Written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Craig Warnock: Kevin
David Rappaport: Randall
Kenny Baker: Fidgit
Malcolm Dixon: Strutter
Mike Edmonds: Og
Jack Purvis: Wally
Tiny Ross: Vermin
Sir Ralph Richardson: Supreme Being
David Warner: Evil
John Cleese: Robin Hood
Sean Connery: King Agamemnon
Ian Holm: Napoleon
Michael Palin and Shelly Duvall as recurring characters named Vincent and Pansy
It's time for the Celluloid Zeroes to talk about whackadoo children's movies, and additionally about movies that can be put on the "How I Got This Way" checklist as either signposts for nerd parents that want their kids to grow up with an appreciation for the finer things in cinema, or as biohazard signs warning people to keep their children 150 yards from these movies at all times.
Watching this movie made me the only David Warner fan in DuPage County with an age in the single digits, so I'll let you decide for yourself what kind of signpost should be up about this flick.
When I was six years old, the family went to see a movie featuring some actors my parents probably heard of but I, of course, didn't know who John Cleese or Sean Connery were (it's at least possible that I may have known that Kenny Baker was the performer inside the R2-D2 shell in the Star Wars movies in 1981, but odds are I learned that later on). I have no idea what Mom and Dad were expecting but I got a movie that was hilarious and terrifying, often at the same time. And it also made no real attempt to define anything as fictitious--when God (excuse me, the "Supreme Being") and Napoleon are characters in your movie and both are treated exactly the same by the cinematography (as well as Robin Hood, the Devil, a 600 foot tall giant, cowboys and knights in shining armor)...well, that's a lot for a first-grader to absorb.
I remember wanting to see that movie again the minute it was over, and getting my first taste of what it means to be in the cult for a movie when other kids at school who saw the movie thought it was stupid and that I was wrong for liking it. Terry Gilliam, of course, went on to direct milestones of science fiction cinema like 12 Monkeys and Brazil, so it looks like I was right all along. Or at least it looks like a focus group made up of randomly selected six and seven year olds in the brass buckle of the Bible belt might not be the best ones to judge the quality of a movie. Or it could be that even when I was too young to know for sure that Godzilla wasn't real, I was still a complete mark for a director whose vision was as bent and idiosyncratic as Terry Gilliam's.
(I am not 100% sure that Godzilla isn't real now, and I'm 41 as of this writing.)
The first image that the viewer sees is a map of the universe with alchemical symbols and writing that looks like it might be Sanskrit or Enochian; various dotted lines connect rings of symbols on a field of deep blue as the camera falls into the map. It's a three-dimensional depiction, with some of the circles moving faster than others and suddenly a grid of bright white squares slams over the navigational chart, stopping the motion of the camera and the title comes up with one letter inside some of the individual squares. Looking at it now, I think a couple of things: One, it's like seeing a rational framework imposed on the sequence's chaotic and mystical look at the world, in some ways prefiguring Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle; two, this movie gets to its opening titles almost as fast as RoboCop.
The view plunges down through the cosmos to Earth, and then to a suburban neighborhood in England where a mother and father boredly watch television while their ten-year-old-or-so son Kevin reads a book (and is facing away from the idiot box as he reads, which is a bit of staging that is almost certainly intentional). There's a "kitchen centerette" advert playing that promises a full meal from frozen block of ice to piping hot delicious meal in fifteen seconds. Kevin's much more interested with his history book (admittedly, one pitched to a grade-school readership) with its lists of combat skills needed by ancient Greek warriors. His father isn't paying attention in the least to his excited declarations of all the different ways hoplites could wreck the shit out of their opponents, and sends his son off to bed when his digital watch beeps out an alarm.
It may not surprise readers of this blog that Kevin stays awake in his room reading past his bedtime (an experience that I was familiar with, even at age six) but nobody watching the movie or reading this review has ever had a knight in full armor charge out of his clothes wardrobe on horseback. Probably. The horse leaps over Kevin's bed and charges away into a forest that wasn't there seconds ago (where a bedroom wall should ordinarily be expected to stand) and the air is filled with some kind of unearthly shriek. Kevin dives under his covers and when he's brave enough to take another look around his bedroom is in perfect condition again (it's a mess, but not a mess sitting in the middle of a forest and the wardrobe doesn't have a gigantic burst-out hole in it).
Well, that gets Kevin's father's attention, sure enough ("What the hell is going on up here?"). He demands that Kevin stop making noise, turn his light out and go to bed. Which is actually pretty reasonable as well as proof that Kevin didn't dream whatever it was that just happened (and now that I'm looking at this with more hindsight than I did in the theater--a wardrobe that's a portal to magical adventures? Looks like this is going to be Terry Gilliam's Narnia film).
The next day, Kevin tries to get permission to go to bed early (which is denied, but neither of his parents notice his absence while they're half-watching a game show called "Your Money or Your Life", where a contestant's husband is apparently drowned in a giant vat of custard when she misses a question--I remember this semi-inexplicable scene horrifying me when I was a wee sprat and it's still pretty weird now). Kevin sneaks a flashlight and a Polaroid camera into his bedroom, apparently planning to document whatever it was that was happening and almost drifts off to sleep when a toy robot on his cluttered-as-all-getout floor starts to move around on its own. Then, when he's actually out cold, creaking noises emanate from his wardrobe and the door opens from the inside.
