Sunday, November 6, 2011
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Time Bandits.
Time Bandits, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, marked a significant turning point in Terry Gilliam's career. Gilliam first made his mark as the co-writer and animator for the now iconic British comedy troupe known as Monty Python. His directorial debut, which he shared with fellow Python member Terry Jones, was the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His second film (the abysmal Jabberwocky) was another medieval spoof which featured Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones as well as a whole host of typical Python gags. His third film, however, though it still has "Python-esque" moments (and features Michael Palin and John Cleese in small roles), was the first time Gilliam attempted to put on the big screen an actual story full of drama, action, horror and emotion as well as comedy. It was an important transitional point between Gilliam "the American Python member" and Gilliam "the serious filmmaker who tells stories such as Brazil and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Time Bandits was Gilliam's "breaking out" work. Naturally I didn't know any of this as a kid when I used to watch the film often. I didn't know about Monty Python and I certainly didn't know who Terry Gilliam was. All I knew is that it was a dark and imaginative fantasy adventure that I loved. Needless to say, I still do.
It tells the story of an intelligent young British boy named Kevin (played with a refreshing lack of precociousness by Craig Warnock) whose parents would rather sit on their plastic-encased furniture watching game shows on TV and lusting after the latest electrical appliances than spend time with their son. Kevin, on the other hand, occupies his time reading history books about ancient warriors and great adventurers. One night, while sleeping peacefully in his bed, six strangely dressed dwarfs emerge from Kevin's wardrobe (as if it were Lewis' gateway to Narnia) and drag him with them on an arduous trek through time and space. Kevin soon discovers that these dwarfs were former employees of the Supreme Being who helped assist in the process of creation (specifically designing things such as trees and shrubs), but eventually grew tired of their job and wanted to use their knowledge of the flaws inherent in the fabric of the space-time continuum to their financial advantage. Stealing from God the only map that charts the location of all the holes in existence (which can be used as doorways leading from one time to another), the dwarfs inform Kevin of their plan to rob some of the wealthiest and most famous figures in human history and invite him to join them, which he agrees to do. This endeavor brings them into contact with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte (portrayed by Ian Holm who had previously played the famous Frenchman in the 1974 TV miniseries Napoleon and Love and would play him again in 2001's The Emperor's New Clothes), legendary Greek ruler Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and even Robin Hood (played as a jolly nice fellow by John Cleese) before ending up on the RMS Titanic (although they mistakenly refer to it as the S.S. Titanic in the film) where they get a little more ice in their drinks than they requested.
What they don't realize is that they are being watched by none other than Evil himself (played with delicious wickedness by David Warner). Incidentally, this is apparently a point of confusion for some critics. Warner does not play Satan. He is not the "father of evil." He is evil incarnate, a personification of the abstract concept. His plan is to overthrow creation itself with the intent of fashioning a world based solely on technology, which allows for his character to make some great speeches ("God isn't interested in technology. 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. Slugs! He created slugs? They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I had created a world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would've started with lasers. Eight o'clock. Day one!"). Although it is never made exactly clear how or why this is the case, Evil presumably needs the map to accomplish all of this. Using their own greed against them, he lures the seven mini-explorers to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where he dwells. He steals the map and imprisons them, but they manage to escape.
All of this builds to a colossal climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil where each of the dwarfs (with the aid of reinforcements they gathered from numerous historical eras) attempt to destroy Evil once and for all only to be humiliatingly thwarted each and every time. In the end, it is God himself who shows up and defeats Evil, freezing him in stone. He then manifests himself in the form of a fastidious old Brit in a three-piece suit (a marvelous Ralph Richardson). Just as Evil had some wonderful lines elaborating on his own nature, God has some humdingers of his own ("I am the supreme Being. I'm not entirely dim."). As he enlists the help of the little thieves to help him clean up the disarray, ("If there's one thing I can't stand, it's mess.") he informs them that, in spite of their attempts to escape him, he was in full control of everything that was happening the whole time. In reality, they didn't steal his map. He gave it to them, because he needed a way of testing his own handiwork and, as he observes, "Evil turned out rather well." In the end, he invites them all back to creation again ("We mustn't waste anymore time. They'll think I lost control again and put it all down to evolution.") but leaves Kevin behind along with one overlooked piece of Evil which starts to smoke. As the smoke starts to engulf Kevin, he cries repeatedly for help only to awaken in his own bed still surrounded by smoke. Two firemen burst through the door and drag him from his burning home. His parents are already outside debating whether to run in and retrieve their beloved appliances. Kevin concludes it must all have been a dream until he discovers photographs he took during his adventure in his bag and realizes that one of the firemen looks exactly like Agamemnon. Eventually the cause of the fire is discovered. What looks like a burnt piece of charcoal is revealed cooking in their toaster oven. Although his parents are confused, Kevin recognizes it as a chunk of Evil and warns his parents not to touch it. Ignoring him, they both reach in to touch it and immediately explode leaving Kevin alone to fend for himself.
