‘Time Bandits’: The Ever-Lasting Importance of Terry Gilliam’s Best Fairy Tale

“I wanted to do this whole film from a kid’s point of view, making a child the hero. But I didn’t think that a kid could carry a whole movie, so I decided to put a gang around him, people the same height, and off it went, it just sort of grew from that.” Terry Gilliam (still photographer: Clive Coote)

By Sven Mikulec

One of the most imaginative children’s movies we’ve ever seen was made in 1981 by the king of the bizarre, the grand maester of visual storytelling, the American odd man out in the Monty Python British lineup—the one and only, Terry Gilliam. With Time Bandits, the fantasy film he wrote with fellow Python Michael Palin, Gilliam created a classic that millions of people from all generations would return to gleefully in the years that followed. Time Bandits is truly a fairy tale, but in the tradition of the best ones, it’s a universally appealing story capable of satisfying the cinematic needs of people of all generations and from all walks of life, a film powerful enough to entertain children, but also completely envelop the adults that brought their family to the movies.

Considered by Gilliam as the first in his Trilogy of Imagination (followed by Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Time Bandits is a visually stunning tale of a dysfunctional society and the desire of individuals to escape it. As we follow an 11-year-old schoolboy and his six new dwarven friends in their journey through time, on which they encounter historical and mythical personalities such as Robin Hood, Agamemnon and Napoleon, we’re offered a unique vision of history decorated by instances of entertaining humor, as well as subtle social critique lending the movie an engaging and stimulating character that makes it enjoyable for the more serious members of the audience. On one level, Time Bandits is an exciting, unbelievable journey with fantastic set designs, heart-warming interactions and a bunch of heroes that effortlessly find their way to our hearts. If we scratch a little deeper, we realize Gilliam delivers a smart, cautioning commentary on a world obsessed with consumption and technology. But the commentary is given through eventful action in phantasmagoric landscapes, utterly generous to the eye and stirring the imagination chords in all of us. Time Bandits is, without a doubt, one of the best fairy tales ever produced in the medium of film, and as such proudly stands next to the very best classics of the genre like The Wizard of Oz and The Thief of Bagdad.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Michael Palin & Terry Gilliam’s screenplay for Time Bandits [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing Story of HandMade Films from Titan Books covers the whole story of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s production company, which started to fund Life of Brian and wound up funding Time Bandits, Withnail & I, and some other movie classics. Find out how it was that George Harrison wrote a song for the Time Bandits soundtrack full of lyrics demanding an apology from Terry Gilliam. —It’s a miracle that Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits even got made

The original continuity folder (script, polaroid photos & all) from Time Bandits.

Terry Gilliam’s original storyboards for Time Bandits.

Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin give an interview about Time Bandits.

This interview with Terry Gilliam is from the May 1982 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine. In it, he discusses his then-newest release, Time Bandits, his previous films/association with Monty Python, plans for BRAZIL and BARON MUNCHHAUSEN, and much more.

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Terry Gilliam, George Harrison, Denis O’Dell, John Cleese and Eric Idle discuss the making of Time Bandits, and whether Terry Gilliam is ever happy. From The Movie Life of George, a documentary about Handmade Films.

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits is as visually distinctive as it is hilarious and irreverent. This is thanks in great part to the brilliant work of costume designer James Acheson and production designer Milly Burns, who got to create realms both recognizably historical and completely fantastical for this time-travel story. In this excerpt from a new documentary on Criterion’s release of the film, narrated by writer David Morgan, Acheson and Burns talk about designing for Time Bandits and show off some of their original sketches. —The Designs of Time Bandits

Those given the task of publicizing Time Bandits when it came out in 1981 clearly had a great time doing it. Director Terry Gilliam’s time-travel fantasy was marketed as the wildly inventive, Monty Python–descended comedy that it is, as you can hear from these radio spots and see from the original theatrical trailer—a self-reflexive mini-movie all its own in which the narrator admits he hasn’t even seen the film. —Marketing Time Bandits

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Photographed by Clive Coote © HandMade Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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