Time Bandits: Guerrilla Fantasy

On Film / Essays — Dec 11, 2014

NOTE: The following essay contains spoilers.

If someone made Time Bandits today, it’s a good bet that the deus ex machina that saves the world would be a wizard of the Tolkien or Hogwarts type. But in Terry Gilliam’s first masterpiece, the deus ex machina is, well, an actual deus. And no less a one than God Almighty, a.k.a. the Supreme Being, or just SB, wittily played by Ralph Richardson, that most lordly of actors.

In its refreshing irreverence, however, this 1981 time-travel fantasy gives more time to the Evil Genius, or just Evil, slitheringly played by David Warner, who proves the age-old wisdom that bad guys are way more fun to watch than good guys. Other characters hail from history and literature—Agamemnon, Napoleon, Robin Hood—or from the realm of pure imagination, like Winston the ogre and his wife. The ultimate time bandit is Gilliam himself, a guerrilla fantasist raiding the distant past in this film as exuberantly as he raids the not-so-distant past in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), the future in Brazil (1985) and The Zero Theorem (2014), the present in The Fisher King (1991) and Tideland (2005), and the future and the present in Twelve Monkeys (1995).

The title characters of Time Bandits are six boisterous dwarfs—Randall, Og, Fidgit, Strutter, Wally, and Vermin—and Kevin, an eleven-year-old boy who becomes their sidekick. We first meet Kevin reading a book about ancient Greek heroes, while his parents gaze at a blaring telly. His reading hints at an active, creative mind, so when a horse-borne medieval knight barges out of his wardrobe and through his room that night, it’s easy to think he’s having a vivid dream. The following night, though, it’s the aforementioned dwarfs who clamber chaotically out of the wardrobe, with the Supreme Being—manifested as a radiant disembodied head— hot on their trail, demanding the return of a stolen map. When the dwarfs escape through a wall that turns into a hallway, Kevin tumbles along with them and lands in the same surprising place: Italy in the late eighteenth century, where Napoleon’s army is on a roll. With lightning speed, Kevin has traveled from his cozy bedroom to Napoleon’s battlefront headquarters two hundred years ago. What in the world (or out of it) is going on?

The dwarfs explain. Until recently, they were employed by the Supreme Being to fix holes in the space-time continuum. Then they had a brainstorm: Why mend the holes when they could slip through them—like the one in Kevin’s wardrobe—to any destination where loot might be found? What they forgot to take into account was that the Supreme Being is . . . supreme, and they’d be in big trouble when he caught up with them. They also forgot about Evil, who’s been spying on them from his dismal grotto. If he gets hold of their cosmic map showing the holes, it could be curtains for the universe as we know it.

Gilliam wrote Time Bandits with Michael Palin, a fellow veteran of the Monty Python comedy troupe, which ceased its televisual activities in 1974 but regrouped for occasional projects. Although this is not a Python picture— the great John Cleese is the only other member involved—it abounds with the Python spirit, and especially with the teeming ingenuity found in the animated interludes that Gilliam designed for the TV show.

Gilliam started his career as a cartoonist in the United States, emigrating to England in the 1960s because of anger at American politics and policies. There he became a charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969, and his stop-motion animations are still the show’s most famous trademark. Their anarchic inventiveness was very much in evidence in 1975 when Gilliam made his live-action debut with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, codirected by Terry Jones, also a Python alumnus. Like others who have successfully turned from animation to live action—Gregory La Cava, Frank Tashlin, Tim Burton—Gilliam has cheerfully retained the anything-goes sensibility that cartooning encourages.

When they set to work writing Time Bandits, Gilliam and Palin wanted to make a movie “exciting enough for adults and intelligent enough for children,” as Gilliam has often described it. They scored brilliantly on both counts. The film’s mythological and historical reference points range from ancient Greece to the sinking of the Titanic, and there’s sharp-edged commentary on contemporary life as well. Kevin’s parents watch a greed-filled game show called Your Money or Your Life, sponsored by the Moderna Wonder Major All Automatic Convenience Center-ette, and Evil is a technology freak who ridicules the Supreme Being for creating things like slugs. “They can’t hear, they can’t speak, they can’t operate machinery,” says the wicked one. “I would have started with lasers. Eight o’clock, day one!”

The satire in Time Bandits is irresistible, but the film also has a theological bent, which it demonstrates most trenchantly after Evil makes his last stand near the end. The Supreme Being arrives just in time to rescue Kevin by turning Evil into stone, which quickly crumbles to bits. Quite pleased with himself, the divinity directs the dwarfs to clean up the mess. But where another movie would zip to a triumphal finale, Time Bandits pauses to wax metaphysical. Replying to the dwarfs’ apologies for stealing, the SB explains that everything that happened was part of his plan, which he engineered to test the power of Evil, which is also part of his plan. “I am the Supreme Being,” the Supreme Being says. “I’m not entirely dim.”

