June 27, 2003
Starring: John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelly Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Ralph Richardson, Peter Vaughan, David Warner, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcom Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, Tiny Ross,
Handmade Films, controlled by the late great George Harrison, are responsible for a wealth of cheap cult classics. None more renowned, successful or full of short people as Gilliam’s Time Bandits.
Ex Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam combined to produce one of the most bizarrely entertaining British movies of a generation.
The plot revolves around a group of dwarves who work as technicians for the Supreme Being (god as he’s otherwise known). They find life in his gameful employment a tad dull. Reduced to plugging holes in the fabric of the universe as a punishment for a design error they made (a several hundred foot tall pink tree that smelled awful) they decide there’s far more fun to be had by going it alone. Taking with them a map to all of the time holes they’re supposed to be fixing, they head off for some good old fashioned thievery.
Taking with them a human child named Kevin they race from one period in history to another making friends and pilfering anything that they can find. Along the way a huge cast of big name stars make their cameos, and promptly get robbed including John Cleese’s Robin Hood, Sean Connery’s King Agamemnon and Ian Holm’s Napoleon Bonaparte.
Being pursued by the Supreme Being wanting to reclaim his map, and by Evil incarnate David Warner they wind up in the time of legends in search of the fortress of ultimate darkness for the richest treasure known to man. Sounds like a tall tale that one, and some of the bandits are unsure too but Kevin’s level headedness keeps them just about on the right side of trouble.
Eventually you get the showdown between Evil and the Supreme Being, so as you can see this film has a strong religious element to it – more so than Life of Brian and that got tremendous stick. You can clearly see the Python influence running through the film, even without the appearance of John Cleese as a useless Robin Hood.
It’s something of a running joke that most of the historical figures they encounter are all under four foot tall. As Palin and Gilliam mention in one of the interviews on the DVD, it was really impressive that Palin could identify all of the short people in history. Napoleon takes kindly to the bandits because they’re all of a similar height, but as Michael Palin admitted he was actually guessing as to the height of many of the historical figures, it may not strictly be accurate.
Also in that interview they revealed the comedy behind getting an actor of Sean Connery’s stature for the role. The original script read:
Agamemnon removes his helmet to reveal Sean Connery (or an actor of similar stature but cheaper).
But when they found that they could afford Sean the script was altered to read:
Agamemnon removes his helmet to reveal Sean Connery (who as it turns out we can afford).
This is a great interview which lets you in on the simplicity of film making at this level. No cold calculated box office assaults like the films of today, just two men in a kitchen deciding what sort of film they can make with little or no money.
Another interesting, if not rewatchable feature is the original theatrical trailer. Trailers back in the days of old were a curious affair, not really designed with today’s audience in mind. They’d show long clips from the films, with unhelpful voiceover and unrelated snippets cut together in a hotchpotch way. It’s probable that a trailer of today would be as alien to a cinema goer from the seventies as their trailers are to us.
If you’re a cult film fan then you must see this, it’s one of the defining fantasy films. It has dated, as almost all films from the early Eighties have, and it is difficult to watch if you’re not used to the quirky nature of Terry Gilliam. If you like this kind of film though, this is one of the best.