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Straying in time
A UK region 2 DVD review of TIME BANDITS by Camus
"Your skill was to know all the short people in history,
all the powerful short people which is an incredible
 source of knowledge that most of us don't have..."
Director Terry Gilliam to co-writer, Michael
Palin in an informal interview on Youtube
"Lasers, 8 o'clock, day one!"
David Warner's Evil Genius on what he'd
create if he were the Supreme Being


If David Warner turns out to be the ultimate evil, then book me a seat in hell. If Sir Ralph Richardson actually is the Supreme Being, then find me a map of time holes to steal. How can a film with such a wonderful premise and brilliant characters fail to be the most fun on an intimately epic scale? Time Bandits is bursting with the most joyous and subversive entertainment any little movie could aspire to produce. It has everything (OK, it's light and very scathing on romance) and that particular everything is performed with ambitious comic gusto, designed with a fervent, feverish imagination and directed with real zeal. You can feel Gilliam's absolute pirouettes of pleasure in every scene. It's also written so smartly, it wouldn't surprise me to see Palin's typewriter in a cummerbund.

For those both intimate and unfamiliar with Mr. Gilliam's oeuvre, I have an admission to make. Let's set aside my abyss-like gaps in my rounded cinematic appreciation and education and focus on a selfish aspect of cinema-going – the pleasure principle. I did think about this a lot a little while ago and despite the looming presence of the more populist directors and the smaller gems of so called 'arthouse' cinema, I admitted to myself that I have probably had more pleasure from Terry Gilliam (let's not take that any other way please, thank you) in the cinema than from any other film-maker. OK, I've not seen Tideland but there is no other Gilliam movie out there that bored me for a second, no Gilliam directed scene that made me twitch with displeasure and no Gilliam-chosen subject that didn't fascinate me. He falls so accurately between the two stools of populist and art-house that it almost seems like his intention was to bull's eye such a locus. He is blessed with enormous energy, a riotous and unique sense of design and he kicks against the pricks (it's in the bible – lower case 'b' intended - see my obituary for Richard Franklin for the meaning) with refreshing frequency. Here is Outsider's Insider director and the irony that he's an American living in London gives him that distance from the mainstream despite the fact that everyone wants a nice fat hit every now and again. I hope Heath Ledger can weave the same spell over The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus as he did over The Dark Knight.

So what's the story? Oh, it's a doozy. Kevin is an imaginative boy whose parents could have served as the model for the dreadful Dursleys in the Harry Potter series. They certainly live on the same housing estate. Obsessed with a bourgeois mentality that fences them off from their own son, they are nothing more than ciphers of a commercially obsessed world gone awry. They keep the cellophane on their furniture just in case a bit of life might be spilled on to it. In bed, Kevin is alarmed by a noise coming from his wardrobe. We're not three minutes in and suddenly a Knight on horseback bursts out, smashes the light, leaps over the bed and gallops off into a forest which has replaced the wall of Kevin's bedroom. What a stunning start – and it's about to get better. Did he imagine it? His latterly intact bedroom would seem to suggest this.

I'd like to offer a side note that may illuminate some undercurrent of further appreciation for this marvellous little gem of a movie. I was a fan of the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and saw it several times in the cinema as a youngster but one thing bugged the hell out of me – the almost ending and the real ending. In the middle of the movie on the beach, I'd missed the blurry dissolve that changes from ordinary ship to pirate ship (and therefore assumed everything that was happening was 'real' – the child catcher, the baron, the doll maker etc.). It was of course, a story made up for the kids hence the dissolve from reality to fantasy. So when we went back to the beach and Caractacus Potts says something like "And that's how I saved etc." I was crushed. I wanted the car to be able to float and fly. In fact, I needed it to be true. The story had no power if it was just all made up from inside the movie. So I'm sitting there thinking none of that was real and then the bloody car takes off again apparently with no wings or propellers this time (forgive my mistake if I've made one. I only have a pan and scanned VHS for reference). So it can really fly!? WTF? That one stumped me for a long time. So with this in mind, I can't tell you how glad I was to have Time Bandits' Kevin Polaroid his way through history – he has proof it was all real! Nice one, Kevin.

