Release Date(s)1981 (June 13, 2023)
Studio(s)HandMade Films (The Criterion Collection – Spine #37)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
Time Bandits may have been Terry Gilliam’s second film as sole director, but it was the first one where he really started to escape the shadow of Monty Python and announce himself as a filmmaker with his own unique vision. That statement may seem a bit ironic, since it was co-written by Michael Palin and has cameos from both Palin and John Cleese, but it’s still true. Monty Python and the Holy Grail had been a collaborative effort from the whole company, with Gillam and Terry Jones sharing directorial duties, while Gilliam’s follow-up Jabberwocky looked and felt like it took place in the same general setting as Holy Grail. Time Bandits left all of that behind in favor of fully embracing Gilliam’s untrammeled imagination—or at least it embraced it as far as the budget would allow, a theme that has haunted the director for much of his career. Gilliam would increasingly let his dreams exceed his financial grasp throughout the rest of the Eighties, eventually leading to the massive cost overruns on his notoriously expensive (but still utterly delightful) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Time Bandits, on the other hand, was produced for a relatively modest $5 million, but getting that much money still required the intervention of an old friend. George Harrison and his partner Dennis O’Brien had formed HandMade Films back in 1978 to help finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the success of that film created the nest egg that allowed the company to produce and distribute Time Bandits. Harrison served as executive producer, and also supplied the catchy song Dream Away for the closing credits. The HandMade Films dream would fade by the end of the decade, with the company in arrears and Harrison forced to sue O’Brien to recover some of his lost money, but the legacy of its memorable productions like Time Bandits lives on.
Like many of Gilliam’s fantasy films, dreams do indeed play an integral part in the story of Time Bandits. He has retroactively referred to Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as his “trilogy of the imagination,” but to varying degrees, they’re really portraits of illusion vs. reality—and in at least two out of the three films, they’re cautionary tales in that regard. The power of the imagination does offer some solace to their respective protagonists, but harsh reality often intrudes. Escape itself is an illusion, offering only temporary respite from the banality of modern life. Sooner or later, everyone is brought back to reality, often in painful fashion.
In Time Bandits, dreams offer young Kevin (Craig Warnock) an apparent means of escape from that life, as well as from the utter mundanity of adulthood that’s represented by his parents. They sit around all day watching game shows and lusting after the latest modern conveniences, with plastic on the furniture (to keep it neat and clean?). Meanwhile, Kevin’s dreams all revolve around the glories of the past, so when a hole through time opens up in his bedroom one night, leading him on a madcap journey through history with a diminutive group of self-described international criminals (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purvis, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, and Tiny Ross), it’s no surprise that he gets to meet some of his heroes such as Napoleon (Ian Holm), Agammemnon (Sean Connery), and a particularly effete Robin Hood (John Cleese).
Of course, even Kevin’s fantasies have a touch of unpleasant reality to them, since these so-called bandits are nothing more than disobedient servants of the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), and they’ve stolen his map of holes through time and space in a vain attempt to get stinkin’ rich. Unbeknownst to them, they’re really being manipulated by Evil (David Warner), who wants the map in order to escape the banality of his own prison, where even his servants are covered in plastic (although they’re anything but neat and clean). Kevin and his friends are just pawns in an eternal chess match between good and evil, although in this case, the Supreme Being is a befuddled old man, and Evil is a fool who can’t see past his own ego. Kevin, his friends, and his family end up being little more than collateral damage in a pointless struggle for dominance with no clear endgame. Kevin is a bright young lad and a survivor, so he’ll make it, but his world will never be the same, as Gilliam explained to Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic:
“(Time Bandits) is a reaction to modern fairy tales, a reaction against kid’s films which are wonderful but have no guts because they present children with false reassurance that everything will turn out all right. The boy does end up on his own, somewhat disillusioned with the world. Everything isn’t lovely, and you give your characters strength by having them experience some of the nastiness. I wanted to get back to Grimm.”
Time Bandits is indeed quite grim and nasty, from its biomechanical visions of Hell to the blood, sweat, and tears of its historical settings. Even the “real” environments that it presents are bleak and soulless. Time Bandits is ostensibly a comedy, but it’s one where the humor is appropriately black; it’s escapism that offers no real hope of escape, nor the means to achieve it. Yet Kevin will endure and move on with his life, disillusioned but still relatively intact. It’s impossible not to see Kevin’s story as an analogue for Gilliam’s own personal cinematic journey, with his extravagant dreams and visions constantly being brought back to harsh reality by those who hold the purse strings. Most of those battles would actually occur years after Time Bandits was released, but it still provides a metaphorical glimpse of that which was to come.
The world has always punished dreamers and visionaries, so Gilliam may have intuitively grasped what was in store for him. Yet he’s also a survivor, and however disillusioned that he may be by his own experiences, he’s still succeeded in bringing his distinctive visions to life. Everything hasn’t always been lovely for him—and to be fair, he deserves a fair share of the blame for that fact—but he’s managed to leave a remarkable filmography behind him. Time Bandits wasn’t his first film, but it was his opening salvo in demonstrating just how unique that his visions really could be. That’s why it still endures.
