Monday, February 5, 2018

Time Bandits (Handmade Films, 1981)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Time Bandits, a 1981 release that was a key film in Terry Gilliam’s transition from one of the guys in Monty Python to a director on his own and such a maddening career that one list of his films on is headlined “Greatest Director of the 1990’s” and another is called “Worst Director Ever.” Time Bandits is a peculiar movie — but then when has Terry Gilliam ever made a movie that wasn’t peculiar? — that’s essentially a mash-up of Monty Python, Doctor Who and the bizarre 1957 film The Story of Mankind, the weirdie in which Henrik Willem Van Loon’s pop history of the world was turned into a battle between the “Spirit of Humanity” (Ronald Colman) and the Devil over whether the world should continue to be allowed to exist, with God presiding over a celestial court and the two protagonists allowed to select episodes from human history as evidence for their sides of the case. There’s also a borrowing from C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in that the film kicks off with a sequence set in 1950’s Britain in which prepubescent boy Kevin (Craig Warnock) in which his suburban parents, who spend their evening watching a quiz show called Your Money or Your Life and arguing over the ads for time-saving appliances (including one that’s advertised as something which can cook a meal from box to ready-to-eat in 15 seconds, which mom doesn’t think is that much because a neighbor has a device that can do it in eight seconds). Kevin has a rich fantasy life — his bedroom walls are adorned with pictures from various cultures’ mythologies — which suddenly becomes real for him when a group of six “Time Bandits” crashes through his bedroom wardrobe and carry him along into their time-jumping adventures. That’s pretty much all the plot this movie has — the script was written by Terry Gilliam and his Python colleague Michael Palin — but that’s enough. The Time Bandits themselves are played by little people: David Rappaport as Randall, Kenny Baker as Fidgit (Baker was also R2-D2 in the original Star Wars and fans of the Star Wars cycle should like this movie because it gives them the chance to see him outside his “droid” drag), Malcolm Dixon as Strutter, Mike Edmonds as Og, Jack Purvis as Wally and Tiny Ross as their man-eating pet, Vermin. 

The story allows these scapegrace characters to jump around like crazy from time to time, including Italy during the Napoleonic wars in 1796 (Napoleon himself, played by Ian Holm, is an impossibly vain little man who boasts that all the great conquerors throughout history have been short like himself — a gag that plays quite differently in the Trump era than it did in 1981, especially given Trump’s bizarre insistence that only tall men like himself can possibly be great!), ancient Greece (the film dramatizes Agamemnon’s battle with the Minotaur and there’s a great moment in which after he wins the fight Agamemnon takes off his helmet and he’s being played by Sean Connery — apparently the original script merely described the character as looking like Sean Connery, but somehow Connery got an advance copy of the script and offered himself for the role), the deck of the Titanic (it’s typical of the Python sense of humor that someone ordering a drink on the deck asks for “lots of ice” — and then right at that moment the ship hits the fabled iceberg that sank it), the England of Robin Hood’s time (Monty Python had already satirized the Robin Hood legend in their screamingly funny “Dennis Moore” sketch), a “legendary times” sequence aboard a ship with a cranky ogre with a back problem (Peter Vaughan) and his nagging wife (Katharine Helmond) — the Time Bandits trick Mr. and Mrs. Ogre into jumping off the ship and steal it — and an ultimate confrontation between the Devil (David Warner, who doesn’t have the long, stringy moustache but otherwise is made up to look like Fu Manchu) and the Supreme Being (“You mean God?,” Keith asks, and one of the Time Bandits replies, “We’re not allowed to get that familiar with him”), played drolly by actor Ralph Richardson, unassumingly dressed in a business suit, after we’ve seen him twice earlier as a disembodied head pretty obviously cribbed from the appearance of the giant projected head in The Wizard of Oz. (The head of the Supreme Being is the only bit of Gilliam’s famous animation in the film.) 

I saw Time Bandits in a theatre when it was new and Charles was sure he’d seen it shortly after its release, but more likely on a premium cable TV channel than theatrically; neither of us had seen it since then, but today it comes off as a delight. It’s true that the plot makes much sense, and the only scene of any real human emotion is the one midway through the movie in which Agamemnon adopts Kevin and makes him his heir, much to the consternation of his wife, only the Time Bandits pull him out of that time so they can steal Agamemnon’s crown and dump him on the deck of the Titanic instead. The MacGuffin is a map that shows all the wormholes in space through which they can jump through time — they stole it from the Supreme Being and the Devil is trying to steal it from them so he can remake the world (his speech about God is more concerned with creating 47 species of parrots than implementing modern technology is funnier now than it was in 1981, when home computers, smartphones containing computers, and the Internet have become ordinary features of modern life!), though at the end the Supreme Being recovers the map and says he let the Time Bandits steal it as a test. 

There’s also a final sequence set back in 1950’s England in which Kevin has been reunited with his parents and the whole movie supposedly turns out to be a dream — only the Polaroid photos Kevin took during his time travels document that it really happened, and what wakes him is his house burning down because his folks inadvertently left their toaster oven on all night. As the firefighters open the charred toaster oven Kevin recognizes the black lump inside not as carbonized food but “concentrated evil,” which was what was left over after the Supreme Being blasted the Devil, his court and their castle to oblivion. Kevin tries to warn his folks, but they reach for the black lump and instantly gets vaporized — the cute little kid getting orphaned at the end by a supernatural force is a typically Gilliamesque twist on the expected reversion-to-normal happy ending. The final credits come up over a song by George Harrison — who co-produced this film with his business partner Denis O’Brien (they mortgaged their office building to come up with the $5 million production cost — and then Harrison argued with Gilliam throughout the production and accused Gilliam of behaving like John Lennon!) — called “Dream Away” which we who saw the movie when it was new hailed as a great return to form after the mediocre albums Harrison had been making through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s — only he frustrated us by not releasing the song as a record for three years, until he used it to fill out an album called Gone Troppo that was otherwise mediocre.