Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
A statement of fact: As you get older and gain experiences your viewpoint shifts. It’s an ongoing process, and changing perception on life is important. Whether it’s the childhood realization that the world is bigger than your neighborhood, or that not all adults are infallible. The moments that we have in life inform our outlook on life. Hopefully for the better (but you never know). What can be challenging is seeing something from your childhood through a different lens. It’s especially interesting looking at entertainment. A lot of things we love from childhood don’t hold up. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never gone back to re-watch the original Transformers cartoon or the A-Team. It’s not going to live up to the great times I have in my head. There are other things that take on a completely different meaning and tone when viewed through the mindset of an adult. Terry Gilliam’s films are very much in this vein, and 1981’s Time Bandits is no exception.
Time Bandits follows the exploits of a young dreamer, Kevin (Craig Warnock), as he stumbles on an adventure with a group of little people who have decided to steal treasure throughout history. It’s the first film in what is referred to as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” the second being Brazil and then closing out with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. All three films deal with the power of imagination at different points in life, and as a film connoisseur, it’s interesting to think about. But as a kid? Nah. You’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about a kid going on adventures.
Watch out, there’s spoilers here for a 36-year-old film (really, just watch it, this column will be here when you’re done). At the end of the film, ultimate evil has been defeated by Kevin and the time bandits, but they missed picking up a piece. When the smoke clears (literally), we’re back in the real world and we find that something burnt in the toaster oven. It strangely looks a lot like a piece of Evil. Kevin warns his parents not to touch it, but them being parents and not listening to children, they touch it and explode. As a kid I was excited about this scene. “Seriously, listen to me mom and dad. I know things.” In a weird way it’s a happy ending. As an adult, this film takes on a completely new meaning. Kevin, who has been searching for acceptance, is now parentless and no one really seems to care (even the fireman who strangely looks like Sean Connery). He’s left all alone in a burnt home as his neighbors go about their day. It’s no longer a happy ending.
Of course, that takes the film at face value. The great thing is that most Gilliam films play on multiple levels. If Kevin’s adventures were real, then what does he do now? However, what if everything was just a part of his imagination? Gilliam has said it’s part of his Trilogy of Imagination, so if everything was just a kid dreaming, where is the line drawn? Sure, the adventures he goes on can be seen in the various toys and pictures in his room, but how do we interpret the ending now? Are Kevin’s parents really dead? How did they die? What if Kevin killed them in some sort of fugue state and his imagination made the whole adventure up to cover his guilt? Or . . . I could just be reading too much into it. As an adult, the “child in peril” motif disturbs me. He’s all alone. It’s one of the reasons I couldn’t handle Tideland in 2005. It was too real world. At least Time Bandits has a fantasy element to it that assuages a lot of the uncomfortable feelings.
All that being said, the film still stands up to the test of time (that pun was not intentional). The cast is effective from top to bottom. From the blowhard leader Randall (David Rappaport) to the strong-hearted Wally (Jack Purvis), we even get to see Kenny Baker outside of his Artoo can as Fidgit. David Warner shines as Evil, and even a young Jim Broadbent makes a cameo. The standouts for me though have to be Katherine Helmond and Peter Vaughan as the ogre couple. They still make me laugh to this day and turn stereotypes on their head. I mentioned Sean Connery before as a fireman, but his larger role is that of Agamemnon who might be a better father figure to Kevin. This is why he makes the brief cameo in the end. It does provide a glimmer of hope in the darker adult-version awareness. However, that glimmer is fleeting and Kevin is ultimately left alone.
Coming after Gilliam’s first solo directing gig of Jabberwocky, Time Bandits shows remarkable improvement of film craft, which Gilliam continued to strengthen over his subsequent films. From different accounts, he might be a little prickly to work with when it comes to producers, but the end results are always entertaining and thought provoking (even Tideland). It’s a great standout film from an amazing genre director. That so many of his films rely on fantasy and dreaming is no coincidence. Even as we age there’s still so much to glean from Gilliam’s films, especially Time Bandits.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.