Orson Welles was famous for genius hampered by struggles with the Hollywood studio system, and Ed Wood is celebrated for a lack of talent that amounted to genius, but Terry Gilliam will probably go down in history as the only filmmaker dogged by a genuine curse. Heath Ledger’s early death, a few weeks into principal photography on Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was only the most recent in a long string of bewildering calamities afflicting the former Python over the course of his career as a director.
It’s a bitter injustice. Gilliam makes wonderful movies. He fights on the side of the intelligent individual stifled by conformity, he appeals to the imaginative child in our souls, his images are breathtaking. If you grew up fascinated by old books with illustrations by the likes of Maxfield Parrish, Kay Nielsen or N.C. Wyeth, Terry Gilliam is on your wavelength. And yet, if the cinematic gods are in a peevish mood and decide to send some luckless director a psychopathic studio head, or a flood that washes away his most expensive set, or a tornado carrying his principal players off to parts unknown — they’ll pick on Gilliam every time.
Now and again the gods look the other way, however, and this was the case in 1981 with Gilliam’s first great success, Time Bandits. Filming proceeded with only the ordinary sort of on-set disasters and, despite an unlikely-sounding storyline (“Kid travels through time with six dwarfs, Sean Connery plays a fireman” was how it was summarized in one trade paper), Time Bandits was a critical and commercial hit. Blessed with a cast that included Sir Ralph Richardson as the Supreme Being, David Warner as Evil, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon (and a fireman), Time Bandits is a classic magical adventure story in the mold of E. Nesbit’s books, but with an updated edge and a sharper sense of humor. Unlike most candy-coated parables handed out to kids, it tells no lies and ends in a brutal and surprisingly exhilarating way.
The plot in brief: Kevin is a bookish child fortunately neglected by his nasty, status-conscious parents. One night High Magic breaks through his bedroom wall and Kevin — dressed, like all child heroes in these circumstances, in his pajamas and bathrobe — goes on the run with six dwarfs. These are the Time Bandits, former employees of the Supreme Being, who have stolen a map showing the location of all the holes in the space/time continuum. They intend to loot History and become stinking rich. Things don’t quite turn out as they’d hoped: they are closely pursued by the Supreme Being and their progress is monitored by Evil, who also wants the map. Trouble really begins when they go off-course from History into the Time of Legends. Along the way they encounter Napoleon (Ian Holm) Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon, as well as a hapless couple of lovers named Vincent and Pansy (Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall) reincarnated across time.
I could natter on for paragraphs and paragraphs about the star turns and unexpected delights in this film, and I still wouldn’t manage to do it justice. How do I explain how hysterically funny dinner with Napoleon is, without also raving about the beauty of the whole Mycenae sequence? Or how perfectly cast Sir Ralph was as God, with his benign thousand-mile stare? His is one of the briefest scenes in the film, and yet it’s nuanced perfection, a stern but kindly headmaster with a slightly sinister ambiguity: asked by Kevin why Evil is permitted in the world, Sir Ralph’s Supreme Being turns, walks out of sight behind a column, reappears on the other side and says “I think it has something to do with Free Will.”
The Criterion Collection edition of the DVD dates from 1999 and is technically okay, presenting the film in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. The digital transfer relied on original sources for both picture and sound. It skimps on the extras, however, especially when compared with Columbia’s edition of the third in Gilliam’s Trilogy of the Imagination, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Time Bandits being the first in the set, Brazil being the second.) We do get a noteworthy commentary track, bringing together Gilliam, Palin, Cleese, Warner and Craig Warnock, who played Kevin. Beyond a scrapbook and the original theatrical trailer, though, that’s pretty much it. I’d have particularly liked to see a featurette on the experience of working with George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, which produced Time Bandits.
Starz/Anchor Bay brought out a 25th Anniversary 2-disc Special Edition in 2004, which unfortunately lacks the excellent commentary track of the Criterion edition but contains beaucoups extras. In addition to the expected featurettes and a fine documentary on Gilliam, this version contains a DVD-Rom copy of the original screenplay. I’d spring for both versions, personally.