Time Bandits is the one of the very few films that is actually for all ages, in the way Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, E.T. and the many wonderful Pixar and Ghibli films are. It’s directed by one of the few true masters of the illusion of cinema, Terry Gilliam, who made his start doing the animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He is known as “the American one,” and has directed in this critic’s opinion some of the finest and most imaginative films ever made, such as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the unjustly maligned Tideland.
Time Bandits is the pivotal moment in Terry Gilliam’s career, when he is breaking free of the Pythons and making a splash in his own right as a film director. He had directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky previously, and had a much-reduced role on The Life of Brian. After Life of Brian Terry had been trying to make Brazil (at the time titled 1984 ½) with George Harrisons’ Handmade films (which also funded Brian) but Harrison wasn’t interested. Gilliam then came up with the idea of making film for all the family (not a kids’ film) and got his fellow Python Michael Palin in to co-write it.
George Harrison’s producing partner Denis O’Brien tried to get interest from Hollywood, to no avail. Ironically, it turned out to be Gilliam’s biggest success in the states in terms of budget-to-box-office ratio. George Harrison eventually mortgaged his house to fund the film. To save their investment, George and Denis scrambled to try to get as many Pythons involved with the production as possible. They got John Cleese to play Robin Hood and Palin, who originally wrote Robin Hood for himself, to write a new character to play.
Casting was integral to the film (Gilliam has said that casting is half of the filmmaking process.) Gilliam and Palin wrote in the screenplay about King Agamemnon, “The warrior took off his helmet, revealing someone that looks exactly like Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature.” Denis O’Brien took this literally: he wanted Sean Connery for the role, and luckily knew him socially, probably because they are both keen golfers. Connery eventually accepted the role for a much-reduced rate.
The key roles were a young boy called Kevin and a gang of little people. Craig Warnock was cast as Kevin: his brother Grant auditioned for the role, but Gilliam was more interested in his quiet brother. Many of the little people who play the title characters are now well-known actors, such as Kenny Baker (who played R2-D2), Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross and of course David Rappaport as their leader Randall (there should be more cinematic Randalls). Most of these actors had been in the Star Wars films, some of Jim Henson’s 1980s films, and Willow. Sadly, Time Bandits is the only film where many of these actors really got to show their worth as actors. The rest of cast includes many people who Gilliam would work with later on in his best film Brazil, such as Ian Holm (as Napoleon), Katherine Helmond, Peter Vaughan and Jim Broadbent.
The story of Time Bandits centres on the adventures of Kevin, a young boy who is a dreamer. Obviously it’s partly based on Gilliam himself. Kevin’s parents are horrible capitalistic British suburbanites who have no interest in their son. They just sit on their plastic-protected sofas and watch game shows on their television set.
Kevin is sleeping one night when a knight on horseback bursts though his wardrobe, but when he looks back it’s gone. The next night he gets ready for more—and does he get it. The wardrobe unleashes a group of six small bandits who come bursting into his room. He soon learns they have stolen a map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). The bandits try to find an exit before the Supreme Being can find them. They find they can push one of the walls in Kevin’s room and do so. Kevin joins them, but before they escape the Supreme Being appears demanding the map back.
They eventually time travel though a void, landing in the Napoleonic wars. Kevin learns that the bandits originally were hired by the Supreme Being to repair holes in the space-time fabric, but soon realised the map they were using could help them steal treasures though the ages. During the film they travel though many historical periods, such as the one of Robin Hood, Mycenaean Greece, and the time of legends; they even take a trip on the Titanic. However, they are being monitored by Evil (played brilliantly by David Warner) because he wants the map for his own ends.
The film is the first time Gilliam made a film though the eyes of a child and more importantly the awe children have. Many of films his subsequent films are seen though the innocence eyes of a child especially Munchausen, Tideland and to a lesser extent 12 Monkeys. Gilliam has been record saying on his gravestone it will have inscribed with “He giggled with awe”. In many ways that describes perfectly Gilliam’s approach to filmmaking from Time Bandits to the present day.
Gilliam considers Time Bandits the first part of his dreams trilogy or trilogy of imagination. They all set in different stages of life with Time Bandits being childhood, Brazil mid-life and Munchausen is seen though the eyes of elderly man. The essay in the Brazil criterion describes them as films about “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.” This probably all goes back to the profound impact Fellini’s 8 ½ had on the then 23-year-old Gilliam. He has also been on record saying in many ways in all of his films he has been trying to do his own version of the opening scene of 8 ½.
When Time Bandits came out, it was a sleeper hit when such a thing was still possible. This was the pre-internet age, after all. It was very well liked in Europe but it really took off the States, where it was the surprise hit of the all-important Christmas holidays in 1981. It was released during the summer holidays in the UK.
Time Bandits has over the years developed a rabid cult fan base, and for many people was their first exposure to the wonderful world of Terry Gilliam. I first saw the video when I was 6 or 7 on VHS tape, and it was one of my first favourite films. I’ve seen it countless times on many DVDs, as it has been re-issued several times over the years. With this newly remastered version featuring a 2K transfer approved by Gilliam (the first he’s approved in over a decade), Arrow Video seems to have done the definitive release. It features interviews with Gillam, Palin, Warner and the production crew. However, it sadly loses the commentary that was recorded for Criterion back in the laserdisc days—although fans can find the out-of-print Criterion DVD online for very cheap.
Release Date: 26TH August 2013 (UK)
Director: Terry Giliam
Cast: John Cleese, Sean Connery,David Rappaport, David Warner, Kenny Baker, Craig Warnock
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