10+ Years Later: Is TIME BANDITS Still One for the Ages?
Going back through the time portal, there was a point when Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits was practically an obsession.
It had most everything to do with the director. For my close friends and I, Gilliam was part of an impeccable shortlist of directors whose work we would never miss in the theater, placing him right alongside Scorsese, Tarantino, De Palma and the Coen Brothers. His second bona fide solo film, Time Bandits, (following 1977’s Jabberwocky) was considered to be the epochal and definitive example of how one dodges the "sophomore slump," in this case establishing himself aside from his former career as the reclusive animator and sole American member of legendary comedy troupe Monty Python.
The terminal bleakness that would characterize most of his later work, immediately beginning with his next one, 1985's Brazil, is present but not dominant in Time Bandits. That honor would go to the spirit of smart mischief amid the billowing fog and meticulous atmosphere of clutter. This is a sly, funny movie of its own ilk. It's irreverent, but not as irreverent as you might think. It's mainstream, but not as mainstream as it's box office success might indicate.
If a weakness was made apparent through this revisit, it's the unevenness of its episodic structure. One has to think that this is the Pythons in their comfort zone, having made a career threading the thinnest of through-lines, if that, through absurd and wacky segments. Beginning with the Napoleon portion, which is really just a prolonged series of short people jokes, was probably a mistake. It's an immediate momentum killer, and more confounding than it needs to be. But once they move one, the film recovers wonderfully.
Although the name-above-the-title stars are fellow former Python John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Shelly Duvall, they are not the actual stars. Nor are a hilariously terrifying David Warner as Evil, nor Ralph Richardson as the delightfully not entirely dim Supreme Being. (My favorite line? When He is asked why there’s evil, he pauses and simply says, “I think it has something to do with free will.”)
Six mischievous dwarves of celestial origin take center stage, led by a lovably pompous David Rappaport. Turns out they've gone rogue from their post as "God's Little Helpers," swiping a coveted map of the universe and then exploiting it to guide a crime spree through time and space. Among the group are Star Wars notables Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Jack Purvis (the Chief Jawa, the Chief Ugnaught, Teebo the Ewok).
It's great to see these often unsung literal little guys get such prominent acting parts. Robbing Napoleon (Ian Holm) to pay Robin Hood (John Cleese) a few hundred years earlier is a funny idea made possible by the "holes in the universe," shown on the map. Because, as is explained, the universe is a botched job. Or is it? It was made in only seven days. Hence, this wild romp. As the tagline goes, they didn’t make history - they stole it!
But the real star is Craig Warnock as Kevin. When the movie opened in 1981, I was the same age as his character. For who knows what reason, my parents took me to see it in the theater. They hated it. Utterly hated it. I, being slightly too young to feel assured in a counter opinion, kept my mouth shut. Sure, the film was a little distressing and weird, but what day isn't? Time Bandits stuck me, influencing my own childhood artwork and writing. Had it not been for Gilliam and fellow screenwriter Michael Palin’s thought to keep the whole thing at kid-level, Time Bandits would merely be remembered as an interesting curiosity at best.
Thankfully, Time Bandits was a hit, emboldening ex-Beatle George Harrison's production company Handmade Films, and launching Gilliam as an A-list auteur for the next two decades. If this one hadn't worked out, we'd most certainly have no 12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Fisher King, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I used to watch this all the time. But somehow the time got away. Marriage, kids, and a challenging freelance career are all to thank. The pursuit of The World's Most Fabulous Object. It's great to find more way back today, now with my own kids in tow. (All of whom I'm pretty sure utterly hated it... That ending!!)
Movies like this simply don't happen anymore. They barely did then. But, this one thankfully is still lurking about. As Robin Hood says, it's jolly good! And, as Mr. Harrison tells us over the closing credits, it's only a dream away.