(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.
Gilliam came up with the idea over a weekend in 1979, at a point where his Brazil script had hit a brick wall; he had Denis O’Brien and Handmade Films (created to make The Life of Brian) behind him, and his idea was “to make a film for everybody”. This ultimately paid dividends in its US release, where Gilliam’s suggestion of three different ad campaigns targeting different potential sections of audience worked out (helped by an empty November release window). In the UK, however, Time Bandits did fairly tepid business, mis-sold as a Python picture; I don’t think I saw the film until its TV premiere, but I do recall the distinctive poster appearing everywhere, as well as the Marvel comics adaptation, penned by Steve Parkhouse (later of the similarly skewed flights-of-imagination peak of Doctor Who comic strips, Voyager). Gilliam notes the movie arrived in a pre-E.T. landscape, where the family movie had yet to be commoditised with renewed zeal. Instead, it was the period of Disney doldrums, where they were desperately trying to find a place in a changing landscape (“the Herbie Goes Bananas phase”; except this was also Dark Disney, with the likes of The Black Hole).
It seems Gilliam’s basic outline didn’t change much when he brought in Michael Palin to add flesh – or rather, character and dialogue – to the bones. Perhaps most notably, a sequence set in 2267 London fell through, which had distinctly Brazil-ish design ideas. There was also a forest of hand trees, a spider woman in the Time of Legends, and the return of Agamemnon at the climax (this was dropped after they used up their allotted Sean Connery RIP).
Gilliam, who enthused “Oh, I love Time Bandits. I can’t believe I pulled it off, got away with it” is very upfront over how, as a director learning the ropes, various restrictions and handicaps ended up proving fortuitous, in particular old pro Connery’s input. The opportunity to bring Connery back at the end, as the fireman who rescues Kevin (Craig Warnock) from his home, engulfed due to a surviving lump of Evil, is inspired. It offers a layer of comfort, that things will be alright despite the young protagonist being left an orphan (not that he was especially close to his blithely disinterested parents). But it also adds a rich layer of dreams/reality obfuscation reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz (which Gilliam cites as a strong influence).
Restrictions also led to possibly the most inspired visual in the picture, that of the invisible barrier in the Time of Legends; Randall (David Rappaport), arguing with Wally (Jack Purvis), hurls a bone revealing a way in as it breaks it like glass. It’s not so much the lustre of the imagery – an evident matte shot – as the idea it conjures. But the picture is crammed with the like. Pauline Kael, never overly enamoured by Gilliam’s work, seeing him as something of an unruly, sprawling talent, offered numerous caveats to her loosely positive appraisal, referring to the director’s “cacophonous imagination”, “incessant buzz of cleverness” and complaining that it “doesn’t quite click”, that he “doesn’t shape the material satisfyingly; this may be one of the rare pictures that suffers from a surfeit of good ideas”. There are a number of Gilliam pictures which don’t quite click for me – The Fisher King is an obvious one, albeit one often cited as his best, most human film – but Time Bandits is a case where nearly everything does.
Randall: You see, to be quite frank, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect… It was a bit of a botch job, you see. We only had seven days to make it.
The premise is irresistible, both absurd and breathless enough that you’re happy just to go with it. And then, when the pace does slow down sufficiently to invite questions, it confesses to its own absurdity (although, Gilliam is really having a dig at most theistic constructs). Kevin hitches a ride with a group of dwarves who have stolen a map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), for whom they worked designing creation before being brought up on a disciplinary charge (“We did trees and shrubs”). The map shows holes in the bodge-up universe they can use, and they do, to plan a robbery. Essentially, Time Bandits is an episodic succession of historic/mythic encounters kept lively by comedic and/or star turns. The loose structure is a staple, of course, from Theseus onwards, a tried and tested winner, but it’s the conceits and cheeky drollery brought to bear by Gilliam and Palin that ensures it flies.
Pansy: And the personal problem?
