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Time Bandits (1981)

Courtesy of Handmade

Main image of Time Bandits (1981)
35mm, 113 minutes, Technicolor
Directed byTerry Gilliam
Production CompanyHandmade Films
Produced byTerry Gilliam
Written byMichael Palin
 Terry Gilliam
CinematographyPeter Biziou

Cast: Craig Warnock (Kevin); David Rappaport (Randall); Kenny Baker (Fidgit); Malcolm Dixon (Strutter); Mike Edmonds (Og); Jack Purvis (Wally); Tiny Ross (Vermin); Sean Connery (King Agamemnon / fireman); Ralph Richardson (Supreme Being); David Warner (Evil Genius)

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A lonely 10-year-old boy accompanies a band of thieving dwarfs pursued across time and space by the creator of the universe, whose cosmic map the dwarfs have stolen.

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Perhaps the most ferociously imaginative fantasy film Britain has ever produced, Time Bandits - a violent, absurdist comedy for children - was animator-turned-director Terry Gilliam's second solo film, following his 1977 debut, Jabberwocky. The script, by Gilliam and fellow Python Michael Palin, owed less to earlier British time travel movies, like The Amazing Mr. Blunden (d. Lionel Jeffries, 1972) or Timeslip (d. Ken Hughes, 1955), than to British fantasy literature, from Swift's Gulliver's Travels to Tolkien's The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories via the comic science-fiction of Douglas Adams.

With a dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Alice and Mervyn Peake's Gormanghast trilogy (the latter one of Gilliam's many unfulfilled projects), Time Bandits gleefully de-romanticises history. Ian Holm's Napoleon rants drunkenly that the world's greatest conquerors have all been under 5'1", while John Cleese's Robin Hood greets the peasantry with all the vacuous courtesy of a royal dignitary at a charity function. David Warner plays the wonderfully malevolent villain, a human Swiss army knife known only as Evil, while Sean Connery lends human warmth to the picaresque as a kindly King Agamemnon (the only character in the entire movie who seems to care whether the child hero lives or dies).

The humour is surreal, spiteful and very funny, while Gilliam's imagination goes berserk in the final half, set in a make-believe era known as 'the Time of Legends'. Here we find an irritable ogre stricken with lower-back pain, a gormless sea giant, and the gothic vision that is the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. The film's £5 million budget evidently couldn't keep up with Gilliam's fevered visions, and a further two scenes had to be dropped (one involving a pair of spidery old ladies, the other a forest of monstrous hands).

The film's imagination versus rationality theme climaxes with an ingenious skirmish in which a toy-littered bedroom becomes a sprawling battleground. Here the shape-shifting Evil creatively dismantles an army of cowboys, spaceships and tanks rallied from the annals of history. Even God Himself turns up (a priceless cameo from Ralph Richardson, looking like a slightly bewildered bank manager).

Despite favourable reviews, Time Bandits did only mediocre business in Britain, where it was unhelpfully and misleadingly marketed as a Python film. Promoted as a children's picture in the United States, however, it became a huge success, despite US distributor Avco-Embassy's reservations about the audaciously cruel ending.

Alec Worley

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Acheson, James (1946-)
Broadbent, Jim (1949-)
Cleese, John (1939-)
Gilliam, Terry (1940-)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
Warner, David (1941-)
HandMade Films
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