This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Christopher Connor.
Time Bandits (1981)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin
Starring: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Ian Holm
US-born filmmaker Terry Gilliam has had a widely varied career and has proven himself over the course of five decades to be one of the most individualistic directors working in the industry (albeit often frustratingly for producers, studios and fans). Following his efforts as a member of Monty Python in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, Gilliam became a truly notable director in his own right during the 1980s. One of his earliest efforts away from the Pythons is 1981’s Time Bandits, a more light-hearted film than those he would later develop a reputation for making with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, a comedy-adventure that seems like something of an oddball in the director’s canon of work but is a blast nonetheless.
Gilliam himself has referred to Bandits as the first in his Trilogy of Imagination – that being a series of films about “the ages of man” also including Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) – and the film has amassed something of a cult following over the past four decades, a fact apparent from its 5-star reviews in Empire Magazine and The Guardian, as well as the imminent adaptation of its material into a television series under the guidance of Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok screenwriter-director Taika Waititi.
The 1981 film focuses on imaginative 11 year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) who lives an unhappy life distant from his parents and is roped into a series of adventures by an assortment of time-travelling dwarves who have stolen a mysterious map. Gilliam invites us along for a ride that includes encounters with historical figures Napoleon Bonaparte and Robin Hood (among others), and treats us to a wide assortment of guest appearances and cameos that are designed to put a smile on your face – the most notable of which is probably that of fellow Python alum and co-Bandits-screenwriter Michael Palin, who appears in a supporting role just as zany and whimsical as one might expect, even boasting a God-like voice-over reminiscent of God’s appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The casting in Gilliam’s films is rarely anything but exceptional, and in Time Bandits it is a true highlight. Joining Palin is the late Ian Holm who is given a chance to flex his comedic muscles in a brief but nevertheless hilarious turn as Napoleon, and there’s a post-Bond appearance from Sean Connery who makes the most of his role as Agamemnon with whom Kevin forms an immediate bond. There’s even a cameo for another Python, John Cleese, and the briefest of screen time for Peter Vaughan (‘Porridge’; ‘Game of Thrones’) and a young Jim Broadbent (Little Voice).
There are perhaps some pacing issues at points and our crew of misfits do seem to get themselves into an assortment of similar scrapes throughout, but the sheer variety of rogues and creatures encountered along the way makes up for this in the most part, fun and imagination being the victors of the day in this early 80s romp.
Time Bandits is arguably one of Gilliam’s more accessible vehicles and certainly not a bad place to dive into his repertoire. The likes of Brazil and 12 Monkeys are far more adult orientated and boast significantly darker themes, whereas this entry is a lot more traditionally Pythonesque, it being clear to see how much fun is being had by all, Gilliam honing his craft alongside a number of impressively cast actors in roles we wouldn’t usually associate them with.
While perhaps not one of his most well known efforts, Time Bandits proves a fun-filled adventure with a great cast, one that provided an opportunity for Terry Gilliam to break away from the confines of his previous success with Monty Python. It is an inventive time travel film, something that Gilliam would of course return to with great success later in his career, and in retrospect can act as a showcase to the variety on offer in his work as a filmmaker, its significantly lighter tone holding up remarkably well even 40 years later.
Written by Christopher Connor
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