Enthusiastic to have a similar wardrobe-smashing experience, Kevin goes to bed early the next evening and lays in wait. It says a lot about a child's mindset as Kevin clearly believes what he saw (as do we) despite the evidence against it ever having happened. Sleep claims him as the wardrobe door opens this time and out pop six bedraggled little men. Teaming up with this motley crew, Kevin has some extraordinary adventures in time keeping one step ahead from the Supreme Being and all the while being manipulated by the Evil Genius who wants their map, stolen from the Supreme Being (or so we are lead to believe). The little guys are disgruntled ex-employees of the Supreme Being who rebelled against their menial tasks of creating forests and shrubbery and made a hideous tree much to the Supreme Being's displeasure.

They stole the map of all the mistakes in the universe – time holes which occur at specific places and eras as charted by this map – and the six intended to get rich plundering different historical periods and escaping in time, literally in time. Once Kevin escapes the Middle Ages and plunges on to King Agamemnon fighting the bull headed warrior, the movie does something quite odd but in a good way. Kevin now has a role model worthy of anyone's respect – a brave and capable leader able to defeat fearsome foes for the good of his people. We like it here and Connery is so easy as Agamemnon. He quickly makes Kevin his surrogate son and heir and in a very short amount of time, just over 12 minutes in fact, a great deal of ancient politics is revealed and implied and I remember feeling a little regret that Kevin was denied such a life in the sun by the manipulative, diminutive bandits.

The first surprise of the film's many amazements is that extraordinary cast, world class actors lending their considerable talents to such a glorious film for children (let's not deny it was always intended as a film for youngsters of the hero's age). But Time Bandits is not a conventional children's film at all. Its humour is not specifically targeted at younger viewers. And some of that humour is a real treat. The Bandits have just arrived, beaten up Kevin (unselfconsciously and nicely under-played by Craig Warnock) and are threatening him with being eaten when his bedroom wall shifts. It's a time portal and the Bandits have to keep pushing it to get it open. Randall (David Rappaport), the self styled leader, tries to coordinate his group who want to push on a countdown: "Who ever started anything on one?" And the second punch-line is funnier than the first.

A darker side punctuates the movie all the way through. A game show on TV in the early scenes features a young Jim Broadbent officiating an awful piece of schlock called 'Your Money Or Your Life'. The older lady cannot name a film star starting with 'C' so her husband ends up drowned in a vat of custard – nasty stuff delivered with a wink. Kevin is actually beaten up by six men in his own room regardless of the men's stature. Summary executions are performed in a Napoleonic war. Derrick O'Connor as Robin Hood's chief robber, Redgrave, smashes the faces of the poor as they receive their gifts. These aren't movie fight punches you understand but Glasgow 1am efforts that in reality would kill these people. Evil Genius' way of despatching his cronies when they apply logic to his existence, is also quite startling and the ending...

Well, a children's film could never get away with an ending like that nowadays (it would be such a cruel thing to do to the hero) but once you get to the end, it seems like the perfect way to go. Gilliam has a story to tell on how this end sequence got past the studios. After a technically disastrous test screening in which the first few reels' sound was projected unintelligible, a great many of the audience filled in 'the ending' as their favourite part of the film. That is they were merely saying they liked the ending because of a 'thank Christ it's over' vibe rather than 'we felt you made a good creative call in the way you closed the movie'. Studio chiefs then misinterpreted this and left the ending to play intact. I smell a rat because they may be many things but studio chiefs are not idiots but if it's true, it's a great story.

