Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Time Bandits is a film deceptively based upon a Cliff’s Notes version of an already subsidized seventh grade history textbook. Visible in the film’s periphery are the French Revolution, the sinking Titanic, and basic ethical manifestations of good and evil (the former — the Supreme Being — wears a pleated gray suit). Time Bandits is at once revisionist history and children’s fantasy; at its base is a veiled lesson in ethics. Director Terry Gilliam’s entire career has been spent as an endearing fight against convention. This is his most stalwart example; the principle cast is comprised of midgets.
The entire principle cast is comprised of midgets. Time-traveling dwarves: this detail is progressively odd, and given its visionary unlikelihood one is motivated to interpret its adherence, as a crucial detail, to the film. Curiously, it is completely incidental. These time-traveling thieves, seven of them, just happen to be exceedingly short.
The midgets stand equal to Kevin, a child who becomes involved in the short ones’ plight, and they also possess traits often associated to children: they are immature, rude, and greedy. The dwarves are the film’s namesake. Once hedge trimmers for the Supreme Being, the group plotted mutiny, stole a map of the universe (which cites the location of crucial “time holes”), and proceeded to gather the most valuable loot in history.
One such time hole leads to Kevin’s bedroom, and a resulting chase from the Supreme Being allots Kevin as one of the time bandits. The Supreme Being wants His map back, and so does the Evil Genius, His diametric opposite. Kevin is in store for the most extensive and hands-on history lesson any child could imagine.
In a brilliantly subtle technique the camera is placed entirely at low angles to respect the stilted height of its main characters. This technique functions, accidentally perhaps, to crop the faces of many of the adult characters. We see only their feet and their actions. In this manner Gilliam establishes, intended or not, his film’s subjective approach, and it is clear this troupe of midgets and their younger sidekick, each seen as vulnerably short, stands heroic.
Gilliam’s first trio of films has been grouped into a trilogy (Monty Python’s Holy Grail, which he only co-directed, is omitted): Brazil and Baron Munchausen regard the implement of imagination on, respectively, middle- and old-ages; Time Bandits involves the child. Its scope is more ambitious and loose than its interpreted sequels.
Brazil involves a balding, middle-aged white-collared man named Sam who is employed by (or slave to) the Ministry of Information, a governmental accumulation of rules, laws, and abundant paperwork. Sam thrives on his dreams, of a lush, green landscape in which he is a sort of hero with the ability to fly. He has a beautiful female whom he seeks, and his dream is subsequently manifested in his reality as he finds his dream woman in his real world. Furthermore, in this environment it is implied that dreaming would be prohibited, had the authority the means to do so.
This balance between a stark, cynical reality and wild fantasy is furthered in Munchausen, which involves an olden adventurer who is harkened for one, final trip. He is followed by a group of fantastic disciples, each of whom possesses some inhumanly acute ability. Munchausen, when viewed as part of a whole, closes the circle first drawn in Gilliam’s Time Bandits; both omit Brazil’s cynicism in favor of fantasy. (It must be noted, here, that the tragedy of Time Bandits’ ending is seemingly cynical, yet is not regarded as such.)
And, taking from knowledge of his latter films, Gilliam’s fantasy is at its height in Time Bandits. The very scope of this film is incessant in its sporadic setting — to the point of being completely and forcibly unrelated. The film is a comedy, following its five thieves who have the estimable means of traveling through time. Second, the film is a loose history lesson. The famous climax of the Titanic disaster is seen in thirty-four films (and is arguably the subject of many of them), and it is its least dramatic in this film.
Time Bandits is loose to the point of being largely convoluted. It may be debated that there is some idea that coheres the plot, though debating such a find is somewhat futile. It is clear, however, that Gilliam has made a stinging attempt to eschew conventions, and in doing so has lost aim. Only in squinted eyes can his target be seen. To evidence this claim, Time Bandits has the most atypical trailer (available on the Criterion DVD) for any film I have seen.
Despite the fact that the film’s comedy hinders interpretation of its philosophy (this is forgivable), there is one detail that emerges as Time Bandits’ most noticeable crux. The world Gilliam constructs is one in which age, or, more particularly, maturation prohibits one’s ability to imagine. Much like blood, one’s imagination procures creative and mental longevity. This idea grounds the fundamental makeup of much of Gilliam’s catalogue.
My commendation in defense of Time Bandits is not in regard to its political aims; this film is foremost a fantasy/comedy. My apparent praise is entirely in regard to both its concept and the odd notice it achieves when paired along other child films and fantasies. To be fair the film does contain flaws. The comedy is constant and doesn’t entirely cohere to the setting, plot, or drama Gilliam’s theme acquires. Time Bandits, also, doesn’t “fit into place” in multiple viewings as other unique films do. It persists to be permanently weird, and perhaps this is the very reason it is liked.