Looking back at Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits

Chaotic, dark, philosophical and very, very funny — it’s Terry Gillliam’s Time Bandits. Andrew takes a look back a the 1981 fantasy classic…

Time Bandits, for those of you unversed, is what happens when Boy’s Own adventure meets 2000 AD cynicism, by way of epic fantasy quest. If you want to see something funny featuring short people, this is much better than Life’s Too Short, and it isn’t parched for celebrity cameos either. Starting in a plausibly terrible version of the near future, Time Bandits is the story of Kevin, whose humdrum home life with his vegetative parents is boring, secluded, and starved of fun.

The opening sequence, complete with imposing synthscapes and zooms through space and time, implies something epic, only to end on a long shot of an ordinary area of post-war housing, and then a none-more-nutmeg-coloured living room. Jim Broadbent plays a macabre game show host, who Kevin’s parents watch while sitting in shrinkwrapped armchairs.

The next, utterly stunning image is that of a knight on horseback bursting out of a wardrobe and into Kevin’s bedroom in slow motion, the horse’s braying amplified and reverberated to unsettling effect as it jumps over the boy’s bed. Then, cutting and changing angles, the knight rides off into some woodland that wasn’t there a second ago.

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As with Jabberwocky, Gilliam is clearly trying things that are nigh-on-impossible to great effect. Kevin picks a picture of a knight on horseback in woodland off his now restored wall, and we see around his room clues as to what we’re about to witness, initially suggesting that these adventures may well be nothing more than the dream of a trapped child.

When six dwarves stumble out of his cupboard the next night, they aren’t very friendly. Like the horse, they seem very real and dangerous, as does the supreme being who appears. Gilliam’s fairy tales are dangerous, dreamlike places with an underlying brutality to them. The comedy in Jabberwocky sometimes sat uneasily with the rest of the narrative, but here it is intermingled with the rest of the story.

The dwarves (who are, apparently, analogous to the personalities of the Monty Python troupe) beating up Kevin is funny and violent. While outside townsfolk are fleeing for their lives, the city is burning and falling apart, and firing squads are despatching people quickly and efficiently, Napoleon (Ian Holm) is watching Punch and Judy and is obsessed with height. It’s very funny, but also incredibly bleak and twisted.

Again, this is in a PG film aimed at children, and that’s utterly wonderful. The fighting isn’t the tip-tap of fine swords, it’s brutally bludgeoning and won by luck. And Sean Connery. The film manages to be macabre, silly, and ferociously intelligent at the same time.

The Robin Hood scene, for example, is hilarious. John Cleese plays him in the style of a patronising politician meeting the public, and is surrounded by some hilariously violent Merry Men. It’s a very clever interpretation of the legend (Hood is an upper class twit oblivious to the lack of help his men offer) and played completely straight despite its silliness. While Cleese is excellent in his scene, the film is stolen by David Warner, who plays Evil. The disdain he puts into the line, “Nipples for men” is amazing.

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As well as making several intriguing theological and philosophical points, Evil’s introductory scene is both scary and funny. As the film veers from 19th century France to Medieval England, each new scene, each new vignette, has enough ideas and visuals in it for a whole film itself. In fact, they seem like we are turning up halfway through a series of different films, and joining them for a short while. Including Titanic, it later turns out.

After the initial burst of bustle, the film settles down for a bit with Kevin and Sean Connery’s Agamemnon. Agamemnon is mint. He’s infinitely cooler than Bond. Kevin, meanwhile, when confronted with bloodshed in reality, finds it somewhat impressive. He is, like most 11-year-olds, is a tad bloodthirsty, and so the film stops for a second to show us another side to the past. Who hasn’t wanted to cut a bull in half only for Skittles to spill out?

And yet this isn’t purely there to show us how interesting such festivals were, it’s there to raise up Kevin’s hopes and dash them expertly. From this point onwards, after a brief period set on the Titanic which the film doesn’t dwell on, we end up in a fantasy world thanks to Evil’s manipulation of events. Here we are back in Jabberwocky territory, where fairy tale trappings are twisted into something weirder.

So, here we have a ferocious giant who wants to eat people. But, this being Gilliam, he has a bad back, and a loving wife who treats him for his ailments and appears to be turned on by the whole eating and torturing people thing. Then it turns out that the ship he’s on is actually a hat. A hat on the head of an even bigger giant, which emerges from the sea and stands on a house, silencing the moaning of a parent and the cries of a baby. This is the kind of thing that you’d expect from a grim fairy tale.

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Gilliam never shies away from showing these events. Be it eating rats, slicing up the Minotaur, or even a dog exploding, then he will show it in a darkly comic fashion. The sequence where Evil fights off the assorted armed forces of history sees him use a ton of gadgets to combat them, like an evil version of Batman years before Mark Millar’s macabre comic, Nemesis.

His technology drives people apart, kills them, or makes them fight. Banality, thoughtlessness, and idleness are the work of Evil. Then he kills a dog. Then a tank turns up. Then the Supreme Being turns up and saves the day, and the film ends with an intriguing theological debate. The Supreme Being is portrayed as being a fussy bureaucrat, testing things dispassionately, and remarking creepily, “Ah yes, well. I am the nice one.”

The second half of the film is considerably slower, but more thoughtful, implying a lot amidst the chaotic fight and fantasy scenes. For all the depth of Pixar, their films don’t generally have an underlying debate about the nature of existence while David Warner blows stuff up. And that’s a shame.

Certainly, there haven’t been any endings as vague, explosive and potentially miserable as Time Bandits’ recently. Toy Story 3 came close, but still, with Twilight and Harry Potter you never felt like there was any danger of an unhappy ending (although, with Twilight, one might argue that the entire things fills you with a feeling of abject misery).

It’s powerful stuff. After a film filled with wondrous, fantastic images and sounds, Time Bandits’ is a massive downer of an ending. Even without the final scene, it’d be uncertain as to whether it was a happy ending or not. How many films can you think of that end sadly, but also with Sean Connery winking at the audience? That’s a thing of warped brilliance indeed.

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To paraphrase Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes, “Let’s terrify the little buggers”.