Gilliam initially didn’t want to go heavily in for the Pythons, but commercial reasoning won out, most famously in form of John Cleese doing Prince Charles as an entirely clueless Robin Hood (the only one in Lincoln green). We’re probably at the tail-end of classic Cleese here (really A Fish Called Wanda, but there he’s more the straight man, attempting a romantic lead). It’s a last great cameo, and his being oblivious to his merry men completely failing to uphold Sherwood values is very funny. Ironically, it’s Palin, who originally earmarked Robin for himself, who comes a cropper. I’m with Kael on her take on Palin’s Vincent and Shelley Duvall’s Pansy, lovers cropping up repeatedly (Sherwood, the Titanic) when she comments “the two of them seem more amused than the audience”. It’s the only part of Time Bandits that falls completely flat, the worse for falling flat twice.
Napoleon: Look at the leetle fellow! Leetle things hitting each other!
But Ian Holm is an absolute delight as Napoleon (a perfect trio of comedy Napoleons are found in this, Love and Death and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). His Napoleon complex is hilariously depicted, Holm fully embracing the opportunity to flourish a (then) rare comic turn as he enthuses over a Punch and Judy show before getting pissed in the company of the bandits while reeling off a list of great titches (Cromwell was “not a big man at all”; “Atilla the Hun, five foot one”). Gilliam said of Holm that it was the kind of performance you can only mess up in the editing and admitted “during the banquet scene – where Ian’s drunk – I just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually the assistant director said ‘We’re going to have to ask the director to leave the set so we can get the shot’”.
The run of sequences – Vincent and Pansy aside – from Napoleon to Agamemnon is nigh perfect, and as impressive is Gilliam’s realisation of the same. Give or take, Time Bandits’ budget was equivalent to the director’s latest film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but you’d think it cost three times as much. He gets the most from Raglan Castle (at night) for the Battle of Castiglione, while the Morocco shoot adds enormous production value to the Agamemnon episode.
Which is also the emotional core of the picture, the section that sells it as more than simply a lark (however agreeably Kevin and Randall’s relationship develops). Gilliam included the famous script direction “When the Greek warrior removes his helmet he reveals himself to be none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature” and was amazed to get him; as it turned out, it was one of the star’s few bankable bright spots in the half decades either side (Outland is pretty good, but didn’t make much, while Never Say Never Again was a big hit, but entirely undeservedly so). Connery’s at his most kindly and warm, making it all the more interesting that he should be playing one of the least celebrated classic heroes (Clytaemnestra is present and correct, offering treacherous glances). I’m guessing that, despite Kevin’s Book of Greek Heroes, he’s unaware of his surrogate father’s fate; as it turns out, Randall does him a favour in whisking him away.
Randall: He didn’t have anything to spend it on, did he? Stuck out in Greece. The lowest standard of living in Europe.
The subsequent episodes – the Titanic and Peter Vaughn and Kathryn Helmond’s ogre couple – aren’t nearly as essential, albeit they offer some memorable imagery, in particular the inspiration for the poster. It’s worth stressing how essential the bandits are to the picture, if only for the ludicrous suggestion that it be remade a few years, back (“It was pitched as a franchise of three films and they were offering huge amounts of $$$$. Their only stipulation was… NO dwarves!!! (A simple ‘Fuck off!’ from yours truly nixed another Hollywood producer’s dream.)”) Rappaport and Purves (who would reunite with Gilliam on his next two pictures) make the strongest impression, but all six are distinctive. It’s the cynic-innocent tension that really makes for the picture’s emotional dynamic work, though, and Warnock gives a perfectly unspoilt performance (Gilliam would pull off the same trick again with Sarah Polley at the end of the decade). As Gilliam said “I love the fact that greed was essential to the whole thing. It’s back to material desires against pure desires”.
Rappaport’s knowing performance ought not to be underrated in all this; I think Jigsaw was the first time I remember seeing him. Of course, the less talented O-Man was the one who went on to play Doctor Who. Gilliam recounts, fitting in with Rappaport’s rather tragic story, how set tensions fed into the characterisation (“They’d all been on a ‘hate Dave Rappaport’ campaign because Dave didn’t want to be a dwarf. He thought he’d got the part because he was a great actor, not because he was four feet one inch. I said ‘Dave, you are a wonderful actor, but you’re a wonderful four-foot-on actor and that’s why you got the part, so don’t forget it.’”)
