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin) to Hollywood, it was initially turned down by everyone. He eventually found a savior in ex-Beatle George Harrison and Handmade Films, who agreed to put up funds to make the movie.
Time Bandits, as described by Gilliam and Palin, is history told from a child’s perspective. The film’s central character Kevin is an imaginative boy with a great love of history. He seems to be more engaged by stories of antiquity, compared to his life in the present day. His boorish parents, on the other hand, would prefer to watch insipid television programs and discuss the latest kitchen appliances than interact with their son. Kevin’s ambitions to experience other times and places come to fruition when he unexpectedly runs into a band of diminutive thieves led by the unscrupulous Randall (David Rappaport).
Randall and his cohorts are on a temporal treasure quest, aided by a stolen map of the universe that charts holes in the fabric of space-time. They jump from one era to another, plundering historical artifacts, and trying to stay one step ahead of their former employer and the map’s true owner, the Supreme Being (played with understated dignity by Ralph Richardson). Richardson’s Supreme Being (aka: God) is the head of a vast cosmic bureaucracy. He’s fastidious, obsessed with notions of tidiness and propriety, but not particularly concerned with the wellbeing of his creations. He’s ultimately flawed and a bit of a contradiction, having created an imperfect universe, riddled with holes.
Time Bandits boasts some wonderfully eccentric supporting performances. Ian Holm shines as a height-obsessed Napoleon (“They are all freaks! Not one of them under five foot six. What kind of theater is this?”). John Cleese is amusing as the jovial but dim Robin Hood. Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond are also fun to watch, appearing as an aging, arthritic ogre and his doting wife, respectively. My favorite performance, however, is David Warner in the darkly comic role of Evil. He seems to be relishing every minute as the Supreme Being’s arch-nemesis, and has the distinction of delivering some of the film’s best lines (“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!”).
Amidst the plethora of showy performances by veteran actors in Time Bandits, it would be easy to lose sight of the role of Kevin, played by Craig Warnock. He does an excellent job of carrying the film, and as the story jumps around from one time and place to another, he’s our anchor to reality. He’s an ordinary kid thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He’s also the only one who seems genuinely surprised by his surroundings. Kevin is appalled by his thieving companions’ compulsion to profit off of unsuspecting people from different eras, rather than regarding their time traveling as an unprecedented opportunity to experience a window into history. He feels a sense of profound loss when he’s pulled away from King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), who seems a more suitable father figure than his own dad.
One of Gilliam’s strengths has always been to milk impressive visuals from a relatively low budget. As an animator for the Monty Python comedy troupe, he honed his craft of creating memorable images with limited resources. Time Bandits is no exception, with its innovative special effects. For one of the film’s most iconic scenes, depicting a giant with a sailing ship on his head, Gilliam took inspiration from a Brian Froud illustration. In this case, it’s a perfect example of a storybook come to life.
Time Bandits is one of the finest examples of pure fantasy brought to the big screen. We’re never entirely sure if what we’re witnessing is all part of Kevin’s elaborate dream world, or if he’s simply entered a new reality that merges the fantastic with the mundane. The ending is far from typical, abruptly taking a left turn when it should have gone right. It exemplifies what makes a Terry Gilliam film a Terry Gilliam film – purposely blurring the line between fantasy and reality by toying with our expectations.