THE SCENE: a majestic, wide expanse of desert in the ime of Agamemnon. Nothing but lazy dunes and azure sky for miles. The camera slowly pans, and in the background we hear, 'chhht-zzzz.chhht-zzzzz." The familiar rumblings of a Polaroid SX-70. Hardly what one would expect.
Yet one has grown used to bursts of the unexpected from Monty Python, and the scene is from Time Bandits, a scii/historical adventure directed by Python's Terry Gilliam. Interspersing such moments with a script of Disneyesque fantasy, Time Bandits is like having Woody Allen and Sam Peckinpaugh co-direct The Sound of Music. Gilliam has taken the Pythonic theme that everything you know is wrong, and concocted a children's fable owing not a little to The Wizard of Oz. There are drags and snags in the plot, suspense, and humor, but the movie is a modest success; the largest difficulty ooming is escaping its skewed ad campaign.
Of the songs by George Harrison," there is but one, a piece of fluff during the end titles; the "stars" only pop in for cameos; and the connection with Python is not as direct as the trailer and poster promise. If you go to see clever punning, naughty bits, and no-holds-barred tomfoolery, you will leave feeling vaguely amused but mostly cheated. Time Bandits must be approached, of at all, from the unjaded perspective of an eleven-year-old--the perspective the plot hinges on.
The screenplay, by Gilliam and co-Python Michael Palin, is eclectic to the point of being wholly derivative, both thematically and visually. It draws on everything from the anti-modern stance of A Clockwork Orange, to the scenic flash of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the overt tackiness of the original Flash Gordon: yet it remains an underwhelming story. The adventure involves Kevin, a young, modern-age Briton (not so much played as walked through by unknown Craig Warnock), whose parents ive in subservience to hundreds of whirring, useless kitchen apparati and sit transfixed as horrific gameshows prance across the T.V. Kevin retreats to his room, amidst toy soldiers, cardboard castles, and plastic spaceships, reading about Agamemnon's methods of brutality. Not simply another middle-aged prepubescent a la Justin Henry and Gary Coleman, he is a real kid, untainted and imaginative. Warnock's lack of acting ability adds to Kevin's believability.
So far, the movie has seemed a straightforward Pythonic sitcom, and the audience has tittered appreciatively, anxiously awaiting the next witticism. But it is not to be. Gilliam relates his intentions by shock therapy: The sleeping boy is roused by a medieval horseman galloping out of the wardrobe and across his bed. The audience snickers, thinking this is funny; it may be. But that's not Gilliam's purpose. Six peculiar midgets appear in the same nerve-racking manner; from thereon, Time Bandits is an adventurous escapade, and you either reorient your demands or sit and squirm for the next two hours.
The plot is not so much derivative as accumulative, encompassing historic epochs, good versus evil, and social commentary, all with a light tongue in cheek. It seems The Supreme Being (pictured for most of the movie like one of the Wizard's apparitions, a disembodied, blustering head, but then realized on earth by Sir Ralph Richardson in a rumpled suit) has demoted these midgets from their tree-and-shrub supervision. Their sin? "Wally here made a tree 300 feet tall, with pink leaves,...that smelled awful!" This is the tone of much of the humor--old hat, but cute. The dwarves were supposed to repair "holes in time" marked on a precious map of the universe. They instead pilfer the map to use it for inter-period ooting.
The movie becomes episodic, as the elfish ones drag the honest, clearerheaded (and, by a few inches, taller) boy from time zone to time zone; yet unlike Dorothy's tribulations in Oz, each seems chosen for comical rather than didactic purpose. The first era represents Napoleon (Ian Holm) as a silly drunk, obsessed with height and puppets instead of the conquest of Italy. Holm is awkwardly funny in a sort of ludicrous, obvious way, not even bothering to sustain a French accent. Agamemnon (Sean Connery, looking at once--and for once--agacious, fatherly, and mischievous), is concerned more with magic tricks than his empire. Such is the toying with history and apparent lack of morality of these middle scenes.
YET AN UNDERLYING cynical mentality emerges from the seemingly pointless use of period sets and big-name stars. As Grecians merrily dance, Kevin busily clicks away with his SX-70, because things are no longer real to children unless they have verification--the media age strikes again. The main impediment to the effectiveness of such tactics arises from Kevin and the midgets playing things straight while surrounded by celebrities camping it up. The result is unfocussed, if not unsettling.
