Arrow films latest re-issue not only comes with a director’s recommendation, it also changes tack from the more exploitative and violence predicated titles of recent months. The title to change that tide is Terry Gilliam’s wonderful anarchic adventure movie – Time Bandits. Falling in with fellow 1980’s fantasy adventure movies like The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, The Goonies, Dark Crystal and The Never Ending Story, the best of the bunch is Gilliam’s Time Bandits – an icon from a time when kids’ movies meant films for all the family and not just the ‘them and us’ policy that modern studios champion these days.
As Gilliam’s second solo flight opens we meet Kevin – an inquisitive boy who is interested in the heroes of history but has to put up with his parents who are only interested in how many seconds it takes their latest device to cook their food. Going to bed one night, a man riding a horse explodes through Kevin’s cupboard door, disappearing as quickly as he appeared. The next night, Kevin goes to bed expecting the same spontaneous wonder and escape only to be confronted by a gang of dwarves grasping a map on the run from a “supreme being”. Caught up with the gang, Kevin is swept away on an adventure through time as these bandits attempt to steal from icons throughout history.
Made in 1981, Time Bandits is very much in awe of Monty Python – from the writing collaboration between Michael Palin & Gilliam to the subversive and hilarious trailer the comedy troupe were famous for (on disc). While it would be all too easy to say this lacks independence, at the same time it’s a blessing that guarantees a hilarious film. The main cast of Kevin, Randall, Fidgit, Strutter, Og, Vermin & Wally take much of the film seriously minus some choice one liners. Instead comedic duties derive from the big, small and monstrous characters and antagonists that the Bandits happen upon.
As the Bandits jump from time hole to time hole, they meet a variety of Python-esque characters. There is the most inept couple recurring through history in Shelley Duval and Michael Palin, John Cleese as Robin Hood in the most inspired of casting gags, there’s an ogre with a bad back, the list goes on. But the one character who they are all in the shadow of is the ominously named Evil (David Warner). As well as spanning history, the film also spans creation – with Evil appearing in the time of legends where the lax rules of history get thrown out of the window. The way Evil uses his powers and the way his lackeys beg to be killed like a dog begs for a treat fits in with many of Monty Python’s pantheon of great characters, with the closest of kin being the Holy Grail’s Bridge keeper – who coincidentally is also played by Terry Gilliam.
It’s not just the comedy that elevates Time Bandits so highly, it’s also the adventure that is fresh out of the imagination of the late 20th century’s greatest cinematic surrealist. The script is based upon history. Read ‘based upon’. Any sign of accuracy or a commitment to recreation will be found wanting as here Palin and Gilliam are two silly men having fun with history. Figures like King Agamemnon and Napoleon – brought to life by Sean Connery and Ian Holm – may be firm fixtures in history, but when the film throws caution to the wind things only get better.
There are moments of world bending throughout the movie, but it’s in the time of legends where Gilliam really gets to have fun. With his background as an animator he litters the world with the weird. It’s amazing that everything been achieved by either committed production design or clever photography with no divorce from the action. There is no instant distraction between what’s special effects and what’s real. The design of the monsters doesn’t shy away from the scary either – those skeletal figures in black robes are right up there with the Skeksis (Dark Crystal). If the 80’s taught the world anything it’s that kids love being scared.
As a child who grew up with films like this it’s an utter joy to see such an unabashed masterpiece of the era revived with such effervescence as the 1981 produced Time Bandits looks as if it was released yesterday. The only thing that really dates the film is the relative youth of certain actors – this print of the film compliments the material that much. Arrow films have outdone themselves, and there is no better time than now to introduce a new generation to this wonderful, funny and exciting capsule of what films for children and the family can be in the right hands.