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Time Bandits October 4, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , trackback

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I’ve never considered myself a big follower of fantasy films and I had only a slight interest in watching Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which he wrote with fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin. However, with Mr. Gilliam’s announced presence at a recent screening I decided to give it a chance and I’m really glad I did. The new 35 mm print of the film was stunningly beautiful, especially for a movie first released twenty-five years ago. I discovered that the film itself is a brilliantly realized story of a young boy’s adventures through time. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

One night Kevin, the child protagonist, stuck with bickering parents who are obsessed with their latest technological appliances, goes to bed only to see men on horseback leaping from his closet. The next night the boy, eager for an encore, gets a different result as six dwarf-size men come barreling out of the closet doors. Kevin soon learns that his closet is a time warp and joins the small men who have a map of all such doors throughout history. Their plan is to rob some of history’s richest men and jump through the time warps before facing the consequences. Along the way they encounter Napoleon (a priceless Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and his not-so-merry men, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon.  They also wreak havoc for Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall (twice), an ogre with back problems and somehow end up aboard the Titanic.  All this is done while trying to avoid the all-knowing Supreme Being, whom they stole the map from originally. 

Stealing the show, though, is David Warner as the Evil Genius, a devilish character with a huge chip on his shoulder against the Supreme Being, whose decisions he humorously questions.  (”If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!”)  His dialogue hilariously borders on camp and, in a movie that’s quite funny, his scenes manage to be the funniest. “I feel the power of evil coursing through my veins, filling every corner of my being with the desire to do wrong! I feel so bad, Benson!” That line and Warner’s impeccable delivery are magic.

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The real stars of Time Bandits, despite the opening credits and advertising materials, are the little bandits themselves. Gilliam recalled that he decided to use actors who would be roughly the same size as the young boy and that the small men were tirelessly pushing themselves past their limits to the point that one even broke his arm near the end of the shoot. Their characters are refreshingly normal as opposed to some sort of freakish portrayal as we’ve seen in numerous other films and television shows. I particularly liked the scenes with Napoleon, who was of course quite diminutive himself, and his love for all things little. The small stature of the men is never a burden and they even use their size as assets for their rescue from the Evil Genius.

After the screening, Terry Gilliam commented that the small studio that released the film was, understandably, hesitant of the darkly comic ending and wanted it changed. A preview screening was held in Fresno, California and the audio suffered from technical difficulties. By the time the film was over and the audience was asked to select their favorite part of the strange fable they’d just seen, the most popular choice was “the end.” Even if the responses were intended to mean that the audience was happiest once the picture was over and not how it ended, Gilliam was able to keep his demise of Kevin’s parents as scripted.

Overall, I was really delighted at how much I enjoyed Time Bandits. The original poster and DVD cover art both left me uninterested in seeing it and I wrongly inferred that the story was primarily set on a boat. Not surprisingly, the water scenes with the Titanic, the ogre or the giant were the ones I found to be the weakest, but there were so many other sequences that I didn’t mind those a bit. Apparently, the Criterion Collection’s DVD was one of their earliest efforts and surpassed by Anchor Bay’s release in terms of picture quality. While the Criterion version does have a commentary by Gilliam, Palin, and others, it’s also non-anamorphic and a possible candidate for a new release either on DVD or perhaps on HD format somewhere down the line.

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