Terry Gilliam ostensibly wrote the script to Time Bandits over a weekend and it is a work of incredible originality. Filled with memorable sequences (the giant with the ship on his head, the magic act performed for King Agamemnon, the large disembodied head of God chasing the dwarfs down the long corridor) and combining dry, satirical British humor (or "humour" rather) with exciting action sequences and some fairly nightmarish images, Time Bandits is a truly unique film. Gilliam clearly made the film for children (even shooting it, as Spielberg would do a year later in E.T., from low angles to capture the diminutive perspective of the film's main characters) and as a child I absolutely loved it. I may not have understood or appreciated a lot of the social commentary or philosophical/theological dialogue in it, but I enjoyed the madcap ride through various lavish set pieces and familiar faces including Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond and Sean Connery (whose appearance in the screenplay was written simply as a joke until someone sent him the script and he, astoundingly, wanted to do it). It actually reminded me a lot of the kind of dreams I used to have as a youngster, with the outrageously random associations, the "stream-of-consciousness" storytelling and arbitrary transitions that seem to make total sense at the time. Time Bandits was Gilliam's first foray into putting dream-like imagery onscreen and he proved so proficient at it that he has duplicated that practice throughout his career. He is, in my mind, one of the few filmmakers who does that convincingly.
Another one of Gilliam's intentions in making the film was to, for a change, prominently feature dwarf actors. In this regard, Time Bandits was ahead of its time. Years before Warwick Davis did Willow or Peter Dinklage did The Station Agent, Gilliam recognized that it was rare in big-budget studio movies that dwarfs were made the leads. Instead they were usually relegated to minor roles in sci-fi/fantasy films (usually as fairies, goblins, elves or other mythical creatures). Although Time Bandits is a fantasy film, the dwarfs are not buried under mounds of make-up nor are included just for the sake of "bizarreness." They are fully fleshed-out, flawed, interesting characters. Each one has a distinct personality and distinguishing appearance. Particular standouts are David Rappaport as the unofficial leader Randall (who sadly committed suicide years later), Jack Purvis as the angry but athletic Wally and Kenny Baker as the lovable Fidget. To this day, roles in movies and TV are relatively scarce for dwarfs, but Gilliam still proves to be one of the most consistent directors in casting dwarf actors in his movies.
Time Bandits was very successful upon its release, earning $40 million at the box office and establishing Gilliam as a uniquely creative and visionary artist with enormous potential ahead of him. Time Bandits has also been referred to as the first entry in what is considered Gilliam's "fantasy" trilogy, a series of stories that highlights the pros and cons of the different periods of a person's life/maturity: the first (Time Bandits) being about childhood, the second (Brazil) focusing on adulthood and the third (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) dealing with old age. In the 30 years that have elapsed since the release of Time Bandits, Gilliam has become a very significant (if very divisive) filmmaker whose work has been at times inspired (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King) and at other times embarrassing (The Brothers Grimm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). While it may not be his best film (that honor I would probably award to Brazil), it is in some ways his "purest" movie. It is arguably his least pretentious, his most fun and entertaining and, by far, his most innocent and least cynical. Made by a director who barely grew up himself, it is (as the cliché goes) a film for the child in everyone…especially if that child happens to be a somewhat naughty or troubled kid.