The Time Bandits are a group of tree designers who decide to break away from the boredom of Creation and use the flaws in space-time to their advantage. On the run from their boss, The Supreme Being, they reinvent themselves as “international criminals” and hopscotch through history, picking up Kevin, a lonely young English boy, along the way. By the end of the story the gang have exceeded their own lofty ambitions, and the scope of their chicanery has proven intergalactic, cross-temporal and even pan dimensional. During his travels with the bandits through the time holes, which are a cross between Alice’s looking glass and the Pevensies’ wardrobe, Kevin experiences a gloriously rum rite of passage.
TIME BANDITS is the first in Gilliam’s “Dreamer” series, a trilogy which also includes BRAZIL and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. It was conceived during a hold-up in BRAZIL’s production, and because it was financed by friends of Gilliam including George Harrison, it enjoyed the creative freedom a successful family film really needs. It’s a story that asks where the heroes are, and bemoans the way that 80s society was so dazzled and isolated by consumerism and technology. Today, things have got so bad that we even need a campaign to stop our own phones from breaking up our relationships with real people. Picturehouse’s “Culture Shock” strand recently brought the remastered BANDITS to Cambridge, and not a moment too soon.
A child’s miniature kingdom is the perfect visual microcosm of Terry Gilliam’s creative mind.
Tempered by co-writer Michael Palin’s gentle charm, Gilliam’s rough and ready story offers the perfect balance of moral fable and comedy romp. E.T. hadn’t yet been released, and so TIME BANDITS was one of the few films screening at the time which could amuse and entertain a whole family. Released in the same year as the televised version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, TIME BANDITS is part of the same socially satirical family tree; both having roots in the Cambridge Footlights. Kevin’s satchel and dressing gown echo Ford and Arthur; he’s the young everyman juxtaposed against his posturing heroes, Napoleon and Robin Hood, who are just as vain and greedy as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Slartibartfast, the disenchanted inventor of fjords in Hitchhiker’s, is in the same line of work as the Bandits, and every bit as irritable and world weary as Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being. Even the Evil Genius makes a nod to Adams, when he fetishizes the humble digital watch as the herald of a new technological dawn.
In Kevin’s room at the beginning of the film, all his fads and preoccupations, icons cherry picked from history books, science fiction and fairy tales, explode across the screen in kid collage and clutter. A child’s miniature kingdom is the perfect visual microcosm of Terry Gilliam’s creative mind. Like Sarah’s room in LABYRINTH, which was filmed 4 years later, it offers a clutch of Easter eggs that hint at the dream world to come. If the eclectic chaos of Kevin’s solitary playroom is reflected in the Wonderland fantasy scenarios which ensue, it’s his parents’ dreary, aspirational lifestyle which is lampooned by the fairy tale’s dark side. Just as the sofas in Kevin’s parents’ living room are protected in plastic sheets, so the Evil Genius’ gyroscope, favourite animal skull, even his henchmen are sheathed in nasty prophylactic wrap.
The Bandits are driven purely by their lust for money and notoriety…
RMS Titanic, that icon of man’s excess and hubris, makes a brief cameo as the story segues from historical landmark to the Time of Legends. Winston, a retired ogre, and his devoted wife are more than simple monsters: the couple offers a far more functional example of married life than Kevin’s own parents can. The ogre’s initial excitement at this rare opportunity to leer and terrify soon gives way to curiosity. Unlike the boy’s mum or dad, Winston is prepared to listen to Kevin, even take his advice – which not only facilitates the heroes’ escape but leaves Winston in improved health. Initially swept along in the Bandits’ wake, Kevin has begun a steady evolution, becoming ever more confident and proactive. The Bandits are driven purely by their lust for money and notoriety; Kevin longs to be a warrior or a hero, and it’s his noble ambition which is more nearly fulfilled.
