Throwback Thursday Movie: “Time Bandits” (1981)
Time Bandits (1981) is a classic satirical comedy film in the grand tradition of Monty Python (while not being an actual, “official” Python flick itself). Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam and directed by Gilliam, the movie presciently takes on television, consumerism, over-valuation of technology, and hypocrisy of all types, while being hysterically funny at the same time. Some may not agree with me about the film’s level of humor, but this is likely because Palin and Gilliam’s style provokes a binary response: love it or hate it. Obviously, I’m in the former category.
I grew up in the 1970s, watching “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” reruns on PBS. While I didn’t “get” all the references to British topics (e.g., NCP Car Parks) that caught the satirical attention of the Python ensemble, I appreciated their style — a mixture of extreme silliness, irreverence, and intellectualism (e.g., the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Philosopher’s Song).
The viewer will find the some of the same in Time Bandits, which careens through history as it follows the adventures of the Time Bandits (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, and Tiny Ross), Little People who are the disgruntled servants of the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). They go rogue after stealing a map from the Supreme Being that contains the locations of “holes” in the space-time continuum of Creation, which is somewhat imperfect. Using the map, they proceed to try to steal the treasure of as many major historical figures as possible. Along the way, they are pursued by a Wizard of Oz-like manifestation of the Supreme Being.
At the outset of their journey, they emerge from a time hole located in a wardrobe in the bedroom of Kevin (Craig Warnock), the young son of two stereotypically middle-class British parents (David Daker and Sheila Fearn). His parents are obsessed with technologically-advanced, yet impractical status symbols, here represented by an automated kitchen (which, ironically, is touted as the “Most Fabulous Object in the World” later in the movie).
Kevin, who has retreated into his own fantasy world in response to his parents’ vapidity, is more than happy to accompany the Time Bandits on their journey. In succession, they rip off Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), but are themselves fleeced by Robin Hood (John Cleese, another Monty Python member) and shipwrecked with the Titanic. Finally, they are enticed by Evil (David Warner), who wants the map so that he can escape from the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (where he has been imprisoned by the Supreme Being), to visit the Time of Legends. There, so they are led to believe, they can obtain the “Most Fabulous Object in the World.”
Of course, the Time Bandits fall for this trick; they are as materialistic as Kevin’s parents. Imprisoned by Evil, who takes the map from them, they nevertheless manage to escape due to Kevin’s cleverness (despite — or maybe because of — being a child, he is the “voice of reason” in this film). They steal the map back from Evil, but are caught before they can escape. This leads to an epic battle between human forces drawn from across human history and Evil. Evil prevails until the appearance of the Supreme Being, who then reveals the meaning behind everything that has happened to Kevin and the Time Bandits. Keven then “wakes up” in his own bed to find that his home is on fire. He believes that he has dreamed all of his adventures until undeniable proof (in the form of people and photographs) convinces him otherwise. Unfortunately, though, his parents are exactly the same as before — which leads to my favorite line in the film:
The film delivers some segments that draw on classic Monty Python features (such as their characteristic uses and styles of graphics and animation), but it also establishes some of the themes and the overall vision that characterize the other Terry Gilliam “Trilogy of Imagination” films (Brazil  and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ).
I loved this movie when I first saw it in 1981, as a high school senior, probably because of its satirical presentation of middle-class parents. Now I’m the parent of a skeptical, sardonic early adolescent. Yet I still love this film — for different reasons.
“Isn’t it ironic, don’cha think?”