Janus Film Review Presents: Time Bandits (1981)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: DVD/Criterion Collection (1999)

I would not describe Time Bandits as a charming film. It is perhaps a stereotypical expectation of a fantasy film to be in some way charming or accessible - albeit in a rather vivid context - but that is not the case here. That the central protagonists of Time Bandits are a bunch of dwarves and a child is both a rather biting socio-philosophical commentary, and something of an attempt by Terry Gilliam to offset this truth. This is a scathing film, utterly committed to taking the piss out of everything, across all of time and space.

The film represented something of a formative experience for Gilliam, establishing his penchant for divine anarchy and incorporating various ideas and themes he would namecheck throughout his subsequent works. Key among them is the sense of existence being thoroughly absurd. Though the term ‘God’ is more or less avoided, the film’s Supreme Being is portrayed as both a booming, disembodied head and a crusty old pedant in a gentleman’s suit, fussing over minutiae and the fate of ‘Evil’ (wonderfully portrayed by 80’s icon David Warner) with equal indifference.

Gilliam, as he does throughout the film, lampoons the established perceptions society holds towards its history and legends. Sometimes this is rather crudely achieved, such as with Ian Holm’s Napoleon, a riotous and oh-so-British mockery, fixated on the height of history’s great conquerers versus his own diminutive stature. A more subtle example is the Supreme Being’s observations concerning evolution and the nature of free will. There is a particular mad genius at work here, for the explanations provided manage to be both insane and vaguely plausible all at once, for here life is supposed to be ridiculous; ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are purely abstract concepts present throughout multiple realities, and nothing makes any sense. There is no such thing as an ‘ending’, but then there isn’t supposed to be. This is pure Gilliam: nihilistic at heart, but undeniably hilarious in execution.

Amidst the madness there are some beautifully British comedic observations and portrayals. John Cleese portrays Robin Hood as an obsequious cretin, full of compliments and good manners (that is, until the person has left the room). Fellow Python (and co-writer) Michael Palin awards himself and Shelley Duvall the best line in the film, concerning the enduring ‘wetness’ of water. The use of the Titanic is also rather cute, representing as it does the ultimate example of resolute Britishness getting hoisted by its own over-confident petard. Sean Connery is allowed to play things fairly straight, and the chaos of war and empire provides Kevin, our young protagonist, the only normality he’s ever known.

It has been suggested that the film’s company of dwarves are in fact the Pythons made flesh - Gilliam included - and looking at the film as a whole, I believe there is substance to this. This is a film seen through the eyes of a child, laying bare the simultaneous cruelty and beauty of reality, and the utter madness that encapsulates everything. The hypocrisy and laconic edge of the British mentality is the glue that binds, and the apotheosis of the film’s intent is a sequence involving an ogre with back ache, crewing a boat on top of a giant’s head, all in the company of a loving, homicidal wife. This is all the wondrous absurdity that defined Monty Python, and Time Bandits is a love letter from Terry Gilliam to those men who rose up beyond this mad thing we call creation and changed it forever.

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