After attending college in Los Angeles, Terry Gilliam moved to New York in the early 1960s, where he helped to run an underfunded satire magazine called Help! The magazine had a feature that turned real people into cartoons, where they would design a cartoon strip and hire real actors to play the roles. When trying to find comic actors who were game, he met John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
That story, recounted by Gilliam to David Letterman in 1982 during an interview promoting Time Bandits, is not how Monty Python formed, but it’s close enough. At its peak, Python sketches and movies bounced with the surprise and joy of a Sunday newspaper strip. But when the working conditions of Python deteriorated, Gilliam took that style and crafted something of his own.
Time Bandits was his third directorial credit, but in many ways, it’s also the debut of Gilliam’s style. That style entails large, elaborate set pieces; a strong distrust in authority; an overwhelming belief in the power of imagination; and some pretty good jokes along the way. Gilliam has framed Time Bandits as his exploration of a child’s imagination, which can be far darker than what we usually see in movies and TV.
Time-jumping is a natural structure for sketch comedians looking to make full-length pictures, be they the members of Monty Python, Mel Brooks, or the writers of Bill & Ted (who first came up with their idea while doing stand-up). It’s easy to slaughter sacred cows when wearing a toga or a crown because modern people don’t actually know what history was like.
Maybe it was more like this than you realize, Brooks would argue in History of the World Part One. Gilliam did the same in his first co-directed movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once a time period has been exhausted, the players can simply move on to the next one, as seen in the end of Holy Grail, when modern-day police come and arrest everyone present.
With Time Bandits, Gilliam stuck with the notion of framing his story within history, but he frames this one with much more wonder and awe. The movie is built around Craig Warnock (who only acted once more after this) as Kevin, the child of uncaring, modern parents who would rather watch TV than read about ancient history with him.
Then, quite suddenly, six little people barrel out of his closet. They are on the run from the Supreme Being, having stolen a magical map that guides them to various time holes, which allow them to journey between space and time.
Eventually, the self-appointed leader of the gang Randall (played by British actor David Rappaport in what would turn into a breakout role) tells Kevin that while the Supreme Being made the universe, this band of little people shaped it. They’re going through history stealing everything they can because they want to finally get paid for their work. That is, if they can keep the Evil Genius from stealing the map and turning everyone into unthinking computers.
If the concept of God didn’t already exist, Terry Gilliam would have invented it.
If the concept of God didn’t already exist, Terry Gilliam would have invented it. God, portrayed here by London theatrical legend Sir Ralph Richardson, plays a major role in Time Bandits. Why does something magic happen? God. Why do people suddenly have to run from Point A to Point B? God. Why does evil happen? God brushes this classic question off, saying it has “something to do with free will.” God remains a constant authority for Gilliam to poke and prod.
This allows Kevin, Randall, and the rest to move between Napoleon and Robin Hood with ease, the latter played by fellow Python and longtime personal antagonist John Cleese. Cleese plays Robin Hood as a smooth-talking politician, glad-handing the bandits and redistributing their wealth to the poor — but only after having one of the Merry Men punch them in the face.
Visually, the movie takes on moments of grand beauty and utter chaos. When the little people are on screen, it’s a busy cacophony straight out of the Marx Brothers. To Gilliam’s credit, the physical condition of the little people is only ever referenced once, as a bizarre answer to a different question from Cleese’s Robin Hood. Each of them, including Kenny Baker of Star Wars (the original R2-D2), runs around causing havoc and has a few traits that distinguish them from the others.
Perhaps sensing that the movie could not be based around a single child, various scenes are punched up with celebrity cameos. Shelly Duval is particularly wonderful in just a few scenes as a perpetually unlucky lover Dame Pansy. Sean Connery also makes a strong appearance as the world’s coolest dad, King Agamemnon.
In 2002, Gilliam said in an interview that he “never wanted to make naturalistic films. I’ve always liked the idea that film is an artifice, and that this is admitted right from the start. So we create a world that isn’t true to a realistic naturalistic world, but is truthful…that is the main thing.” Time Bandits tries to be truthful to a child’s imagination, in all its wonder and horror.
Time Bandits is streaming on HBO Max in the U.S.