No single film helped shape my world view more than Time Bandits. It showed my visions of good and evil, and blurred the line between horror and wonder. When I first saw it, I must have been roughly the age of the protagonist, Kevin. Somewhere around eleven or twelve years old. And there was no cinematic adventure more wondrous – Napoleon, Agamemnon, cowboys, Robin Hood, the Supreme Being and Ultimate Evil, all drawn together in a way that made it seem possible for a kid to meet them all, if he just showed a little bravery. Being Terry Gilliam’s baby, with help from John Cleese and Michael Palin, it’s also wickedly funny.
I have never asked anyone else if they had this experience as a kid, but I assume many must have. Most nights before I went to bed, I would lie awake for a good long while, my eyes adjusting to the dark and drifting around the room to the different piles of toys and books. Silence is a reason for the imagination to wage war. At least in my case. Sometimes my model planes would fly. Or the globe would spin. Or the skirmishing soldiers I had laid out in front of the closet would pick up where they left off that afternoon. Or I would wait for whatever was hiding in my closet (I am still sure something was there, at least once or twice) to finally emerge and the story to start.
It wasn’t much different from Kevin’s messy room. I think we even had the same toy robot, one that walked and fired guns built into its chest, emanating a smell of burnt sulfur. When Kevin went to bed at the beginning of Time Bandits, he was doing the same thing I was doing. Except the things in his closet showed themselves. When Randall and his crew jumped out of the armoire, I was thrilled, scared, and amused all at once. And I wanted to go with them. Even, and maybe especially, when I saw who was after them.
It becomes clear that the Bandits are running from something, or someone, and they are smart enough to find a secret way out by pushing one of the walls in Kevin’s bedroom out of place. There is a mist forming, and they need to be somewhere else before it takes shape. That leaves them running down a corridor created by moving the wall, with a giant head made of blue and white light chasing them and demanding they return what they’ve stolen. That image was immediately seared into my personal lexicon of nightmares. When that wall pops off into the darkness, Kevin and his new acquaintances are somewhere just beyond reality, beyond the stories we’ve all agreed to tell about myth and history. And they have a map that allows them to go anywhere in time and space by finding the right portal.
There was a worldview here completely alien to what I’d learned at school or CCD classes. I knew the names, but the stories were changed. Here was Napoleon (Ian Holm), bored with the fierce battle raging around him and driven by a need to overcompensate for his height, to the point where he could only find entertainment in watching small people hurt each other. Cleese’s Robin Hood was a bully, and his “Merry Men” violent and dangerous. I had to reconcile the repulsion of an arm wrestler tearing the limbs off his opponents and tossing them into a pile while a crowd cheers with the fact that the whole scene was terribly funny. The battle in which we meet Agamemnon (Sean Connery) is as terrifying and ferocious as his desert landscape is beautiful.
Then after all of this history and pop culture, there was an ogre living in a ship strapped to the head of a giant roaming some fictional ocean. At that point in the film, absolutely everything was possible. Imagination was the only limit. That was exhilarating, yes, but also frightening, depending on your imagination. And I found I could imagine a lot.
Toward the end, Kevin and the bandits are lost in a hazy, indistinct landscape. When they hit an invisible barrier and are left with no options to move on, their frustrated banter turns to visceral hatred. Supposedly they are at the threshold of the Fortress of Ultimate Evil, but they might kill each other before they find it. In a rage, Randall tries to bash in his friend Wally’s head with a skull and winds up shattering the barrier. And there it is – the Fortress. Impossible larger, a world of gray on black, broken up by occasional clouds of smoke. It was unlike anything I’d seen, but I could conjure up what that place smelled like.
This is where Evil lives (played perfectly by David Warner). Kevin and his friends have to do battle with it to escape. And what does evil sound like? The announcer for a game show, apparently. Because that’s what Kevin, Randall, and the rest are greeted with. And the Bandits can’t resist the call of cash and prizes, even as Kevin pleads with them not to walk into the light. Evil was using something so pedestrian as a game show to lure the heroes and they were falling for it. In my head, I was pleading right along with Kevin. We could both see it. Why couldn’t the adults?
