One of the perks to writing classic movie reviews is a floodlike sense of nostalgia emerging from the re-screening. I was the perfect age, seven, when I was first introduced to the characters in “Time Bandits”. Now, watching Terry Gilliam’s second solo-directed picture for the first time in decades, I remember how impressed I was originally with the overall look and feel of this fantastic story.
One of the first movies ever to enable the acting skills of little people in principal roles, this film is swamped in talent. Playing the part of producer and director, Gilliam co-wrote this time-traveling comedy alongside fellow Python member Michael Palin, who himself appears as a whimpering, innocent bystander in separate time periods with an aloofly funny Shelley Duvall.
Gilliam created this picture with the help of George Harrison’s production company Handmade Films, which originated when EMI pulled out of “Monty Python and the Life of Brian”. Gilliam first wrote the treatment for “Time Bandits” while trying to secure funding for his next epic, the enigmatic and spectacular “Brazil”.
“I was trying to do ‘Brazil” at that point,” recalls Gilliam. “but it got no reaction when I suggested it. Then over one weekend, I just sat and thought, ‘Let’s make something for everybody – the entire family.’”
In devising their script together, Gilliam harnessed the storyline together while Palin took on the dialogue. The result is an anarchistic historical/legendary adventure full of state-of-the-art special effects and light-hearted English banter. It is smart entertainment for children and exciting enough for adults. The movie is frequently ridiculous yet intelligent. Philosophical yet boisterous. And gothic dark yet cheerfully whimsical.
The story begins with Kevin, British and eleven. Enamored with history, his excited statements are always silenced by his brooding and stupid parents. Therefore, young Kevin (played with genuine earnestness by Craig Warnok) is forced to bed early every night so that his imaginations can take effect on him. On the first night, a Medieval horseman crashes through his closet and rides off into the wallpaper. Packing a Polaroid and a flashlight, he prepares for more mayhem the next night. Enter the dwarves.
One of the most brilliant analogies I have ever heard in cinema belongs to Robert Hewison. In his 1981 book “Monty Python: The Case Against”, the London author purports that each of the dwarfs resembles a separate cast member of Monty Python. The John Cleese dwarf is Randall (David Rappaprt) as the arrogant, self-appointed leader. Eric Idle is personified by the witty and short-lipped Strutter (Malcolm Dixon). Michael Palin is represented as the nice dwarf named Fidget (R2D2’s Kenny Baker in plain view). Graham Chapman is the quiet one, Og (Mike Edmonds). Fellow Grail director Terry Jones is the loud and rebellious Wally (Jack Purvis), while Gilliam characterized himself as the nasty and filthy one named Vermin (Tiny Ross), who at one point eats a live rat in the movie.
But if you are not familiar with the Monty Python universe, consider the six dwarfs as The Three Stooges, just split in half and multiplied by two. Escaping from their former employer, the Supreme Being, Randall and company escape with Kevin down a time portal hidden in his bedroom. And from there, the film becomes a hilarious romp through Ancient Greece, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Middle Ages.
Albeit brief, there are several performances that endow “Time Bandits” with memorable praise. Ian Holm’s drunken Napoleon, for instance, is hysterical as he slurs through the trauma of his apparent short-man complex. Stealing the part away from Pailin, John Cleese does an impressive portrayal of Robin Hood, all the while smiling and introducing himself as “Hood.” I still don’t exactly know why that is funny. It just is.
Sean Connery surprised both of the Pythons when he himself signed on to play the role of Agamemnon, whose character was written in the screenplay as someone suggesting a likeness to the famed Scotsman. Never dropping his slick accent for a second, he embodies the ruler of Greece with the same grace as the classic James Bond. Gilliam’s vision of ancient Greece is accurate and breathtaking.
The Pythons have always had a keen sense of farcical history humor. But unlike any attempt before, Gilliam pilots his sense of humor into a cinematic world that is beautiful and fantastic. True, it is an outrageous and silly adventure based on time traveling midgets and a smart British kid. But it is also Gilliam’s first film indicating his unquestionable talent as a visionary. If not “Jabberwocky, then “Time Bandits” is certainly his first movie to reveal that he was not just an anarchistic comedian.
In order to gain the miniature perspective of a dwarf or child, Gilliam set up cameras low to the ground throughout the film. The brilliant production design by Milly Burns enables a world of history and fairy-tale wonderland. Norman Garwood’s exotic art direction is purely spellbinding. With pre-CGI special effects, it is indeed impressive to watch ogres and giants grumble and startle the seven shorter principal actors.
And speaking of impressive details, pay particular attention to the climactic battle between Good (Kevin and the dwarfs) and Evil (the thoroughly entertaining David Warner). Notice that there are several elements present in this scene that can be traced back to Kevin’s bedroom. Randall drives a tank. Strutter rides with a cowboy posse. Wally lands a Micronauts spaceship to confront Evil. All of these items are first seen as toys littering Kevin’s floor at the beginning of the movie. Even the castle walls seem to be made of gigantic Lego pieces. The allusion is slight, but nevertheless brilliant.
One of my favorite anecdotes regarding “Time Bandits” involves the scene when Kevin and the dwarfs escape from a hanging cage in Evil’s Fortress of Darkness. Originally, the script called for an elaborate scene with expensive set design. But when plans fell through (as they often do for the director), Gilliam re-constructed the scene to its simplistic bare bones. Making due with what little he had, the scene is merely a cage holding the actors against a black backdrop. The sequence was not only inexpensive, but one of the most memorable scenes of the whole movie.
With Handmade’s moderate production budget, Gilliam was allowed the same level of creative freedom he enjoyed with “Jabberwocky”. Undeniably eager to impress their beloved director, the costume designers, set decorators, and background artists were all at the top of their game when they created “Time Bandits” in all of its artistic glory. And the work literally stands up to the test of time.
Giving you the BEST of Classic Movies from 1920 to present and in every genre!
TIME BANDITS,TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS, TIME BANDITS,