40 Years Ago: “Time Bandits” (1981)

Today we leap through a rift in the time-space continuum to a location 40 years ago today, the date of the American release of my favorite Terry Gilliam feature, Time Bandits (1981).

I specifiy “feature” in my opening salvo because I am equally fond of the short The Crimson Personal Assurance (1983) which was used as a curtain raiser for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and naturally his hundreds of animated segments for the original Python show. Holy Grail (1975) of course was co-directed by Terry Jones, and has also been ruined for me by the armies of wheezing, snorting nerds who insisted on explaining how and why it was funny and reciting the routines as though it were mathlete liturgy back in the day. I envy those who got to experience Python on their own terms, and not through the filter of Dungeons and Dragons geeks, as I had to.

At any rate, Time Bandits is the crystalization of Gilliam at his peak, in my view. It built on the whimsy of his first solo film Jabberwocky (1977), always an obscurity, and brought with it a touch of showmanship he would never quite recapture to this degree ever again. I was about 16 when Time Bandits came out, and have never regarded it as strictly a kid’s film — it’s too smart, funny, and wise for that. And it’s one of Gilliam’s few films where the picaresque aspect and the coherency of plot are kept in balance. It’s really the only one of his movies that I have watched repeatedly, and can hold in my memory. Most of the others have striking visuals but neglible characters and stories. Here, he (with fellow Python Michael Palin as co-writer) created an instant classic with a kid hero (Craig Warnock) on a model not unlike Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Phantom Tollboth, etc. Young Kevin is whisked away from his humdrum life into an alternate universive of harrowing but exhilarating adventure.

The titular Time Bandits are a sextet of dwarves (their word), played by David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purvis, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, and Tiny Ross. They are galactic workmen employed by the Supreme Being (played by Sir Ralph Richardson at the hilarious acme of aloof vagueness) to repair holes in the universe. They have now stolen a map that allows them to navigate the time-space continuum. Their goal is nothing more than treasure, but still they hijack Kevin to help them on their quest. Their journey takes them in and out of settings from both history and storybooks, mixing both together in an oddly satisfying hodgepodge. They encounter a supercilious Robin Hood (John Cleese), a delightfully sadistic, puppet-show loving Napoleon (Ian Holm), and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), who becomes a kind of surrogate father to the boy in one interlude. Palin and Shelley Duvall play a couple who are accosted by Robin Hood’s Merry Men (Duvall launched her Faerie Tale Theatre not long after this, which always felt related to me). Katherine Helmond of Soap played the wife of an ogre (Peter Vaughn). There is also a memorable, uncanny looking giant (Ian Muir). And a sequence on the Titanic (wrong place, wrong time, that one, eh?). An early career Jim Broadbent plays a sort of game show host type character (paving the way for some of the business in The Meaning of Life). And keeping the movie’s feet to the fire is its villain Evil, played with palpable relish by David Warner.

The proceedings are cheeky, often laugh out loud funny, but also frequently moving, scary, and even thought-provoking. Not to mention satirical. The film gains much of his power by juxtaposing Kevin’s suburban home life (dominated by his vapid, consumer-product-obsessed parents), and the world of imagination. Which is just through that wall. Hence the great closing theme song “Dream Away” by the movie’s producer George Harrison, adding a bit of Beatle magic to the proceedings. It was just a year after Lennon’s assasination — this positive, creative act of Harrison’s, so close on the heels of that tragedy, felt like a bit of “Life goes on”. George died almost exactly 20 years ago; the mid-point between Time Bandits and now. I just listened to “Dream Away” six times in a row in a mood of sad nostalgia. The movie itself has become a kind of time machine.

Gilliam considers Time Bandits the first part of a trilogy that also includes Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but frankly the latter two films have never quite stuck to my ribs in the same way Time Bandits has. Nor have any of his subsequent films. (I have not yet seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, though I’ve long wanted to, even before it was made!). But this movie is…to quote Cleese’s Robin Hood: “Jolly Good.”

Not for nothing, for several years now there has been buzz about a new Time Bandits TV series directed by Taika Waititi, of Thor: Ragnarok and co-creator of What We Do in the Shadows, that will air on Apple TV+, but so far no premiere date has been announced. Gilliam himself, of course, has been in the shitter since his foolhardy attacks on what others call the Woke Police — apparently he has no hands-on participation on the show.