Wednesday 13 September 2023

Time Bandits (1981)


Off-List: Time Bandits

When I was looking for off-List movies for 1981 I found that my first choice was on the List after all (“Evil Dead” is listed as a 1982 movie) and my second choice (“Kundskabens træ”) is included in my Danish edition of the Book. Looking around I saw that “Time Bandits” was an option. I seemed to recall this was a movie I always wanted to watch but never did. I could also see that this was essentially a Monty Python movie after Monty Python, so, a no-brainer, this had to be included as an off-List movie.

As I got into the movie, I realized that actually I have watched this one before. It just made so little impression on me that I had forgotten. That is unfortunately symptomatic for “Time Bandits”.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a single child living in a suburban home with parents who are far more interested in material wealth and gadgets than in Kevin. One night, a knight in full armor springs out of his closet and rides off through a wall that has now become a forest. Kevin is stunned, but the next night he is ready, armed with a satchel, flashlight and a polaroid camera, so when a gang of dwarves jump out of the closet, he is ready to go with them.

It turns out that these dwarves, headed by Randall (David Rappaport), used to work for the Supreme being (God), fixing errors in Creation, but decided to steal a map of gateways to plunder and enrich themselves. From Kevin’s room they land in Napoleon’s (Ian Holm’s) camp. Then on to the Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood (John Cleese) and then ancient Mycene where Kevin gets adopted by Agamemnon (Sean Connery) for helping him slay the Minotaur. Having robbed the Greeks clean, they land on the Titanic, which was kind of a mistake…

Meanwhile, Evil (David Warner) wants the map as well and sets a trap to lure the dwarves to his fortress. There is a showdown here where all mankind’s technology is useless against Evil and only the Supreme being, personified by Ralph Richardson, is able to save the day. Kevin wakes up, his house is on fire, but what seemed to have been a dream is contradicted by all his polaroids in his pocket.

“Time Bandits” is intended as a children’s movie or at least a family movie, so the story is told at the eye height of children. At that, I am sort of outside the target group and my criticism may therefore be unfair. One of the consequences of this angle is that nothing gets explained and even the silliest elements must be taken at face value. I suppose it has become more difficult for me to just accept with a child’s faith what I see as I have gotten older. The short of it is that at face value, very little here adds up.

For Monty Python that was never an issue. What carried the day was the anarchistic comedy and everything else was just a, wry, frame to string it along. That comedy is much toned down here. Certainly, some is left and much of that is very much left-field, but as it is aimed at children it is also very harmless and often falls flat. Maybe it has something to do with that the Monty Python members who do appear, do so for only short moments. John Cleese is top-billed and is a fantastic Robin Hood, but is there for hardly five minutes. Michael Palin shows up twice, but hardly as more than a cameo. Maybe they did not want to steal the picture (which they do when they finally appear) but there is not enough Monty Python here to even remotely quality as such.

What we get instead is a coming-of-age story for Kevin. His (maybe) internal journey explores the meaning of value. Most particularly material wealth compared to moral wealth, but also concepts like courage and companionship. Kevin’s parents are disqualified as representing consumerism and little else and Kevin emerges with some more wholesome qualities. It is a moral tale, told in the language of the early eighties and at the eye-height of children.

What does work here, and works spectacularly well, is the set decorations. There is a lot here that points towards Terry Gilliam’s later movies, especially in Fortress of Evil. Again, a departure from Monty Python but pointing forward to something quite spectacular such as “Twelve Monkeys” or the cinematography of Jeunet.

I was rather underwhelmed by “Time Bandits”. It is too much in-between for my taste and aimed for a different target group. As a Monty Python fan, I do not consider this essential viewing, but for anybody interested in the work of Terry Gilliam, there are some interesting insights here.



  1. I saw it when it first came out and the scene I remember best is Ian Holm as Napoleon watching the puppet show and then the little men hitting each other.

    By far the best cinema Napoleon ever. THIS is how Napoleon should be remembered.

    1. This is funny rendition of Napoleon, and it fits the movie.
      Napoleon is a very complex character and different people make something very different out of him. Just ask the French. This one is fairly easy to grasp.