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Time Bandits

Reviewed by Eliza DoLots

On the surface, TIME BANDITS may seem like little more than a fairy tale about a boy and a band of dwarves traveling through time. However, I consider it to be a watershed motion picture for a number of reasons. The success of TIME BANDITS jump started Terry Gilliam’s career as a director. It made him a bankable commodity and paved the way for all future films: the much loved classic, BRAZIL (1985), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1989), THE FISHER KING (1991), 12 MONKEYS (1995) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Before TIME BANDITS, Gilliam was considered exclusively a member of Monty Python - part of an ensemble without a definable image of his own. TIME BANDITS showed Gilliam was able to work outside the Python environment; and to do so quite spectacularly. Though Pythons' Michael Palin (who also co-wrote the story) and the marvelous John Cleese have small roles, the cast of TIME BANDITS is widely diverse. Strong, capable direction of filmmaking icons Sir Ralph Richardson and Sean Connery gave Gilliam credibility. The engaging performance he got from child actor Craig Warnock showed that Gilliam is able to work with a wide variety of skill levels to get his results. The stunning visual effects-done on a small budget-showed that his unique vision could be translated to the big screen without high-end, budget-inflating special effects.

For many years Terry Gilliam was the (usually) unseen member of Monty Python. His distinctive visual style and low cost animations helped define the antic, off-the-wall comedy group. For some of us, it is impossible to THINK about Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC 1969-1974) without seeing the opening credit animation in our heads.

In 1971, the Pythons moved into films with AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Despite the title, this is really a long version of the TV show, and it is Gilliam’s first credit as co-director (with Ian McNaughton). The Pythons left television in 1974 and started work on what is arguably their best (certainly most quoted) movie: MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Again a co-director (this time with fellow Python Terry Jones) and writer (with ALL of the Pythons), Gilliam also provided two of the movie’s most memorable characterizations: Arthur’s trusty servant Patsy and the question-asking bridge keeper. He appears momentarily in his true form (a first) as “The Animator” who succumbs toward the end of the movie.
While working on the next Python movie, LIFE OF BRIAN (1979), Gilliam had an idea for a movie: a boy travels through time to confront and be horribly disappointed by his idols. Unfortunately, as he was only known for being a member of Monty Python, he found most studios reluctant to listen to him. One studio, however, was not at all reluctant.

Handmade Films, started by Python friend and fan George Harrison to complete production of the financially troubled LIFE OF BRIAN, was willing to fund Gilliam’s vision. TIME BANDITS was born.

While TIME BANDITS continues to be the most successful movie made by Handmade Films, it brought the production company out of the realm of “Python Productions” and into major, cross-audience films. The success of TIME BANDITS led Harrison to back a variety of films, some conceived by or starring Python alumni (Michael Palin’s THE MISSIONARY, PRIVATES ON PARADE starring John Cleese, NUNS ON THE RUN starring Eric Idle) and many more with no Python association. Before being dissolved in a legal dispute, Handmade Films put out approximately 30 movies. They range from the critically acclaimed MONA LISA - for which Bob Hoskins (BRAZIL) received an Academy Award nomination (Best Actor) - to the universally condemned SHANGHAI SURPRISE, which proved that a high power pop star (Madonna) and her brooding actor husband (Sean Penn) couldn’t guarantee success. Handmade Films revitalized English filmmaking. While there was no “GANDHI” in the Handmade library, young English directors found Handmade to be a willing partner in bringing non-traditional visions to the screen.

TIME BANDITS was the beginning.

Ostensibly a tale of a youth traveling in the company of a band of robbers with a map they stole from “The Supreme Being” (personified by the oh so dapper Sir Ralph Richardson) while “The Evil Genius” (wonderfully portrayed by David Warner) watches them, plotting a way to get his hands on the map; TIME BANDITS includes a fairly crushing analysis of family life in England. Central character Kevin’s parents are two of the most unaware, self-centered, snobbish individuals to be put on screen. Their inattention is so severe that, when he finds himself in the court of King Agamemnon (Connery), Kevin is delighted to leave his normal life of television and toys behind for an adult who loves him. Equally biting is the commentary provided by the ever present TV game show “Your Money or Your Life.” Kevin’s father watches the show constantly. Going from preposterous to horrifying as contestants willingly allow themselves or their loved ones to be tortured and humiliated in the name of “winning money,” the TV show within the movie points out both the shallow nature of much of what we deem entertainment and the distorted values held by those who covet money over health, happiness and safety.

Gilliam has a great deal of fun in TIME BANDITS, poking fun at historical and mythical figures. Ian Holm (now gracing the screen as Bilbo Baggins) is hysterical as the height-obsessed Napoleon, and John Cleese’s Robin Hood is a revelation: overpoweringly neat and clean, he radiates “hero” while completely oblivious to the activity around him. Katherine Helmond (BRAZIL) does a kooky star turn as the warm and cuddly, yet bloodthirsty wife of Ogre Peter Vaughan. However, it is David Warner as “The Evil Genius” who steals the movie. Preening, covetous, jealous, his obsession with becoming THE supreme power is a joy to watch. Dividing his time between following the course of the wayward robbers, verbally bashing “The Supreme Being” and struggling to learn about the ways of the modern world (“Explain Trunk to Trunk dialing to me…”) “Evil” focuses the film on what is wrong and strange about our world (“Nipples for men!”).

The ultimate battle of good and evil ends, not with the destruction of evil but with it’s temporary dismemberment. Evil still exists, as it will always exist. Forgoing the traditional happy ending (or even the traditional ENDING), Gilliam leaves his hero back in his own time being rescued from a fire that destroys his house. The apparent cause, a roast left cooking. Kevin recognizes that evil has come to his house, screams “No, don’t touch it…it’s pure evil!” Of course his parents touch it and disappear in a puff of smoke. Kevin is left standing alone on his street in front of the ruins of his home. What will happen to him? Gilliam doesn’t tell us.

Such a “non-ending” would have been scrubbed by a larger studio. Indeed, arguments over the ending of BRAZIL caused major delays, discontent and ultimately the release of a director’s cut to bring the movie back to Gilliam’s original vision. TIME BANDITS stands as a glimpse at the filmmaking of Terry Gilliam freed from the oppressive structures of a high powered studio. His visual sense (consider the scene with the suspended cages; this scene looks like no other in modern movies) is unconstrained and his storytelling stands as he intended it. TIME BANDITS gives us a sense of what makes Gilliam such a unique and powerful director.

And, it’s funny.

 

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Director
Terry Gilliam

Screenplay
Michael Palin
Terry Gilliam

Released
November 6, 1981 (US)

Cast
John Cleese
Sean Connery
Craig Warnock
Kenny Baker
David Rappaport Ian Holm
Shelley Duvall
Michael Palin
Ralph Richardson

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on (out of production) DVD and Blu-Ray