It’s a trap, of course, and brings Kevin, Randall, and the crew up against Evil himself, face to face. Good versus evil, pure and elemental. Evil is arrogant, and his crew is pitiful and stupid, but singular of purpose to destroy everything good.
But good always wins, right? That’s the message I got from every movie and TV show at the time. The Goonies beat the Fratelli gang. The A Team always beat the odds. Truth, justice, and the American Way. Just believe and all things are possible. Okay, so Evil just turned Og into a pig. And it doesn’t look good when Evil unleashes a gang of otherworldly creatures – long black robes and elongated cow skulls for heads and bony hooks for arms – to kill everyone. Okay, so there would be casualties. There had to be to make the victory seem more realistic.
Still, Kevin has a plan. He and the newly porcine Og will distract Evil while everyone else splits up and heads to the nearest portal to bring back reinforcements. And what a glorious holy shit moment when they arrive. Cowboys. Archers. A tank. A spaceship. Literally knights in shining armor. We (and I feel like I’m there somewhere, and anonymous Bandit) are gonna kick your ass, Evil, and in a few minutes, when we’ve dispatched you, we’re going to laugh about it, and maybe take a minute to solemnly mark our losses. Kevin is control of this. And he’s smart, principled. He’ll rise to the occasion. He’s the hero. Nothing beats the hero.
Then the hero is beaten. Thoroughly and decisively. One by one, Evil dispatches every last hero in a comically easy fashion. The cowboys dashed against the stone walls, the archers slain with their own arrows. The knights impaled on their own lances to form a macabre statue of the freshly dead. Horror and wonder are, to me, part of the same impulse. They both overwhelm the senses, they permeate the skin and head straight for your beating heart. I felt both as I had my expectations obliterated in that final battle scene. So much hope built up Never had I felt so much hope created and destroyed so efficiently.
The film has the most puzzling and literal deus ex machina. Just as Evil is about to claim victory, he just explodes. The giant head of the Supreme Being appears once again with the same imposing symphonic score and bright blue and white light. It’s gone from bad to worse. He’ll burn everyone in righteous fire. Except suddenly he’s an old English guy in a nice suit (Ralph Richardson). And he’s ordering everyone to clean up. When Randall apologizes for stealing the map, the Supreme Being tells him don’t be silly, everything had gone according to his plan. And when Kevin asks the Supreme Being why we need evil, he answers, distractedly, “I think it’s something to do with free will.”
This whole adventure might as well have been paperwork. Existence was perfunctory. The Supreme Being might have a more satisfying answer, but he either doesn’t care to give it away or he’s just misplaced it at the moment. And that’s it. Back to work Monday morning like nothing ever happens. That was comforting to me when I first watched it – the idea that good triumphs so easily. And that he’s a friendly old man, maybe a bit of a bumbler, but hey, he’s got a lot on his mind. After a couple of more viewings, it would dawn on me how much more sinister that is, especially considering the ending of the movie.
Kevin wakes up, back in his own bed, only to realize his house is burning down. He is saved by a fireman played by Sean Connery, with a wink that gave the impression that maybe all of this had happened after all. That would have been a fine place to end. But then Kevin sees his parents arguing over all of the appliances they couldn’t save and notices they are holding a toaster oven with the last bit of leftover Evil glowing inside. And when they touch it, they explode. And that’s it. The camera pulls back, the firetrucks leave, and Kevin is alone. Roll the credits.
This might have been my first unhappy ending. And I’ve been fine with them ever since. I’ve come to enjoy having my expectations denied. How to smile in wonder at scenes of inhumanity. And if the Supreme Being does exist, he’s likely not paying much attention.
One more element to this before I go. The ending song is “Dream Away” by George Harrison. That was around the era when the Beatles won me over to rock and roll after I’d rebelled against the more prevalent music with a steady diet of country and novelty songs. One more thing to hit me out of nowhere.