Tag Archives: Time Bandits

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

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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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There Are No Nerds Or Geeks Here

From the time I was six years old I was quoting movies.  My teachers seriously thought something was wrong with me.

The first movie I remember seeing in a theater was Jaws.  It had been re-released in my hometown as part of a double feature with Jaws 2.  This was 1978 (back when our theater had only one screen).  I was six years old and I can truly say it didn’t make me afraid of going into the water…I couldn’t swim (still can’t).  My father took me and my older brother to see it one afternoon, and by the time we got home I was quoting Roy Scheider’s line just before he fired his M1 rifle into the oxygen tank that (SPOILER ALERT) blew up the great white.

“Smile, you son of a…”  BLAM!

That line was part of my description of Jaws to Mrs. Farrell, my grandparents’ upstairs tenant, when she asked me about the movie.  I may have substituted another B-word for “blam” to explain to her what Chief Brody was really trying to convey.  Needless to say she was surprised by my vocabulary and retention skills at that age.  Hers was the first of many baffled looks and shaken heads that would be a theme through most of my childhood.

When my father used to take us to the movies, more often than not we would arrive five to ten minutes after the movie started.  We’d sit through the film, the entire credits, wait another twenty minutes in our seats in the empty theater, then watch the movie from the beginning of the next screening.  Once the movie reached the part that was playing when we first arrived, Pop would get up and say, “Okay, we can go now.”

Some of my favorites back then were: Jaws, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Excalibur, The Big Red One, Time Bandits, and the only move I’ve seen three times in a theater: Superman The Movie.

Amazing Spider-Man #175 (Copyright Marvel Comics)

 

The first comic book I remember owning was The Amazing Spider-Man #175 (December, 1977).  The Punisher and Spider-Man were teamed up against a villain called The Hitman.  The cover by Ross Andru showed The Hitman pointing his rifle at The Punisher who was kneeling at the edge of the Statue of Liberty’s crown holding up an injured Spider-Man, who in turn was holding up J. Jonah Jameson.  My brother had picked it off of the spinner rack at the local convenience store and I remember just sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ house staring at that cover, trying to figure out the storyline from that one image.  How did they end up on top of the Statue of Liberty?  How would they get out of this situation (with Spider-Man’s arm injured, no less)?  Was The Punisher a good guy or a bad guy?  The story inside didn’t interest me.  At age five I probably wouldn’t have understood most of it anyway.  I just immersed myself in that cover, creating story upon story in my young mind.  It had tension.  The bad guy had the upper hand, but Spider-Man had to get them out of this.  God, I love the Bronze Age.

Some of my favorite comic books of the 70s and 80s:  The Uncanny X-Men (especially the Claremont/Byrne/Austin and Claremont/Smith/Wiacek runs), The Fantastic Four (the Byrne run), The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team Up, Star Wars, G.I. Combat, Sgt. Rock, and Cerebus.

Please read the title of this post again:  There Are No Nerds or Geeks Here.

This blog won’t be a forum for rants about how George Lucas ruined the Holy Trilogy with unnecessary CGI, whether Han shot Greedo first, or for fighting the stereotypes about comic book readers.  It’s for the less rabid folks like me that appreciate movies and comic books and have an even greater appreciation for the creators that brought them to us.  I’ve had the pleasure and honor of interviewing a few of them.  Those interviews will be posted soon, along with reviews of lesser known movies, some classic comic book storylines revisited, and some posts on my latest passion: original comic book art.  I’ll try to go light on the nostalgia (but I can’t make any promises), and even lighter on the snark.

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