Kevin’s inquiring mind can’t let it rest at that, however. “You mean you let all those people die just to test your creation?” he asks, thinking of the motley assortment of would-be rescuers—cowboys, archers, modern men with a tank and spaceship—who failed to free him from the clutches of Evil. “Why did they have to die?” That’s like asking why Evil has to exist, the Supreme Being says. Kevin proceeds to ask exactly that, and the SB’s response is disarmingly concise. “I think,” he says, “it’s something to do with free will.”

This seemingly casual reference to concepts that have occupied philosophers for millennia—without free will we might not do bad things, but that wouldn’t make us good, since we’d have no choice in the matter—is sophisticated thinking for a knockabout comedy. It’s integral to the movie, though, and to Gilliam’s work in general. “The ‘big questions’ are always there for us,” he told me in a 1981 interview, the first of many conversations we’ve had over the years. “Michael and I had solid religious upbringings, so we grew up believing and thinking about God and religion and good and evil. I can’t get those out of my system; they’re a part of me . . . I like to think I’m not alone, that there’s a whole structure around us.”

Having the Supreme Being as a comic character raised a few eyebrows when Time Bandits premiered, but the most controversial scene comes at the very end, after he and the dwarfs have exited. Kevin is back home, and he and his parents barely escape a fire caused by a leftover chunk of crumbled Evil. Kevin shouts a warning not to touch the nasty-looking substance, but his parents ignore him and vanish forever with a bang, leaving the boy essentially alone in the universe. The movie then zooms into the heavens, showing that our big, wide world is ultimately a tiny dot on the Supreme Being’s map.

Why did Gilliam give his comic vision such a dark conclusion? One reason is that he trusts the cleverness of children, knowing they’re perfectly capable of handling a downbeat ending—especially one like this, where the parents would have been fine if they’d only listened to the child! Another reason is the filmmaker’s longtime fascination with big philosophical pictures that put humanity’s best and worst qualities into the fullest possible perspective, as when the camera soars in the final shot, transcending the problems of the people below. “I like to take the large view,” Gilliam told me. “I think it’s comforting.”

Time Bandits is as funny as it is philosophical, though, with jokes and sight gags at every turn. Evil has some of the most hilarious bits, as when he critiques the Supreme Being’s priorities: “He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time. Forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!” Cleese’s unctuous Robin Hood is equally uproarious, gushing to Randall, leader of the dwarfs, about the poor: “Oh, you must meet them, I just know you’ll like them. Charming people. Of course, they haven’t got two pennies to rub together, but that’s because they’re poor!” Randall is unimpressed, and when Kevin calls Robin Hood a hero, the dwarf has the final word: “Heroes! Heroes! What do they know about a day’s work?!”

Gilliam matches the screenplay’s verbal artistry with ingenious visual techniques, often embedded in minute details—for instance, the way items in Kevin’s home (his chessboard, the plastic covers on his parents’ furniture) have creepy counterparts in Evil’s dank sanctum. Gilliam is one of the few filmmakers proudly influenced by Georges Me?lie?s, and Fritz Lang’s optical labyrinths were surely on his mind as well.

In the cast, Cleese, Richardson, and Warner shine, and Craig Warnock deftly plays Kevin in (surprisingly) his only feature film appearance. Ian Holm slyly reveals Napoleon’s silly side, and Shelley Duvall partners Palin in droll scenes about a veddy British couple. Fidgit is played by Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the Star Wars saga. Jim Broadbent shows up as a game-show host, and Sean Connery is at his versatile best as the larger-than-life Agamemnon.

Critics have proposed many different takes on Time Bandits. It’s clearly a lampoon of Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, reflecting Gilliam’s disdain for today’s “suburbanized” versions of originally tough-minded fairy tales. It can also be seen as a parable about the Pythons, with some characters (Randall, the Supreme Being) grabbing center stage and others (Evil, Og) thinking they belong there. Nods to the work of Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis lend a literary pedigree that complements the film’s philosophical concerns. In sum, there are countless ways to enjoy this multifaceted movie.

Gilliam regards it as the opening installment of his Trilogy of Imagination, which continues with Brazil and culminates with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). All are freewheeling adventures in perception, exploring “big questions” through the eyes of protagonists who are progressively older (if not always wiser) in each film. They’re also antic commentaries on what’s lost when a society (ours) elevates technology and ideology at the expense of whimsy, fantasy, and joy. Like the parents who disregard Kevin’s warning, Time Bandits reminds us we’d be better off if we paid more attention to the kid’s-eye view of things. “Actually, we’re pretty childish,” Gilliam told me, speaking of Palin and himself. “It would be nice to say ‘childlike,’ wouldn’t it? But no, childish it is!”