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 (2002) for the origins of that story). Yet the finished products, though often flawed, cannot be faulted for creative scope and ambition.
Time Bandits (1981), 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 (1979), The Long Good Friday (1980) and Withnail & I (1987) 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 (1939), 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.
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.