Time Bandits – Plundering the Imagination of a Genius

To many he will forever be associated with the Monty Python team, where he influenced the visual style of their Flying Circus, most particularly in the linking animations between sketches, yet for almost forty years Terry Gilliam has been a prolific director of a diverse array of ambitious, daring and innovative feature films with a host of awards bestowed upon his work including a BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award in 2009 for his contribution to the motion picture arts.

His feature film career began as co-director of the first original Python motion picture outing, Life of Brian, handling the technical aspects of the shoot while Terry Jones concentrated on performance. While that was a huge international success, it was regarded as a Python rather than a Gilliam project, and his solo debut Jabberwocky achieved only modest success.

It was while seeking funding for his planned dystopian satire Brazil that a different project began to gather pace more swiftly. The result of some ideas discussed with fellow Python Michael Palin who expanded the concept and character ideas into a workable script, it was significantly cheaper to produce and crucially had the Python connection, and it was hoped the numerous roles would offer opportunity for further cameos from their associates.

The film was to be called Time Bandits, and the unexpected success, far beyond that imagined by anyone associated with the production, by Gilliam’s own admission “paved the way for everything he has done since.”

With opening titles which take the viewer from the edge of the cosmos to stifling suburbia and lower middle class ambition, the story is told from the point of view of Kevin, eager and intelligent but with parents who don’t pay attention to him, don’t encourage him, and most particularly don’t listen to him, which will lead to their downfall. Sent to bed and told to put the lights out, he awakens to a knight on a charger bursting through the wall, an eruption of the fantastic into a bedroom that is already as full and untidy as his mind.

Turning the bedside lamp on, Kevin finds his room has returned to normal, but the next night, prepared with supplies in case, he is again invaded: six dwarves, pursued by a menacing being of which only an enormous glowing head is visible, calling after them to return what they have stolen.

Taking Kevin with them, the dwarves push back his bedroom wall to reveal a long tunnel leading into darkness and a drop – and so the adventure begins.

The six dwarves are on the run from the Supreme Being, their former employer, from whom they have stolen a map which highlights the mistakes left over from the rushed creation of the universe which had to be completed in seven days.

A series of gateways exists between different times, allowing passage across time and space, and they have decided, feeling unrewarded by the Supreme Being, that they are going to exploit these shortcuts to make themselves rich.

Escaping from that suburban bedroom, the scope of the film is immediately huge. From Napoleon burning towns in Italy to fighting the Minotaur in ancient Greece before moving via the Titanic to the fantastical landscape that will lead them to the Time of Legends and the Fortress of Darkness, there is a boldness which many of today’s tired and predictable fantasy adventures could learn a great deal from.

To orchestrate such chaos on camera indicates that, even at that point in his career, Gilliam refused to acknowledge the thin line between madness and genius, and international cinema would have been much diminished had former Beatle George Harrison’s HandMade Films not taken a chance on him, the legendary musician himself contributing the end title song.

Though told from the point of view of a child, debut actor Craig Warnock’s Kevin, cast when Gilliam felt him more natural performer than his brother whom he accompanied to his audition, unlike Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Time Bandits was not a children’s film, and so has aged better.

The casting of dwarf actors in the lead roles, David Rappaport (Randall), Kenny Baker (Fidgit), Malcolm Dixon (Strutter), Mike Edmonds (Og), Jack Purvis (Wally) and Tiny Ross (Vermin), was unusual, and met with resistance from financiers. An argument could be made that as the script in no way depends on the stature of the characters it could have been filmed with a full sized cast, but the result would not have been so charming, so endearingly eccentric.

With a lead cast of little people, the star names who sold the film were largely confined to cameos within the specific time periods visited by the titular bandits, but what a cast they were: John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Michael Palin, Katharine Helmond, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, Peter Vaughan, David Warner and an exceedingly young Jim Broadbent as a game show host. Such canny production might have helped on Gilliam’s later film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which ran notoriously over budget.

In a decision no doubt facilitated by the promise of location filming in Morocco, the man himself agreed to the role of Agamemnon originally written for “Sean Connery or an actor of similar stature but cheaper.” Clearly enjoying himself, his performance eases from mind his other loincloth clad appearance in Zardoz.

Warner, so rarely cast in comedy (The Man With Two Brains and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse being the only other two credits in his extensive resume), is magnificent as the embodiment of Evil, pontificating on how the Supreme Being’s attachment to the past will allow them to triumph (“God isn’t interested in technology”) and how ridiculous creation is – “Forty three species of parrot. Nipples for men.”

Surrounded by bungling henchmen, a modern counterpart to the Wicked Witch of the
West and her winged monkeys, a connection emphasised by the framing of Evil’s hand as he watches the heroes through the waters of his cauldron in his introductory scene, fully a third of the way through the film.

For Duvall, in her two appearances as the blushing Pansy, courted through the ages by Palin’s Vincent, being shanghaied in a horse drawn carriage then tied to a tree and later being sunk with the Titanic must have seemed fond days, having previously worked with Stanley Kubrick on the notorious shoot of The Shining.

Though it has been suggested that the characters of the six dwarves are modelled on the Pythons themselves, ultimately the only other Python to be involved was John Cleese, his Robin Hood so deadpan and unflinching it is entirely possible he may be sending himself up.