Evil: God isn’t interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrot!
Time Bandits offers both emotional and philosophical substance, such that it stands apart from typical family fare. Interviewers have noted the picture’s disturbing imagery, not least the skull-headed minions of darkness, the Pinocchio-esque half turning Og into a pig and deaths of Kevin’s parents (which Gilliam tends to insist is more disturbing to parents than kids, but also cites different reactions based on gender). Certainly, the punch here isn’t of the maudlin Spielberg variety; Kevin’s is a rite of passage where he meets his heroes and loses them, where he is destined to carry on the fight. So too, Gilliam’s arranging of the battle between polarised forces probably isn’t a conscious rebuke of the Lucasfilm construct, but it might easily be construed that way.
Evil: This is the worst kind of badness that I’m feeling.
It actually feels more like a casually cheeky dissection of common dualistic mysteries. I think we should count ourselves lucky that Jonathan Pryce wasn’t available for Evil, as his tendency to ham it up – see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm – would probably have gone too far here. David Warner is spot on, looking the part with his Gigeresque head gear and treading perfectly the line between threatening, frustrated and hopeless. His minions are entirely inept, so his habit of blowing them up due to infractions (“But he created you, evil one”) is especially funny. I’m not sure I really agree with James Oliver’s assessment that “Between them, the Supreme Being and Evil are authoritarian and humourless, representing the order and discipline that’s always been so reviled by Gilliam’s films. The bandits, by contrast, are spirited, undisciplined and (perhaps more importantly) fun”. I mean, they are authoritarian, but I wouldn’t call them humourless, not even in terms of their attitude rather than whether they are funny (which they very much are).
Kevin: You mean you let all these people die just to test your creation?
Supreme Being: Yes. You really are a clever boy.
Kevin: Why did they have to die?
Supreme Being: You may as well say, why do we have to have evil.
Randall: Oh, we wouldn’t dream of asking a question like that.
Kevin: Yes. Why do we have to have evil?
Supreme Being: Ah. I think it’s something to do with freewill.
Gilliam, in his easy atheism, has fun with God’s suspect motivation in being responsible for the existence of evil (one for Gnostics to chew on, which they did), even to the extent of admitting “Evil turned out rather well”. Although, it has to be said that Evil doesn’t appear to have much impact on broader creation; it seems he is attempting to get au fait with current states of materialism, rather than engineering it. It’s good for a few gags, though, which is the key. And he does quickly fixate on that – Steiner's take –Ahrimanic materialist influential path (which we see consuming Kevin’s parents, literally so at the end). Indeed, in Gilliam’s battle against cold hard science, he may win through in the 80s, ultimately, but he’s much less optimistic when it comes round to The Zero Theorem, where he affirms that materialism has won (there is no meaning to life) and that the realm of imagination is now contained in a techno simulacrum (spirit is dead).
Evil: I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic?
A few random thoughts. The presentation of Ralph’s Supreme Being had me wondering if Gilliam had caught Cyril Luckham as The White Guardian in Doctor Who a few years before (a season offering its own take on a patrician “God” and a very snarly “devil”). The opening shot, descending on a very English Earth from Space, is very Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Kevin, like a junior Arthur Dent, sets out on his journey in dressing gown and slippers. Cowboys showing up at the grand climax is very Mel Brooks. The cages sequence is a knockout in both concept and execution (the best suspense sequence the director has concocted?) And Gilliam would revisit the climax’s clash of time periods (future tech, tanks and Greeks) in Vulcan’s lair in Munchausen (he’s working on a nuclear warhead). Time Bandits is one of Gilliam’s most purely satisfying pictures, one I’ve grown to appreciate more and more as time has passed; other contemporaries’ lustre has diminished, while its has only grown. I even like the George Harrison song, although I’m very glad that Gilliam strenuously resisted the suggestion that he litter Time Bandits with the ex-Beatles’ tracks throughout!