If you have children—or know some children—and you don’t want them to grow up to be sniveling little toady rats, here’s my advice: set their heads in front of Time Bandits and watch their brains explode with potential.
This isn’t a film that builds obedient monkey children. It’s a movie that seeds genius. It’s a compact nuclear weapon you can set off in your very own home!
Want to undo years of institutionalized robot training in under two hours? Time Bandits for the win!
Time Bandits had the most profound effect on me as a child, so I know of which I speak.
Time Bandits Basics
Napoleon: Little things hitting each other. THAT’S WHAT I LIKE!
Time Bandits is a PG-rated film written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam—both Monty Python alumni—and directed by Gilliam. It was released in 1981, when I was nine. My dad took me to see it at the cinema and I’ve not been the same since.
My brain got exploded. Hooray!
SB4MC’s Supreme Being (as distinct from the one in the film) grew up within biking distance of a cinema and he’s a year older. He saw Time Bandits five times during its first run. FIVE TIMES. And we’re talking here’s-my-money-I’ll-have-a-ticket-please five times not daaadddddyyyy-press-play-again-for-me-I’m-too-lazy-to-find-the-remote five times.
So if you’re concerned your sprog isn’t mature enough for a movie like this, ease the panic down a notch. While the film does have some scary bits in it, I wasn’t a stalwart kid and I only got as frightened as any kid oughta get regularly.
You know; so they harden the fuck up.
It is kinda scary though, sometimes. Time Bandits draws intensely vivid connections between fantasy and reality. And while what you see in the film is fantasy violence and threat, that on-screen danger feels present—because the things we imagine are just as important as what reality forces upon us.
So if imagination is something you place value in, you should already be convinced.
Time Bandits also does not sentimentalize a damn thing. You want pabulum, watch Avatar. You want cheery messages about how love will save the world (i.e. bullshit) Terry Gilliam is not your man.
Instead, this film reveals the secrets of the world via subtly integrated lessons. It provides a map to appreciating and surviving adulthood—but the adult world isn’t one that can be saved by love or anything else.
The adult world, frankly, cannot be saved.
Only something finished can be saved. Our world is chaotic and unstable and always in-progress. So all we can do is try to improve it.
Is that dark and heretical? Maybe. But it’s also honest. And if we can’t be honest with our children, then boy are they going to be screwed when they get to college and try to do a single constructive thing on their own.
So yes, Time Bandits may be unsparing philosophically, but it is concurrently completely hysterical. All of its big truth is wrapped in seriously engaging humor. Gilliam, Palin, and the film’s incredible cast work in everything from perfectly played physical comedy to droll social commentary to sotto voce in-jokes and asides (Robin Hood’s patronizing manner is based on the Duke of Kent, for example).
In the film, young Kevin (the excellently ordinary Craig Warnock*) gets swept up by his curiosity as personified by a band of small-statured heavenly underlings. These ‘Time Bandits’ have liberated a map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), which reveals all the places where creation remains untidy.
They plan to use these ‘time holes’ to get filthy rich.
If you haven’t seen Time Bandits, this article is going to reveal a lot of plot points. It will not spoil the movie, because a film this good can’t be spoiled.
Knowing your brain will explode does not make the surprise of your brain exploding any less touching.
Lesson One: Question Authority
Randall: Do you want to be leader of this gang?
Strutter: No, we agreed: No leader!
Randall: Right. So shut up and do as I say.
Obeisance is ghastly dangerous stuff. And as much as it may pain you to hear it, “No” is one of the best things a kid can learn to say. It is second in importance only to “why?”
Throughout Time Bandits, Kevin is faced with disappointing authority figures—parental, historic, and pseudo-religious. He does not kowtow to any of them. He never ceases to ask why and to make and trust his own decisions.
That is because Kevin is awesome. Just like your kid will be if he or she watches Time Bandits.
Kevin’s independence isn’t blatantly depicted, though. Do not make the mistake of thinking that anything in Time Bandits is a simple cypher for something else. This is a complex world, where imperfections and nuance hold sway.
Kevin doesn’t grab the mantle of leadership and save the world like some dope in Narnia. He just thinks about what he’s told and wants to know more when things don’t sound right—which is pretty much always.
Taking those small steps makes Kevin the most respectable person in the film. That’s the message; you don’t need magical parentage or a superpower to contribute to the world. You just need to question authority. You just need curiosity and confidence.
Boom! Head explode!
What would happen if Kevin did everything he was ordered to in Time Bandits? Well, he’d probably trust his television-addled parents and become the sort of loaf that dreams of nothing more than a new infrared freezer-oven complex and a two-speed hedge trimmer. When Randall and the rest of the Bandits bundle him off, he’d just glom onto their petty, materialistic dreams.