Time Bandits went on to become the lynchpin of Gilliam's career scoring highly at the US box office and enabled him to get other projects moving from glacially impacted in wintry development to fully fledged movies. In fact, Time Bandits ushered in Brazil, another classic from Gilliam, a movie that pissed off more people than probably saw it in the theatres. But Time Bandits remains Gilliam's most playful film and a real kids' film with humour, light and a great deal of much darker shade. Have a blast.

sound and vision

Presented in 16x9 anamorphic, the print from which this 2009 release was taken is certainly not pristine and a direct copy of the print (or video master) that Anchor Bay used for their 2007 release. That's provable by comparing the dirt, identical on the same frames...

The Anchor Bay release (above) compared to the new Optimum disc (below)
Note the identical frame damage on both grabs.

There's slightly more picture information at the sides of the 2007 Anchor Bay release but I'm certain Optimum's release has come from the same master. See the frame grabs for evidence. There's even some buckling in the gate by a nasty series of scratches at 41 mins and 18 seconds in (the shot of one of the little guys having his mind controlled).

This must point to a tape master of the same telecine transfer. Different telecines would not produce identical buckling at film damage.

The 2007 Anchor Bay has slightly elevated contrast in comparison and is the tiniest percent sharper (viewing on a CRT TV).

The available soundtracks is where these discs deviate. The Stereo 2.0 track of the 2007 release is also on the Optimum but there's also a Surround 5.1 to choose from too. It doesn't sound like a Blu-Ray Blade Runner style re-mix as the whole original stereo seems to have been simply spread around but certain events in the movie really sit up given that extra aural boost.

extra features

Interview With Terry Gilliam (18' 12")
Gilliam is Gilliam. What does that mean? Honest, resolute, determined, entertaining and rebellious. He gives good interview and this is no exception. His stories are always illuminating and it's also nice to see him backtrack from earlier Gilliamisms in which he stated that America was bad and the UK, good. Current events seemed to have forced a reluctant rethink.

Scrapbook (2' 55")
Sweetly dedicated to the three Time Bandits no longer with us (Jack Purvis, David Rappaport and Tiny Ross "...who really are eternal.") this is a trawl through the behind the scenes stills, designs and props from the movie. The electronic main theme is repeated a bit too many times but it's short enough to be tolerated.

Trailer (3' 10")
In true subversive fashion, the Time Bandits UK trailer doesn't seem to want to appeal to kids at all. The clichéd basso profundo voiceover artist is in a dour mood and being directed by whom I thought was Palin but I may be mistaken. It's a deconstruction of a normal trailer (with a little piece of Gilliamesque animation at the start) whose selling power seems to simply be reliant on the stars (and a lot of these actors were huge in 1981) and a succession of dazzling images. The audio sparring of the two performers works well enough as a sort of Python skit (I did like the last line, "What's honesty got to do with anything?") It's a real curio but at least someone's trying to be imaginative. It must have worked (though I doubt they took the same approach in the US). According to Gilliam the movie was the No. 1 movie in the States for four or five weeks – that's a feat unheard of today.

There are three trailers that start the disk (a curious choice, Son of Rambow, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus and Is Anybody There?). I have to say Parnasus looks good enough to eat.


Fans of the movie will find not much to choose from if upgrading from the 2007 to the 2009 version but if you're a completist then the 5.1 re-spread mix will spice up the home viewing experience quite a bit. I would have liked to have had more of Palin's participation represented in the Extra Features but ne'er mind. This is a great movie that contains the DNA of almost all of Gilliam's subsequent outings. Recommended as a movie, no doubt. The Blu-Ray release would promise all sorts of extra definition delights. And I'm sure we'll get to it. In time.

Time Bandits

UK 1981
116 mins
Terry Gilliam
John Cleese
Sean Connery
Shelley Duvall
Katherine Helmond
Ian Holm
Michael Palin
Ralph Richardson
Peter Vaughan
David Warner
David Rappaport
Kenny Baker
Craig Warnock

DVD details
region 2
16:9 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
subtitles .
Terry Gilliam interview
Optimum Home Entertainment
release date
5 October 2009
review posted
6 October 2009

See all of Camus's reviews