A boy in a ho-hum world of drudgery and bedtimes daydreams about something more fantastical. Before he knows it, he is swept up into an adventure alongside some quirky characters, on a quest for glory and fame that sees him travel into a far-off and unknown world. The premise of Time Bandits should sound familiar to anybody weaned on young adult fantasy in novels or film (or, come to think of it, isekai anime), but it’s particularly familiar when you hold it up next to British fantasy that stars young protagonists who have come unstuck in time. (Director Terry Gilliam is American, but by virtue of his membership in Monty Python and the fact he directed a movie starring both Bilbo Baggins and James Bond, it seems like he qualifies for honorary citizenship.)
Then, it sets about turning everything about its premise upside-down, in ways that, when you think about it, are every bit as crushing as that other feel-good masterpiece, Brazil. And yet, you can’t feel too let down. Gilliam is giving you the message with a friendly wink (delivered via Sean Connery, in fact). Gilliam is notorious for ambitions that outstrip his ability to deliver, which I want you to bear in mind as I say that 40 later, Time Bandits rates as one of Gilliam’s most interesting, most fun, most funny, and most ambitious films.
You’ve met Kevin (Craig Warnock) before: The boy who dreams of better things than his boring suburban lifestyle. His parents are no help at all, ignoring his interests in the glorious and bloody parts of history and crabbing at him about his bedtime when they aren’t lusting after what appliances to buy. It doesn’t take long at all before Kevin’s desire for adventure literally comes bursting into his room in the middle of the night in the form of an eternal and interdimensional crew of little people led by Randall (David Rappaport). They come out of his wardrobe, just so there’s no doubt about what sort of story we’re referencing here.
Randall and his crew are on the lam, having quit their jobs as maintenance men for the Supreme Being (he created the universe, and looks like a floating head voiced by Tony Jay), and have made off with a very special map. It turns out the universe was a rush job—finished in just six days! As a result, there are holes in the fabric of space and time, and if you happen to know where they are, you can find your way to any part of history you like. Unsatisfied with their compensation and the lack of respect from their employer, Randall and his fellow frontline workers have decided to resign and plunder history’s shiniest treasures. It’s a seemingly foolproof plan: Having fled from 1796 Italy after robbing a drunk Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm, hilariously insecure), they warp to the Middle Ages, “five hundred years before the man we just robbed is even born!”
The central chunk of Time Bandits is taken up by swift changes of venue as Kevin and the bandits steal from Napoleon, lose the haul to the charity of Robin Hood (John Cleese), and then step through further holes in time that take them to ancient Greece and a night to remember on a certain cruise ship in 1912.
Eventually, though, the gang falls under the influence of the master of evil (David Warner, whose portrayal ranks as one of the all-time best depictions of a Satanic figure). Imprisoned in a fortress beyond the rest of history, Warner invests his sneering devil-analog with perfect comedic timing. Just as in Titanic and his turns as the immortal criminal Ra’s al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, Warner is a villain on a completely different level than the protagonists.
The Evil One lures the time bandits into his lair in search of the very shiniest of shiny treasures, but it’s all just a trick to lay hands on the map so he, too, can journey across time and remake the universe in his own banal, cold image. (He would’ve started with lasers on day one, if it were up to him.) But when the time bandits do finally muster up the courage and the conviction to fight him, the movie pulls its final subversion: They are, in fact, powerless to harm him at all, and it is only through a quite literal deus ex machina that they are not all destroyed.
Gilliam’s brand of visual storytelling has a uniquely unsettling quality to it, especially in movies like Twelve Monkeys or the aforementioned Brazil, which feature some borderline-nauseating uses of perspective and framing to put the viewer ill at ease. There’s not a lot of that particular style in Time Bandits, but there is one other hallmark of his, which is thoroughly imagined sets and practical effects. A lot of the individual episodes within the adventure seem as if they hang on for a few beats too long, and it feels like Gilliam wanted to get the most he could out of stuff it must have taken a long time to design and construct.
The effect is one of a fantasy world that feels like you’re seeing the story up close, rather than embellished to you across centuries. When Kevin finds himself falling out of a time hole to faceplant right into the middle of a fight between Agamemnon (Connery) and a big dude in a bullhead helmet, the whole point of it is to dispel the myth of the old Greek king: We know that this is going to be told later as a hero slaying an actual minotaur. To press home the point, Connery later plays a shell game with the spellbound Kevin. Kings aren’t supposed to do things like that, Kevin complains.
Gilliam has referred to Time Bandits as the first in a trilogy that includes Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, all linked by the theme of using imagination to escape everyday existence. If there’s a common thesis to all of them, it’s a pretty downbeat one: The escapees of Gilliam’s movies are at best bummed out by discovering the harshness of reality and, at worst, trapped in their delusions. It’s why Tarsem Singh’s The Fall initially seems to have so much in common with Gilliam’s work and then feels completely different by the time you get to its far more uplifting ending.
Where Brazil leaves the audience deflated and Munchausen pulls the audience’s leg, though, I’ve always felt Time Bandits makes an attempt to commiserate with the viewer in a way that knows it is both trying and failing to be reassuring. As it did near the beginning, the movie again echoes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with an ending that sees evil bested by the return of God (Ralph Richardson as no more than a dry old white guy in a suit). After unilaterally smiting evil and restoring all that was broken, The Supreme Being reveals that he was just doing a test run of evil. Nobody is dead, everybody is forgiven, and it’s time for everybody to get back to the grind (with a pay cut of course).
Why, Kevin demands (totally reasonably!!!) should there even be evil in the first place? In response, God Himself seems to walk offstage before popping back in and in the most perfunctory way suggesting it might have something to do with free will.
That’s really all we’ve got, in the end. We can dream of brighter times, but we’ll wake up from it. We can ask for the deeper reasons behind our struggles, but all we’re likely to ever get is a vague answer. The heroes of history are hucksters and their stories benefit from centuries of elaboration by generations of storytellers. It seems amazing to think that this is the movie that opened at number one and really established Gilliam as a successful director, until you get to the very last scene, in which Kevin’s bothersome parents ignore his warning and are immediately and totally immolated, completely out of nowhere.
Like Gilliam’s best work, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Kenneth Lowe likes LITTLE THINGS, HITTING EACH OTHER!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog