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Time Bandits

Entry updated 24 February 2023. Tagged: Film.

UK film (1981). HandMade Films/Janus Films. Produced and directed by Terry Gilliam. Executive producers George Harrison, Denis O'Brien. Special effects John Bunker. Written by Gilliam, Michael Palin. Cast includes Kenny Baker, John Cleese, Sean Connery, David Daker, Derek Deadman, Malcolm Dixon, Shelley Duvall, Mike Edmonds, Sheila Fearn, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Tony Jay (voice), Michael Palin, Jack Purvis, David Rappaport, Ralph Richardson, Tiny Ross, Peter Vaughan, David Warner, Craig Warnock and Jerold Wells. 113 minutes. Colour.

Young Kevin (Warnock), alienated from his television-addicted, gadget-loving parents, is briefly visited in his bedroom one night by a horned horseman. Next night Kevin goes to bed armed with a torch and a Polaroid camera. Out of the wardrobe – a nod to C S Lewis – tumble six dwarfs, distantly reminiscent of J B Morton's bickering, litigious red-bearded dwarfs but perhaps also spoofing the individual members of the Monty Python's Flying Circus cast. The leader is Randall (Rappaport); the others are Fidgit (Baker), Og (Edmonds), Strutter (Dixon), Wally (Purvis) and the comically revolting Vermin (Ross). All are in flight from the Supreme Being, whose map of the Multiverse they have stolen; our universe was apparently a "botched job", riddled with Wormholes traversing time and space, and they were given the map so they could repair all the holes, but instead are using them for banditry. Dragging Kevin along, they flee the Supreme Being's wrathful projection (voiced by Jay) to pass through a Timeslip-hole and Time-Travel to 1796, there finding Napoleon (Holm) in the midst of his Italian campaign. Having robbed the Little Corporal, they dash to the Middle Ages, encountering Robin Hood (Cleese) and a comic travesty of his merry men; again they flee, not knowing that the universe's Evil Genius (Warner), trapped by the Supreme Being in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, is watching their progress. Desiring the map, he plants in their minds the notion of a quest to gain the greatest treasure of all ... which will be found in his Fortress. But Kevin's mind is impervious to the Evil Genius. The Supreme Being's menacing projection again appears; two time-holes open, and Kevin, although by now an honorary dwarf, inadvertently flees alone through one to land near 13th-century-BC Mycenae in the thirteenth century BCE – just in time to help Agamemnon (Connery) defeat a bull-headed Minotaur warrior.

The dwarfs reappear to rob Agamemnon: they, Kevin and a large part of the court's jewellery vanish through a time-hole to the deck of the Titanic. The ship sinks and all seems lost for the group; but the Evil Genius intercedes, giving them the information that his Fortress lies in the Time of Legends (marked on the map) and drawing them through into that metafictional reality. Avoiding the clutches of the ocean-going ogre Winston (Vaughan) and his wife (Helmond), they and the ogre's ship are carried ashore by a giant (see Great and Small) who uses the ship as a hat. Escaping again, they smash through an invisible barrier to reach the Fortress, where the Evil Genius and his henchmen Robert (Deadman) and Benson (Wells) appear to them in the illusory guise of a glitzy television gameshow's quizmaster and attendants (who are also Kevin's Mum [Fearn] and Dad [Daker]), trick them into handing over the map, and cage them. The Evil Genius sets about plotting his recreation of the world, which will this time be dominated by hyper-Technology: henchman Robert is ordered to brief him on Computers, fast breeder reactors, subscriber trunk dialling ... Meanwhile Kevin and the gang escape and remember the boy's Polaroid snap of the map itself; using this, the dwarfs recruit reinforcements from across time. These comprise Arthurian knights, Wild West cowboys, Trojan archers, a Flash-Gordon-style fighter Spaceship armed with a Ray Gun, and a World War Two tank – all of which the Evil Genius rather easily fights off. Just in time, the Supreme Being at last appears in fully human form (Richardson), destroys the Evil Genius (his own creation), sets the dwarfs to tidying up the resulting scattered chunks of carbonized Evil, and tells them he planned they should have the map so that they would test his universe-building handiwork, which they have now done. The others reluctantly abandon Kevin and go back to the drudgery of creation, but one lump of Evil remains with him, unnoticed. The scene transmutes to his bedroom, where he is sleeping amid clouds of smoke: the house is on fire. He is saved. His rescued parents find the smoking lump of Evil in their microwave; because Kevin warns them not to, they touch it, and are immediately incinerated. Kevin is left alone in the ashes of his former existence.

Time Bandits, a significant achievement of Fantastika in the Cinema, has complex resonances and uses the images of boyhood dreams for its construction: Kevin reads a book on ancient Greek heroes at the film's beginning, there is a poster of Napoleon on his bedroom wall, some of the building-stones of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness take the form of gigantic Lego blocks, the Evil Genius's technophilia reflects Kevin's parents' mindless obsession with gadgetry, and so on. But the tempting interpretation that this was all Kevin's jumbled dream is snatched away again by the emergence of the spare chunk of Evil in the mundane world and by the realization that the lead fireman attending the blaze is Agamemnon/Connery (who seems to recognize Kevin) in new guise. Some early sections of the movie are merely playful, reminding one of Gilliam's history with the Monty Python's Flying Circus team; yet once the quest has been announced there is a deep vein of seriousness underlying all the slapstick and pyrotechnics. When Kevin is appalled by the Supreme Being's insouciance about the loss of life involved in testing the universe, he is answered with callousness: "Why do we have to have Evil?" says Kevin. "Oh, I think it's something to do with free will," replies the Supreme Being with a dismissive wave of the hand.

Time Bandits received a British Science Fiction Association Award for best media sf. The novelization is Time Bandits (1981) by Charles Alverson. [JGr/DRL]

see also: Richard Hescox; Terraforming.

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