Janus Film Review Presents: Time Bandits (1981)

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: DVD/Anchor Bay (2002)

If I were to summarise the work of director Terry Gilliam, it would be that of a ‘chaotic auteur’. His films have famously been plagued by production delays, last minute budget issues, studio interference and, in one case, the disintegration of an entire production with 18 years elapsing before the film was finally made (see the fantastic documentary Lost in La Mancha for the origins of that story). Yet the finished products, though often flawed, cannot be faulted for creative scope and ambition.

Time Bandits, Gilliam’s second film as solo director, is no exception. Funded by George Harrison’s independent film company HandMade Films (famous for enabling the productions of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday and Withnail and I among other classics), Harrison and co-producer Denis O’Brien reportedly had to mortgage their office to finance the film. None of the bigwig Hollywood producers were queuing up to make Terry Gilliam films in the early 1980s.

Kevin is a young boy ignored by his parents. They are obsessed with the latest technology. They spend their evenings in front of tacky TV gameshows such as the seemingly literal ‘Your Money or Your Life’, where Jim Broadbent’s odious host pressures an old lady into an answer against the clock, or her helpless husband’s life will come to a messy end. This is a lifestyle where his parents definitely DO NOT need to talk about Kevin. Why would they? There’s the latest microwave oven to covet. One night, Kevin’s mundane existence is rudely interrupted by the sudden arrival of six time-travelling dwarf robbers bursting through his wardrobe (as some kind of inverse Narnia reference, perhaps?), armed with a stolen map detailing the location of time holes scattered across the universe. The scene is set for a spirited, richly realised ramshackle comic time-travel adventure.

Time Bandits is co-written by Gilliam and fellow Monty Python alumni Michael Palin, and their heritage definitely shows. Until its dark and dramatic final act, the film plays out as a time-travel sketch show. Each episodic sequence has memorable moments, from watching Napoleon (Ian Holm) being entertained by Punch and Judy; to our heroes inadvertently ending up on the Titanic; to helping an ogre sort out his back problems; or dropping in on the escapades of King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Perhaps one of the sharpest and funniest is John Cleese playing Robin Hood as a haughty buffoon in true ‘Prince Charles’ mode (“How long have you been a robber?” “4 foot 1”). If ever there was an example that this is a product of minds responsible for Monty Python, this is it.

The nightmarish final act has a pervading sense of doom coursing through its veins. As the ultimate face-off between our heroes and David Warner’s ‘Evil Genius’ plays out, not even the appearance of affable Ralph Richardson can lighten this sinister mood. In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, this is not a film that shies away from tragedy or darkness.

Then of course, there is THAT ending. I will not say too much for fear of spoiling it for first time viewers, but for a nominally family film, it is absurd, brave and haunting. This is a film which is actively disdainful of the trappings of early 1980s consumerism, where technology is to be exploited for evil. It champions the child-like and admonishes the adult cynicism of its time. Time Bandits is a quite brilliantly barmy family fantasy film. It is, for this viewer, Gilliam’s best work.

It is also quite possibly the only film in which John Cleese gets top billing over Sean Connery.

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