I’d originally planned to start Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ next week, what with today supposed to be a working Sunday. But what with other, larger changes elsewhere, that obligation’s been lifted, and here we are.
Like several films in this series, my first introduction to Time Bandits came through Barry Norman and Film 81. It was also highly rated in NME, which I was still taking weekly, and I approached it expecting good things, and Gilliam provided these in bulk.
The film’s credits list its copious stars, famous folk throughout, though Katherine Helmond might need a bit of explaining to contemporary audiences (she had starred in the massively popular US spoof-soap, Soap). But almost without exception, these are cameo roles, stars of their own scenes through which the title characters plummet headlong. These are Kevin, an 11 year old boy, played by Craig Warnock, and six dwarves, Randall, Wally, Vermin, Strutter, Fidget and Og.
Time Bandits, written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, is a brilliant romp through time and space. It’s an expansively ambitious film made on a shoestring budget that makes maximum use of imagination to cover the gaps in he budget for the kind of heavy-duty SFX/CGI you’d get today. Without ever looking cheap, the direction spurs the audience into using its own imagination to help complete the illusions the film has to suggest rather than rub in your face.
Kevin’s an 11 year old boy at that stage of eager enthusiasm for knowledge. He’s an information sponge, anxious for more, fired by everything he reads, whereas his parents are pure materialists, interested only in newer ‘labour-saving’ gadgets. It’s all very mundane, until a horse ridden by a knight in armour gallops through his wardrobe door, jumps his bed and races off down a tree-lined country lane that turns out to be a photo on his bedroom wall. After that, mundanity doesn’t get a shout.
The next things to emerge from Kevin’s wardrobe are six dwarves, dressed in various sets of ragged clothing, bearing a map of creation. Sorry, Creation. They’re supposed to be filling in the holes but have decided to exploit them by robbing all of history. When the Supreme Being (‘you mean God?’ ‘well, we don’t know him that well…’) as a disembodied head and voice comes in pursuit, they push Kevin’s bedroom wall about a hundred yards down a hitherto unsuspected hallway until it falls off and, with a terrified Kevin tearing after them, fall into a timehole.
Here is where the fun starts, Gilliam wisely goes for fun and crisp cameos over the first half of the film, with the Bandits flipping back and forth in time, robbing as they go. Ian Holm plays a Napoleon self-conscious of his height who loves Punch & Judy shows for the ‘leetle creatures hitting each other’, John Cleese is a decidedly upper-class Robin Hood, in Prince-Charles-visiting-a-factory mode, amongst dirty, slovenly, brutish Men whose Merriness is decidedly dubious, and Sean Connery plays a gorgeously straight role as King Agamemnon, whose adopts the abandoned Kevin as his son before Randall & Co steal him back.
(I recall an interview many years ago about Connery’s participation in the film, in which the Producers sent him a copy of the script to read, confessing to not having the budget to pay him: Connery loved it so much, he said he’d do it for whatever they could afford. And he was right.)
There’s also recurring cameos for co-writer Palin and Shelley Duval as unfortunate lovers, Vincent and Pansy, which are mini-delights.
Now the film could keep doing this as long as it wanted, and the budget lasted, as far as I was concerned, butthere’s no ending with that, so Gilliam introduces Evil, played with characteristic cartoon nastiness by David Warner. Evil wants to get hold of the map so he can overwrite Creation: after all, he’s got a better idea ofwwhat to do with it that the Supreme Being, none of this 43 different kinds of parrot, it’s going to be lasers, 8.00am Monday morning.
So Evil starts bending things towards leading the Bandits into the Time of Legends, via the Titanic, of course. Which is where things start to get seriously goofy. Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond cameo as ogres on a sailing ship that turns out to be the hat of a bulky giant walking underwater, who leads them into a desert with an invisible wall that, in my favourite effect of the film, shatters when a skull is thrown against it, as if the filmscreen itself is shattering. Behind it is the mega-gigantic Fortress of Ultimate Darkness which, sorry Peter Jackson, from the first instant I saw it was my personal vision of the Barad-Dur.
And Gilliam piles on visual excitement after visual excitement as Evil confronts the Dwarves in a ghastly gameshow parody above a humungous walltop maze, the dwarves escape from a locked cage swinging above a massive emptiness and return with historical reinforcements – knights, cowboys, spaceships, archers, a tank, all of which prove spectacularly ineffective against Evil.
It’s a glorious compendium of toys turned real: a sharp eye can detect every single thing that appears in the film among the toys in Kevin’s bedroom. The pure, unfettered imagination of a kid, something Gilliam’s always been superb at conjuring up, is what drives this film.
And then, somewhat bathetically, Evil turns into a carbon statue, is knocked over and destroyed, by the Supreme Being, only this time it’s Ralph Richardson in a suit, giving a acerbically disdainful, Superior-than-thou performance. He’s pleased at the test he’s given his Creation, especially Evil. But now, back to work.
The incredulous Kevin does challenge God on why so many people have had to be killed to test his creation, but that’s a deeply-loaded theological question and 11 year old Kevin is just the latest to get a determinedly deaf ear turned to it by the Supreme Being. Then he’s left behind, with an overlooked bit of Evil starting to smoke, sulphurously.
Which turns into his house on fire and his bedroom door being smashed down in a deliberate echo of the beginning of the film, and rescued by a fireman who turns out to be Agamemnon. And Kevin finds all his polaroids of his trip in his satchel, proving it to have been real. The fire’s been started by something left in the microwave all night, something black and carbonised: the last piece of Evil. And despite, or more likely because of his horrified shout not to touch it, his Mum and Dad touch it. And they explode.
The fireman drive off. Kevin is left outside his burned out house, his parents now two wisps of smoke curling upwards from their scorched slippers. It’s a weirdly downbeat, even frightening ending, showing Kevin losing everything real, yet excluded from Time and Creation.holy Grail
I now understand that at one point, Gilliam planned a sequel. He certainly left himself a solid base on which to build one but his plans were abandoned after the loss of David Rappaport (Randall), who committed suicide, and Jack Purvis (Wally), who was paralysed after being crushed against a wall by his own car.
Time Bandits was Gilliam’s third film as a Director, after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. It was, as I said, the first in a ‘Trilogy of Imagination’. This was the vhild’s imagination, and it was great and flowing. Next week, we’ll have the second film, which is even better.