And petty, materialistic, and generally lousy are good adjectives for the Bandits. These little people were involved in the actual creation of the world (tree and shrub department) but nooooo, they thought larceny would be more exciting. They were not satisfied creating the world!
No, no, no. As amusing as their antics seem, the Bandits aren’t role models for anyone.** Randall (David Rappaport), Fidgit (Kenny Baker aka R2D2), Og (Mike Edmonds), Vermin (Tiny Ross), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), and Wally (Jack Purvis) are six men who quickly learn to respect Kevin—just an ordinary kid—because he’s unwilling to be led by the nose.
Picture how that situation looks to a child; instead of being ignored by your parents, you could be leading a gang of unruly adults!
All you need to do is develop some healthy authority issues.
And that’s part of the brilliance of Time Bandits. Kevin is living his dream, but it’s not a la-la-land fantasy. He learns through the course of the film that being in control isn’t easy, or safe, or even ever really in control. All one can do is continue to value his or her own opinions and hope for the best.
It’s overwhelming how empowering that message can be.
Time and again, Kevin watches authority figures, from his dimwitted dad to the Supreme Being himself, muck up and leave things in a hash. That experience doesn’t make him incapable of trusting or loving or giving. It just teaches him confidence.
Kevin learns that no one has the answer because the answer doesn’t exist.
Lesson Two: Slaughter Your Sacred Cows
Supreme Being: Is it all ready? Right. Come on then. Back to creation. We mustn’t waste any more time. They’ll think I’ve lost control again and put it all down to evolution.
Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon, etc. These men—the heroes Kevin has idolized on his bedroom wall—end up being as flawed as everyone else in Time Bandits. Why is this a good lesson for kids? Because idolization is a form of intimidation.
We’re not talking about discouraging children from looking up to real people; we’re talking about the idiocy of elevating individuals beyond the level of humanity.
No one, not golden age heroes, not giant monsters, not even god should keep your kid from thinking he or she is able to add value to the conversation. When we turn real people into icons, we’re essentially saying that perfection is possible. It isn’t. We know we’re not perfect. No one is.
Time Bandits slaughters the myth of the hero. Regardless of whether Kevin’s experience is dreamed or not (and it isn’t; dreams are real), through his adventure he skips through time, meeting all his heroes to discover that they’re only human—even, to a degree—the Supreme Being.
In Time Bandits, Napoleon (Ian Holm) turns out to be a drunk, irascible fool. Robin Hood (John Cleese) is a parody of the condescending, self-satisfied benefactor. Agamemnon (Sean Connery) may be good-hearted, but he’s easily swindled. Be too trusting and you’ll end up married to a Clytemnestra, suggests Time Bandits, with your crown and heir gone in a puff of smoke.
Let’s watch all the rich fools go down with the Titanic, too, huh?
Wally: I’ll stick with the quail’s eyeballs. Caviar makes me throw up, you know.
Power, wealth, honor, physical size, age—these things are not definitive indicators of wisdom or vitality. They are not the end goal.
Even the deities are flawed in Time Bandits. The Supreme Being and the Evil Genius (David Warner) both muck about like bureaucrats.
The Evil Genius thinks technology will allow him to rule the world, but he can’t admit that he’s part of something bigger than his own expansive ego. He’s sulky and quick tempered and ultimately vulnerable.*** No sense in letting Evil overwhelm you.
The Supreme Being—while powerful enough to raise Fidgit from the dead—only sees death as an excuse for being unproductive. In Time Bandits, god is concerned with paperwork and petty details, not the well-being of creation or its inhabitants. How’s that for a message in a kid’s film?
I’d say, “It’s perfect.”
If there’s a god, he’s got better things to do than care about you and your suffering.
Depend on yourself instead. You’re as heroic as anyone has ever been.
Lesson Three: Money Isn’t Everything
Kevin: The money wasn’t important to him.
Randall: He didn’t have anything to spend it on, did he? Stuck out in Greece. Lowest standard of living in Europe.
This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone—unless you’re a kid and you get a ton of your information from the television—but money and commercialism are just Evil’s means of control. Money is, in many ways, just the largest of the Sacred Cows we were busy slaughtering in Lesson Two.
In the film, the Bandits set out in search of wealth. Kevin, escaping his consumerist family, never really much cares about riches, though. He wants to hang out with Robin Hood even though he gives stolen loot away to the poor. Kevin wants to stay with Agamemnon not because he’s made heir to the throne, but because he’s valued as an individual there.
Agamemnon pays attention to him. That’s value.