At this point, Gilliam’s visual style had not changed significantly from his days as resident animator for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with incongruous juxtapositions, doors opening in the sky to unceremoniously deposit random characters and the appearance of the Supreme Being not too far removed from a similar divine cameo in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

That said, each adventure is visually distinctive, from the beige of suburbia to the flame lit castle walls of Napoleon’s conquest, through the lush forests of Sherwood to the open sand of Greece.

Only the deck of the RMS Titanic is disappointing, a brief interlude on a modest set where the decking is obviously little more than painted flats, the greatest expensive the matching black tuxedos the characters somehow obtain right before the ship goes down and the corresponding white tuxedos they don for the rest of the film.

A Gilliam creation if ever there was one, another startling image is the galleon topped giant which ferries them to land, echoing Python as it reaches shore and steps on the homestead, a recreation of Gilliam’s single most famous contribution to the show, the foot in the opening titles, though combined with earlier scenes contrasting Kevin’s home life with the sheer awfulness of popular television could be interpreted as Gilliam’s affirmation that he had abandoned television.

As the characters enter the Fortress of Darkness and the film moves towards the final battle of unfettered insanity, more bizarre compound organisms are unleashed, skull topped demons pursuing pig headed dwarves, before the walls of time collapse as the heroes summon help in the form of knights, cowboys, tanks and spacecraft, fighting in an environment which is at least partially constructed out of enormous Lego bricks, one of many items drawn from Kevin’s bedroom – the tilted chess board, the hanging skeleton, pictures of ancient Greece and toy horseback knights.

Like a good theatre director surrounding himself with familiar talent, it was on Time Bandits that Gilliam began to gather his company: Holm, Vaughan, Broadbent and Helmond all worked with Gilliam again in Brazil, with Helmond also appearing in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the first time the director worked with Johnny Depp; the late Heath Ledger worked with Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and on what was to be his last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, where Depp was one of the multiple actors who stepped in to replace Ledger in the dream world sequences.

Similarly, Jonathan Pryce appeared in both Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Gilliam’s latest film due later this year, The Zero Theorem, will mark his third collaboration with Robin Williams following Munchausen and The Fisher King, where he starred with Jeff Bridges, who also took the lead in Tideland.

Produced some years after the launch of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, created by Python associate Douglas Adams, parallels in Time Bandits are apparent in the displaced Kevin wandering around in his bathrobe in the manner of Arthur Dent and the fact the dwarves’ original role was modelling trees and shrubs on behalf of the Supreme Being, akin to Slartibartfast’s employment with the Magratheans. In fact, the original Arthur Dent himself, Simon Jones, is yet another of the Gilliam gang, appearing in both Brazil and 12 Monkeys.

Interviewed for the new release of the film, Gilliam speaks enthusiastically about his cast, crew and production team and how he approached Michael Palin to turn his ideas into a script because of his skill with character.

He also describes the frustration he experienced attempting to promote the film in America, the marketing company seemingly unable to comprehend that it was designed to have appeal to any audience, with Gilliam himself finally conceiving the three strand campaign which successfully covered all the bases.

In a separate interview, Palin describes the film as a series of extended sketches strung together, but rather than feeling fractured this offers a great variety of tones within a film which never seems rushed despite the sometimes frenetic pace of the scenes.

Indeed the most charming interlude is in Mycenae when Kevin simply takes out his Polaroid to observe the locals, a moment of quiet and reflection.

Gilliam and Palin both refer to the struggle to keep the shock final scene when Kevin is returned home to his parents, unaware a chunk of Evil has also been transported; while from the outset it had been their intention to be subversive, there was pressure to soften the film, but Gilliam was able to cunningly use information obtained from test screenings to maintain his vision.

Kent Houston, responsible for visual effects on many of Gilliam’s films and a host of other projects including Legend, The Princess Bride and more recently Casino Royale and The Golden Compass, talks in detail in his fascinating reminiscence of the craftsmanship behind the effects, stating “Terry has more dreams than anyone
on the planet.”

The ever genial David Warner recalls his first impression of reading the script as “quite extraordinary,” and admits that part of his interest in the project was the chance to work with the Pythons.

Describing his realisation years later that Jonathan Pryce was Gilliam’s original choice for the role but was unavailable at the time, Warner confirms he remains “very grateful for that.”

Describing the actual production process, Warner explains his outrageous costume was cumbersome, that he was unable to sit down and that the long nails caused great difficulty for him, and that he was not the only one experiencing discomfort but that nobody complained “because we knew it was something really rather special,” adding that there was “a lot of laughter, even though it was rather tough.”

Of working with Gilliam, Warner states he was “always willing to take ideas,” and goes on to say that even now always looks forward to seeing his films. “What a mind, what an imagination.”

Some directors, even if they do not always make great films, even at their worst are incapable of making dull films and we should all be grateful not only that Terry Gilliam is one such director, but that Time Bandits may possibly encapsulates him at his most outrageously enjoyable.

Time Bandits has recently been released by Arrow Video in a new remastered special edition on both Blu-ray and DVD with a host of interviews and special features



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