Cinematographer Peter Biziou shot Time Bandits on 35 mm film using J-D-C cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a 4K scan of the original camera negative, with restoration work performed by Silver Salt in England under Terry Gilliam’s supervision. A new High Dynamic Range grade was also created in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Time Bandits has always had a somewhat rough, gritty appearance, and that look is replicated perfectly here. It’s not the sharpest or the most detailed 4K presentation out there, but that’s mostly due to the limitations of the original cinematography. Biziou made frequent use of diffusion filters, and even when he didn’t, there’s enough smoke, dust and other atmospheric haze on display throughout the film that fine detail tends to be somewhat limited. Still, when things are clear, they’re very clear, with the textures of clothing like Kevin’s flannel robe or his striped sweater really standing out in a few shots. There’s no damage visible, and the moderate sheen of grain is managed well by the encoding. The biggest improvements in this version come from the Wide Color Gamut via the HDR grade, with colors that are slightly more saturated than in SDR, and many more subtle variations to the shadings. That’s most apparent in the rich reds of Randall’s suit, Agamemnon’s tunic, and Evil’s robe—they’re all beautifully saturated, but they never appear monochromatic. The same thing is true of the greens, especially in Sherwood Forest and in Robin Hood’s tunic. To put it another way, there’s not necessarily that much more textural detail on display, but there’s significantly more color detail. It’s a gorgeous transfer, and one that’s nearly reference-quality.
Audio is offered in uncompressed English 2.0 LPCM. Time Bandits was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel mix matrixed into two (please engage your decoder). It’s a pretty typical mix for early Eighties Dolby Stereo, so most of the sonic energy is focused on the front channels, with the surrounds being used during moments of action like when the cannons are firing during the Napoleon sequence, or during the battle with Evil at the conclusion. Deep bass is fairly limited, though there’s just a hint of rumble from effects like the Supreme Being’s astral projection voice. The score was by Mike Moran, with additional songs and source music provided by Ray Cooper, John Du Prez, Trevor Jones, and George Harrison. The Eighties synthesizers can sound a little weak at times, but the music is otherwise well-supported here.
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of Time Bandits is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. There’s a foldout booklet with an essay by David Sterritt on one side, and a reproduction of the time map on the other. There’s also a nifty slipcover that duplicates the artwork on the insert, but with a lenticular 3-D overlay on the front. Aside from the commentary track, all of the extras are on the Blu-ray only:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cheese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cheese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock
- Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits (HD – 23:24)
- Terry Gilliam and Peter Von Bagh (Upscaled SD – 79:39)
- Shelly Duvall (Upscaled SD – 8:46)
- Stills Gallery (HD – 25 in all)
- Trailer (HD – 3:10)
The commentary with Gilliam, Palin, Cleese, Warner, and Warnock was originally recorded for the 1997 Criterion LaserDisc of Time Bandits. (Seriously, Criterion, you can still include this one on new releases, but not the old LaserDisc commentary for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen?) Like many other Criterion commentaries from the era, the individuals were recorded separately and then edited together. This kind of curated commentary is less common these days, but it’s often more effective than group recordings where everyone has a difficult time staying on track. Gilliam still dominates, naturally, and he gives many interesting details like how the project happened because he had been trying and failing to get Brazil off the ground. The concept for Time Bandits came together in bits and pieces, with one idea leading to another until it all coalesced into a more or less coherent whole. Warnock talks more directly about his own experiences on set, while Palin focuses on the complex writing process and his own contributions to the script. He says that the final result was maybe 30% his stuff. Cleese and Warner’s involvement was of course much more limited, so they’re brought in to discuss their own scenes (although Cleese says that Gilliam and Palin allowed him to rewrite his own scenes a bit). It may be a vintage commentary track, but it’s a fine example of why Criterion’s approach back then could work as well as it did.
Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits is an examination of the look of Time Bandits, written and narrated by author David Morgan, featuring interviews with production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson. It traces the development of the characters through their costuming, especially in regards to the members of the bandit gang, and it also shows how the locations influenced the creation of the sets. Plenty of behind-the-scenes photographs and production artwork are included. Terry Gilliam and Peter Von Bagh is an extended conversation between the two that was recorded in 1998 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland. It’s an overview of his entire life and work up to that point, starting with his childhood in Minnesota, his experiences at school, and working with Monty Python, before finally settling into his film career. They step through his entire filmography up to that point, and while they don’t devote much space to Time Bandits, Gilliam is always an enthusiastic speaker and an energetic storyteller. Finally, Shelly Duvall is an excerpt from Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, recorded in 1981. She describes what it was like going straight from working in Malta on Robert Altman’s Popeye to the chaos of shooting Time Bandits, including the injury that she suffered when Giliam decided to demonstrate how he wanted the little people to fall on top of her during the Robin Hood sequence.
The good news is that all of the extras from Criterion’s previous Time Bandits releases have been included here, save for the Time Bandits Scrapbook that was on their original 1998 LaserDisc. The bad news is that there are a ton of extras available on other versions that aren’t included, most of them on Region B releases from Arrow, Optimum, Concorde, Koch Media, and Pandastorm. They offer a variety of different interviews with the likes of Gilliam, Acheson, Burns, Michael Palin, David Warner, and more. Some of them also include an episode from the television series The Directors about Gilliam, as well as a featurette about HandMade Films called The HandMade Story. The only North American release that included anything different than Criterion was the 2004 Divimax Special Edition DVD from Anchor Bay, which offered the episode of The Directors as well as an interview with both Gilliam and Palin. (That set was also the first one to include a booklet that also served as a fold-out map of time and space.)
Needless to say, if you have any of those other versions, you’re going to want to hang onto them for the extras alone. Yet the biggest omission here is something that simply doesn’t exist. Time Bandits could really use a comprehensive making-of documentary like the one that Constantin Nasr originally produced for the 2008 Sony Blu-ray release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. That’s not really Criterion’s fault, since Sony had far deeper pockets to produce documentaries like that, but Time Bandits still cries out for the deluxe treatment. Setting all of that aside, the extras that Criterion does offer are nice ones, and quality of this 4K presentation speaks for itself. It’s an essential upgrade for fans of Time Bandits, fans of Terry Gilliam, and film fans in general.
- Stephen Bjork