The cartoonish air is enhanced by the cheapo production--$5 million, miniscule by today's standards, considering the six eras and elaborate scenery. Every now and then shots reveal ostensibly majestic sights to be obvious models. The ocean in the Titanic sequence looks more like a backyard pool.
And, like the effects, the message occasionally seems phony. Gilliam wants his images to have meaning; yet by investing midgets with heroics, he calls for a tolerance difficult to sustain. Granted that if the six were played by "normal-sized" actors, the film would lose all of its staying power; yet depending on these men of limited height, experience, and acting ability becomes a drag. Cinematographer Peter Bizou probably has chronic back pains from keeping the camera down on a level to make them look correct, but all the efforts in the world cannot negate the fact that these are tiny freaks of nature (It's hard to ignore their apparently knuckle-less fingers). In one ostensibly dramatic scene, a dwarf is enraged at the apparent death of his fellow. He shrieks and struggles and has to be restrained. O, the wrath of an angry midget! He is acting over his head. It is too sad to be comical and too comical to be affecting, but the film's moralizing tone demands he be taken seriously. Maybe that's a jump a kid can make, but it's trying for anyone else. Straining, also, is some of the "suspense" lumbering across the screen, such as an elaborate, impossible escape from a cage floating in a void.
But the film's major hangup is its confused characterization of evil. The devil (David Warner a la Ming the Merciless) tries to encompass all evil but fails to conjure anything but pity for his campy lines. Margaret Hamilton's witch in Oz terrified children of all ages; she never diluted her rottenness. Yet Gilliam has exorcised the seriousness out of where it belongs and makes the devil and his cohorts buffoons, wearing garbage bags over their capes and muttering things about advanced technology. Gilliam intends the plastic and electronics, which were also prominent in Kevin's living room, to personify evil as seeking the "ultimate truth" of the computer; yet they distract without amusing or enlightening.
Nevertheless, Pythonic curveballs keep the movie accessible for adults. Sherwood Forest teems with spit, snot, and dismembered limbs. John Cleese is a lively, simpleton "Hood," distributing art treasures to the downtrodden. "Do you know the poor? I'm sure you'd like them!" he insists with comic-book eyebrows. Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall, in dual roles as lovers across two eras, provide additional satire on old movies, with a touch of the absurd: Palin, in desperate search for a cure to his vague sexual problem, blurts out, "I must have fruit!" This can mean anything; Python at its best delivers up nonsense and lets you make of it what you will. But mixing it with a "serious" plot is a tricky thing.
FOR ALL THE attempts at teaching youth via fairy-book change of time, place, and character, and captivating adults via snatches of humor, the movie's thrust falls somewhere in the dangerous middle ground. Gilliam was Python's sordid animator in Time Bandits and often uses people as if they were cartoons. There are many violent scenes worthy of Tom and Jerry or Wile E. Coyote except with live subjects as characters smash into walls, eat rats, and explode. It's bad enough when Elmer Fudd blows up and survives unscathed, but the violence here is too up-front to be humorous and gets in the way of any moral.
Perhaps Gilliam means that we have to temporarily dispose of reality to enjoy a fairy tale any more. Yet he returns to the present, and his cynical morality hits home. Kevin "wakes up" like Dorothy at the end and sees Sean Connery as a fireman (like her scarecrow). But he has uncontrovertible proof that Connery was Agamemnon; and his parents are just as oblivious as ever. Thus, he must conclude the opposite from Dorothy: He could not have been dreaming, and there are most assuredly places far superior to home.
See the movie, then, not as a failed Python comedy, but as the only possible fairy tale remaining: irreverent, bellicose, and tenuous in its morality. Time Bandits has a lot of heart, despite the clunky presence of some unworkable scenes, unbelievable sets, and untalented actors. It addresses itself to children and the child in everyone, demanding answers, imparting few. Kevin asks the Supreme Being why evil exists and learns "it has something to do with free will," a sad lesson for any eleven-year-old.
This is The Wizard of Oz for the '80s, alright. The Pythonic theme--nothing you know is sacred or even really there--suddenly seems a huge, monstrous thing to impose on kids like Kevin; he is left with only a sackful of Polaroids and two piles of ashes where his authoritative parents once stood. Gilliam leaves us with Black Humor when all along his theme had been gallantry and inquisitiveness. The guest stars have their fun, the midgets get back their divine employment. But Kevin is on his own in the world, with only a stack of postcards--enough to tell him he was there, to confront him with the brutal fact that he's back here.
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