All the thieving and collecting and lusting in Time Bandits comes to naught. In fact, the search for the Most Fabulous Object in the World turns out to be a trap. The Time Bandits bring their unique map to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness under the spell of greed. They literally scurry to hand the Evil Genius the key to his freedom.
The Bandits don’t see what they’re doing though. All they see is a fantasy game show, where the host (Jim Broadbent) promises what? A shiny new kitchen! The most fabulous object in the world is whatever is being sold, right now, to you, today!
Only Kevin sees through the ruse. Only Kevin understands that glitz and glamour are traps designed to unleash Evil upon the world.
And the irony of it all is that the Bandits have the most fabulous object in the world the whole time—the map itself. Who needs money or possessions when you have freedom and license to create?
Lesson Four: Your Job is Never Done
Randall: You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was a bit of a botched job, you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes.
Of all the lessons in Time Bandits, this is the most subtle and most important. It boils down to nothing more or less than motivation itself.
The message is, because nothing is finished, you are always needed.
You don’t blindly follow authority. You don’t honor things just because they’re disguised with respectability. You don’t care about wealth, either. You are here to explore and invent and contribute. There is no point at which you can dust off your hands, kick back, and hang a big “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Because life is never finished. Adulthood isn’t the answer; it’s just a bigger question.
And that is the most powerful secret that Time Bandits reveals to children. It says that it’s okay to be wrong, or incomplete, or to try and fail. It even says that it’s normal to not know what to do.
Adults aren’t sure what they’re doing most of the time, either.
Only the Supreme Being has anything resembling a clue, and he’s not squawking. The world is flawed on purpose. Not because god is stupid or fallible, but because he wants you to stay awake and involved.
Wally: Do you mean you knew what was happening to us all the time?
Supreme Being: Well, of course. I am the Supreme Being, I’m not entirely dim.
Kevin: Yes, why does there have to be evil?
Supreme Being: (Avoids the question; eventually) I think it has something to do with free will.
Not exactly the theological lesson many parents would frame for their progeny, but a powerful one. Essentially Gilliam is saying in Time Bandits that appealing to god is preposterous; god has left the world in our hands by design.
Do things for yourself. If they don’t come out the way you like, get back in there.
Kevin’s adventure starts because he’s brave enough to dream. His wonderment pushes him to continually strive. He never stops showing up. Without his dreams, there is no movie. There’s nothing.
But Kevin isn’t brilliant, or super-powered, or dashing, or even particularly successful. He’s just a kid who remains open and engaged—like you want your kid to be.
Evil Genius: God isn’t interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time: forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!
At the end of Time Bandits—even though the Supreme Being says he allowed everything to happen in order to knock Evil back a notch—one smoldering chunk of evil escapes. You can call it an error or you can call it free will.
Poor Kevin is sent home to his dreary parents. The oozing smoke of evil transforms Kevin’s dreams back into the reality of his house, now on fire. The transition is disorienting and disturbing. Waking from what might have been a dream, the boy finds himself under threat. Has he risked his life living in his imagination?
If so, it was worth it. For during his adventure, Kevin took giant strides towards adulthood.
Kevin learned to recognize Evil when he sees it. Evil is greed. It is inaction. It is subterfuge. He warns his parents not to touch the acrid miasma of wrong which tracked him home, but they don’t listen. They never do.
And the punishment for refusing to listen to your children? Death!
Just like that, Kevin’s folks explode. They’re gone forever.
Kevin is left alone in his nondescript British subdivision. The friendly fireman—Sean Connery again, and perhaps Agamemnon reborn—gives him a wink but then he’s off, too.
You’re on your own, kid.
Is it a tragic ending? Hell no. And why not? Because Kevin can get by without his parents. He’s grown up and learned what he needs to know: that he’s an essential part of an inherently flawed universe. Things will be hard, but things are always hard. That’s real life.
Plus, in his satchel, Kevin finds a Polaroid of the Bandits holding the map—proof of the unfinished nature of creation. Proof that his imagination is as potent a tool as one could hope to wield.
Hopefully he’ll grow up into the sort of person we need children to become. Maybe your kids will, too.
And maybe some of those kids will make us some brilliant movies to watch.
Until then, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for time holes.
* Craig Warnock tagged along to the Time Bandits audition with his older brother but ended up getting the part. Kevin is practically the only role Warnock ever played.
** The six Time Bandits may be inspired by the Pythons themselves as follows: unassuming Fidgit is Michael Palin; bossy Randall is John Cleese; bitter Strutter is Eric Idle; near silent Og is Graham Chapman; blustery Wally is Terry Jones; and the gross one, who’ll eat anything, Vermin stands in for Terry Gilliam.
*** And did you notice the facehugger on the back of his helmet? Ian Holm got the role of Napoleon after Gilliam saw Alien.