It’s in the Time of Legends that one of the strongest performances comes to the fore. Jack Purvis, whose Wally starts out as a picaresque buffoon, challenges Randall’s blind pursuit of the Most Fabulous Object in the World, and a violent argument breaks out. The Time Bandits are a fascinating and complex group of characters, but there’s not enough time to get to know them all – it’s Randall and Wally who really stand out. Later, Wally’s furious tirade against the Evil Genius is almost unbearably heart-breaking. Although Jack Purvis was a successful comedian (in partnership with fellow Time Bandit Kenny “R2D2” Baker), it’s a shame his talent was so hindered by his height. Today, Peter Dinklage is a sex symbol – in the eighties, it’s likely his charisma would have been compromised by an Ewok outfit. (Purvis appears in all three “Dreamer” films as well as the original STAR WARS trilogy, as Chief Jawa, Chief Ugnaught and Teebo respectively.)
… the people fleeing Castiglione are a forest of thighs and hazardous cartwheels …
Gilliam shot the majority of the film from the child hero’s perspective, and cast diminutive Bandits so that Kevin’s viewpoint could be maintained. In the thick of the Napoleonic wars, the people fleeing Castiglione are a forest of thighs and hazardous cartwheels. In the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, the Evil Genius looms over the camera; we lurk unnoticed at his knee as he rants about the Supreme Being’s ineptitude. Later, when Kevin sits despondently on the deck of the Titanic, swinging his legs over the edge, even Randall (a wonderfully obnoxious David Rappaport) physically dominates him, holding forth on the subject of money and knocking cigar ash into his hair. Where the camera moves beyond four feet from the ground, we’re often viewing proceedings from above, reminding us of the perpetual omniscience of the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius.
Legend has it that the famously downbeat ending was only possible due to bureaucratic and technical flukes. Most of a test audience walked out of the National Research Group screening in America, driven away by the glitching soundtrack. The ones who remained noted on their feedback forms that their favourite part was “the ending”. Their sarcasm was not picked up by the statistical report which indicated to the producers that this was the most popular scene. It was therefore left unadulterated, tantalising viewers with the possibility of a sequel. A second film was indeed scripted and pitched, but the story was far too close to the original, and the project never took hold.
… although some heroes live up to their own legend, many […] are nothing but playground bullies …
TIME BANDITS is a PG – it’s been deemed to contain mild jeopardy/peril. So which bits are actually likely to scare children? Gilliam argues that children love to be scared, and it’s true. Above the Fortress’ granite labyrinth, the echoing crashes of percussionist Ray Cooper’s kinaesthetic performance make real the bottomless chasm over which the heroes are suspended in a dirty cage. Thrillingly scary, as are the exaggeratedly tall, mute figures in Agamemnon’s castle, and their death’s-head counterparts in Evil’s fortress. These intimidating characters remind adult audiences how vulnerable a small person can feel in a world of strange, looming and inscrutable grown-ups.
This is a film which bears multiple repeat viewings, and this recent restoration of TIME BANDITS yields a more detailed insight into the densely worked set dressing and artful lighting. Revisiting the film, you might read the captions in Kevin’s felt tip drawings, notice that Fidgit sometimes lights the candle on his colander helmet, and ponder the fraught glances exchanged between Agamemnon and his fierce wife. By the end of the film, Kevin has learned that although some heroes live up to their own legend, many adults in positions of power are nothing but playground bullies: from the anarchic bandits to the neurotic Evil Genius. The Supreme Being first appears as a giant, disembodied Oz-style head, recalling the terrifying image of an angry teacher – the man behind the curtain is a more straightforward tetchy father figure, declaring an end to the adventure and restoring Kevin to the familiar scenario of a messy room that must be tidied up. Only Terry Gilliam could throw the kitchen sink at such a cornucopia of brain candy and from it orchestrate such an artful social satire, which he accurately describes himself as “exciting enough for adults and intelligent enough for children”.
TIME BANDITS recently enjoyed a 2K resolution restoration from the original camera negative, approved by Terry Gilliam. The new digital print is screening in selected cinemas now, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 26th August 2013 by Arrow Video.