Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits Movie Poster

Release Date: November 6, 1981

Original theatrical trailer here.

Directed by Terry Gilliam; Written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

Starring: Craig Warnock (Kevin), David Rappaport (Randall), Jack Purvis (Wally), David Warner (Evil), John Cleese (Robin Hood), Ian Holm (Napoleon), Michael Palin (Vincent), Sean Connery (Agamemnon), Ralph Richardson (The Supreme Being), Shelley Duvall (Pansy), Peter Vaughan (Winston), Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Ogre)

Anyone who knows me knows that Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite directors, with several of his films on my list of all time favorites, particularly Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones), The Fisher King and of course Brazil.  But another one of my personal favorites is his 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits.

By 1981 my brother and I had watched every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and were familiar with Gilliam’s animation on the show, but Time Bandits was my first introduction to Gilliam as a feature filmmaker (it would be several years before I would see Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky for the first time).

We caught Time Bandits at our local movie theater a week or two after it was released, and I don’t think there were more than 15 or 20 other people in the audience that Saturday afternoon.  I didn’t know too much about the plot going into that first screening, but at the time I was under the mistaken impression that it was a Monty Python film.  I was confused as to why John Cleese and Michael Palin only had minor roles, and a little disappointed that the other Pythons weren’t in the film, but that thought quickly disappeared as the story progressed.  By the closing credits I wanted to stay in my seat and watch it again.

Terry Gilliam wastes no time getting the story going.  Ten year old Kevin (played by Craig Warnock) is woken up in the middle of the night when a knight on horseback charges out of his closet and into a forest that only a moment earlier was his bedroom wall.  Cut to the next night: he dozes off waiting for the knight to return, but instead of the charging knight he’s woken up by a group of little men sneaking out of his closet.  Before Kevin can figure out what’s going on, the band of thieves is discovered and chased by an ominous figure, ordering them to return “the map.”  With Kevin’s help, they push through the bedroom wall into a tunnel leading to a black abyss.  Barely ten minutes into Time Bandits, the adventure is in full swing.

The under-sized Time Bandits (Randall, Wally, Fidgit, Strutter, Og and Vermin), international criminals by their own definition, have stolen a map of “time holes” that allow them to travel to different eras in history.  According to their leader Randall (played by David Rappaport), they were employed by the Supreme Being to repair the time holes but realized they could have a more lucrative career as time traveling thieves.

I loved every minute of Time Bandits when I was nine, and continued to enjoy it with every subsequent screening over the years.  One of the protagonists may be a ten year old, but it’s more than a kid’s film.  Gilliam and Palin’s script had wit that adults could appreciate.  They packed a lot into the story, and it’s an amazing ride for both kids and adults as the gang of thieves take Kevin on a time traveling journey that includes the Napoleonic era, the Middle Ages and ancient Greece.  But each step of the way they’re chased through time by both the Supreme Being (in a cameo by Sir Ralph Richardson), and his nemesis the Evil Genius (played by David Warner).

Every set, costume and camera angle in Time Bandits has Gilliam’s touch of the fantastic.  The effects are low tech by today’s standards, but that adds to the charm of this film.

The cast is as strong as any in Gilliam’s films, highlighted by Ian Holm (Napoleon) and Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Ogre), two favorites of Gilliam that would have significant roles several years later in his critically acclaimed Brazil.  But David Warner, Ralph Richardson and Sean Connery (King Agamemnon) take it to a higher level.  The cast is clearly shown on the movie poster, but each introduction of their characters leads to unexpected turn in the story.  This could easily have been a kid’s movie, but the film’s humor and cast of incredible actors (that didn’t take the story for granted) elevate Time Bandits to a fantasy film that’s still fun to watch over thirty years later.

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