Time Bandits (1981) Short Review

One of my favorite movies, Time Bandits is a sprawling, satirical masterpiece. Co-Writer/Director Terry Gilliam makes films about the imagination, and for me,  this movie inspires my own. It may seem like the story is all over the place, but it’s not.  I also don’t find it  as cryptic as other people do.


Here, Gilliam shoots through the prism of a child’s eyes and mind. Philosophy and religion. History and myth. Reality and dreams. They all merge in the vantage point of the protagonist, 10 year old Kevin (Craig Warnock), whose parents ignore him in favor of their consumerist interests and game shows (“Your Money or Your Life”).

The movie starts quietly enough with Kevin at home doing his best to engage his father in conversation about various nuggets of history that the boy is fascinated by. He is quickly dismissed to his room. When he tries to go to sleep, a knight on horseback crashes out of his wardrobe and leaps over his bed, disappearing into a forest where the walls of his room once were. He doesn’t believe what he sees and after taking the time to rub his eyes, everything reverts back to normal with his father coming in to admonish him about the noise.


Kevin is prepared the next night. Armed with camera and flashlight (among other things) he waits for the armored apparition on horseback. This time, though, something else finds his room: six little people who have in their possession a map that allows them to travel through both time and space. The trouble is, they’ve stolen the map and are pursued by a gigantic floating  disembodied head who demands getting the map back. Kevin joins the  home invaders in fleeing from the entity, and so begins his adventures with the Time Bandits.

Kevin represents the ‘every man’ trying to figure out what this ‘Life thing’ is all about. While he searches for meaning, everyone else is driven by the pursuit of stuff, especially the villain: Evil.

David Warner is a specialist in playing villains and this may be his best role. His rants about creation are a highlight.

Purvis with Tiny Ross...

Another reason I love this film is for the Time Bandits themselves. Its unusual when the stars are little people (like Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis). Usually relegated to the roles of extras or part of the scenery, here the little people are the stars. The group is a collection of memorable individuals. The funniest thing is that their characters each may represent a member of Monty Python.

Randall (the late David Rappaport), being the self appointed leader as John Cleese may have been to Python. Rappaport gives a brilliant comedic performance as the Time Bandits’ self centered leader.

This is Gilliam working on a variety of levels. Some of the other usual suspects from Python make appearances here, too. There are a number of cameos with Holm, Duvall and Connery, but Ralph Richardson as The Supreme Being is hysterical while actually saying something about life with a winking eye.

I think the best parts of the film are the philosophical exchanges, as in the conversation between the Supreme Being and Kevin about Evil. This is filmmaking that makes you think, disguised as children’s fantasy. I loved it as a kid and love it even more now that I’m an adult and can understand the ideas and concepts behind it.

The movie has a big imagination for such a low budget film. They made what little was spent on the film seem like a much larger production budget. The design of the sets and costumes are typical of a Gilliam film. I don’t mean that they’re average so much, just that this is the typically obsessive thought about detailing that went into the design and art direction (as the director does in all of his films). There aren’t many directors that layer a movie like he does. Ridley Scott comes to mind. Maybe Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet … maybe.

The monsters in the film are of the low budget variety, but as a kid, some of them did scare me (which was great). Some are made just to create laughs but there is a darkness that I really enjoyed in the texture of the film. Gilliam’s creatures have much in common with Henson’s Creature Shop critters.

The story is saturated with memorable images. Some are so starkly abstract that they have the quality of a great painting. The last third of the film has quite a few images of ‘impending doom’. The connection between the images and the greedy pursuits of the protagonist’s band of thieves is certainly not by accident. This is a very well crafted movie by a truly unique filmmaker. The art of the story is important to him. This is one of his best films in a long career of great films. It’s funny, entertaining and thought provoking. What seems like a serial adventure has a lot more going on beneath the surface.  It’s definitely worth the time to watch it if you’re a movie fan.

5 of 5

… and HIGHLY recommended. This made my Best Films of 1981 and my Top 100 Films of the 1980s. I may have it too low in both cases. It’s really a great movie that even after seeing the film dozens of times, I still find new things that I had never noticed before. Terry Gilliam outdid himself with this one.
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4 Responses to “Time Bandits (1981) Short Review”

  1. william r warren, jr Says:

    An erudite appraisal. With a proofreader in tow, you’re ready for the big time! A nice, engaging appreciation of one of my favorite films, also, but I’m not sure about your “pantomime-Python” analogy. (First of all, I’m not sure anybody considered himself the “lead” in the Python troupe, and second, it seems to me from interviews with the surviving cast that they all sort of considered Graham Chapman to be the de facto “leader”.) I was already a Grup when I first saw it, and I instantly fell in love with it. Now pushing 60, I still love it. How many family films can captivate adults forever? “Toy Story”s, — well, Pixar in general — Munchhausen, Labyrinth, some Disney (and defeated foes Fleischer brothers’ “Gulliver’s Travels”), Iron Giant, I think Wizard of Oz would qualify — there aren’t many really good ones.

    • Crash! Landen Says:

      Ha! Thanks for the comments (there’s not a lot of proofreading on this site, I’ll grant you).

      I think I actually heard the ‘little people/Python’ reference from Gilliam himself. I couldn’t tell you where specifically I heard it from, but I think it was from one of his DVD commentaries on a film OTHER than Time Bandits (maybe “Tideland”). Or it might have been from the documentary ‘Lost In La Mancha’… I’m not sure.

      And you’re right about the intelligently made family films. They’re few and far between. I think the Wallace and Gromit creators have made some films that are quite clever (like Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit). Disney’s adaptation of Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is one that I like to watch every couple of years.Bradbury had his own father in mind when he wrote that and there’s a little more than what’s on the surface with that one. And there’s ‘international films like “The Red Balloon” that kind of capture something that can be enjoyed as a child and as an adult, so there’s a few films out there if you look hard enough.

  2. […] Time Bandits (VASTLY under-rated, this is a a surprisingly philisophical comedy. The detailing is incredible. […]

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