|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 11 May 1999|
Terry Gilliam's second film as a solo director is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Most people remember Time Bandits as a very funny movie, full of imagination, visually exciting. But the movie is all over the place, with the sequences scattered through time occurring in what seems to be random, arbitrary order. And the style of the sequences is just as arbitrary; Sean Connery is impressively masculine and dynamic as King Agamemnon of ancient Greece, a sequence treated as seriously -- but far more realistically -- as any Hollywood epic. But this follows the sequence with John Cleese as a very cheerful, highly anachronistic Robin Hood, full of veddy British bonhomie; his dialog is studded with "rather" and "I say" and "crikey" and "jolly," and he bids farewell with "cheerio."
Both sequences are entertaining, although the Robin Hood sequence depends entirely upon John Cleese's comic abilities to carry it -- but he's more than up to the task. However, they seem to come from radically different movies, one a serious tale of a boy wandering through time, the other from a Monty Python TV sketch. To a degree, complaining about these two sequences being so different stems from a sense of fastidiousness: movies should be of a whole, the theory goes. And of course, the Monty Python troupe, which featured Gilliam, Cleese and Michael Palin (co-writer and co-star of Time Bandits), was never known for adhering to theory. Quite the contrary.
But this lurching in style in Time Bandits makes the film overall hard to take seriously -- which, in a way, is fortunate, since the misfired ending features the boy hero's parents being reduced to smoldering ashes. (This shot is in reverse. Anyone know why?) If we're to take Kevin's desire to stay with Agamemnon seriously, are we supposed to be shocked at his parents' explosive deaths, or relieved that he doesn't have to put up with them any more?
The story in brief: one night, young Kevin (Craig Warnock) is stunned when a knight on horseback smashes through the door of Kevin's bedroom wardrobe, and gallops off down a forested path that wasn't there before -- and which promptly disappears. (No real explanation is ever offered for this, but it's certainly dramatic, and an image Gilliam used again in The Fisher King.)
The next night, a group of dwarfs, led by Randall (David Rappaport) emerge from the closet. After they scuffle with Kevin, he learns they are from the repair section of Heaven (or somewhere), and have stolen the Supreme Being's map to the time-hole flaws in the cosmos. ("You mean God?" asks the awed boy. "We don't know him that well," Randall replies.) When the glowing face of the Supreme Being appears to demand the return of his map, the dwarfs flee off through time, and Kevin joins them.
The dwarfs plan to use the map to navigate their way through time, getting rich on loot they'll steal. They first arrive in Italy as Napoleon (Ian Holm) is waging war against Austria. They escape from 1796 into Robin Hood's time. Kevin is separated from the dwarfs, and arrives in ancient Greece in time to help King Agamemnon (Connery) defeat a bull-masked warrior. The King admires Kevin, who loves being a prince; he's annoyed when Randall and the other dwarfs show up to whisk him back through time onto a luxury liner -- the Titanic itself -- which promptly sinks.
Meanwhile, their adventures are being observed by Evil (David Warner), who wears what seems to be an Alien face-hugger on his head, and who is surrounded by inept minions with names like Robert and Benson. Evil wants the map for himself, and so maneuvers things so that Kevin and the dwarfs wind up at his Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.
Like all of Terry Gilliam's films, Time Bandits looks wonderful; the production design is credited to Milly Burns, but it's obvious that Gilliam himself is really responsible for the imaginative, extravagant and unique design of the movie -- it's constantly surprising in visual terms. Even in the almost completely misfired sequence in the Time of Legends, when Kevin and his friends are confronted by Mr. (Peter Vaughan) and Mrs. (Katharine Helmond) Ogre, the film still looks wonderful. Even though it makes utterly no sense for the Ogres' ship to turn out to be a hat on the head of a colossal giant (Ian Muir), the creature is one of the two most awesome giants in movie history. (The other being the Genie in the Korda Thief of Bagdad.)
After an imaginatively-conceived but ponderously-executed battle between Evil and the dwarfs (who conjure up helpers from many time periods), the Supreme Being himself shows up in the well-dressed, slightly fussy person of Ralph Richardson, who has the most amusing cameo in the entire movie.
If writers Gilliam and Palin had given more thought to the organization of the movie, if the sequences had been linked in some way so that one followed logically after the other, Time Bandits might have been a modest classic instead of the hit-and-miss, slapdash but handsome concoction it is.
The DVD by Anchor Bay preserves the film in its original British cut handsomely (the American theatrical release was trimmed by a few minutes), and it will look great on any video system. It's too bad that more extras couldn't have been included.