Instead of a knight charging out and making enough noise to get his dad's attention, it's six dwarves sneaking quietly out into Kevin's bedroom. They're dressed in wildly different outfits (one's in professorial tweed, one has a Viking helmet and one's got World War I-style airman's goggles and a red jumpsuit) and they have a whispered conversation about whether or not they've eluded their pursuer, whoever that is. They also mention that Kevin's bedroom isn't on "the map", which means they're lost (just as that knight probably didn't expect to wind up in a suburban bedroom 600 years or so in his future). When Kevin turns his light on the group of dwarves yell and try to flee, but there's not a heck of a lot of room to move in a kid's bedroom.
At least two of the dwarves are packing heat, and the one in the airman's goggles drops his gun and surrenders, calling Kevin "sir" and claiming that they can explain everything. Kevin, naturally confused, asks who they are and the dwarves respond by saying that the person pointing a flashlight at them can't be "him", whoever that is, if he doesn't know who they are. They immediately dogpile on Kevin and pummel the poor kid. All the intruders want to know is how to get out of Kevin's bedroom and he doesn't have any idea--after all, he's got no idea how they all got in there. After some threats and shoves, Kevin's got his back literally to the wall and Randall, the leader of the gang, pushes him just a little further.
And the entire wall grinds and moves back about a foot and a half, revealing a corridor with the same wallpaper as the rest of Kevin's room that either just popped into existence or was there all along. Randall says that's got to be the way out and attempts to to marshal his forces into pushing the wall far enough out of the way that they can leave. Unfortunately, Randall, Strutter, Wally, Og, Vermin, and Fidgit are complete idiots and barely get out of their own way in order to get a move on. They take so long in trying to get down the instant hallway, in fact, that whoever it is they were trying to get away from tracks them down, appearing as a floating head surrounded by brilliant white light and thick fog. The head pursues them, intoning in a sepulchral voice for the dwarves to return the map they stole from him. Kevin, terrified of this apparition, beats feet with the six dwarves and helps shove his bedroom wall down the hallway until the septet shoves the wall into empty space and plunges into a bottomless pitch-black abyss. Well, at least they got away from the giant floating head.
What looked to be a plunge into an endless void turns out to be something much weirder--a rectangular aperture opens in the sky above a rural stone farmhouse, and Kevin and the dwarves fall out of the sky and land near some geese. Randall commands everyone to take cover in a conveniently nearby barn so they can reconnoiter and see if the floating head found them. It looks like they're okay for the time being, and Randall pulls a map out of his satchel to see where they are. Fidgit clues Kevin (and the audienece) in to one thing, at least--the floating head was "the Supreme Being", not any mortal man. ("You mean God?" "Well, we don't know him that well. We only work for him.")
While Randall takes another look at the map, Kevin runs out of the barn to get away from the half dozen lunatics that have shanghaied him out of his boring life and into existence as a fugitive from God. Turns out that the first people who hear him crying for help don't like Englishmen (or boys); it's a trio of French cavalry officers in Napoleonic uniforms. They decide to leave rather than slash Kevin to death and gallop off into explosions, flame and smoke. A column of fleeing wounded refugees take up the road after the cavalrymen ride off, and one of them is kind enough to tell Kevin that he's near the town of Castaligione, which is currently being sacked by Napoleon himself. The dwarves haul Kevin out of the refugee line and Randall points to a spot on the map labeled "1796"; it looks like he's got a guide to travel in time as well as space.
Randall and his crew want to get into the city, but the roads are packed with refugees or soldiers, and both groups are targets for artillery crews so it's far too dangerous to get to Castiligione that way. Instead they appropriate a rowboat and sneak into the city under cover of darkness and war. Kevin naturally wants to know why they're going towards the danger, and Fidgit explains that he's part of a band of internationally famous criminals. Napoleon's sacked the city, and that means lots of portable wealth is going to be in one big pile. The six Temporal Robbers are going to scoop up as much of that stuff as they can carry and make a run to another time hole. Napoleon and his entire army can search for years without ever finding them; it's actually an extremely audacious plan.
Conveniently enough, Napoleon is taking a moment for himself during the war, watching a Punch and Judy show in a semi-ruined theater. Also conveniently enough, he (and everyone else Kevin and the Time Bandits encounter) will be speaking 20th century English. So when the puppeteer dies on stage thanks to an errant bullet (another scene that horrified me when I was six) Napoleon throws a snit fit and wants to see more "little things hitting each other". When none of the other acts at the theater meet with the military genius' approval (they're all too tall for Napoleon to enjoy), the dwarves offer to do a quick musical number to entertain the general. They're not too bad (although "Me and My Shadow" isn't going to be written for another 150 years or so), but their own natural belligerence and quick tempers mean that the song and dance number collapses into a six-man beatdown after someone's dance moves accidentally make contact with somone else's head.
The theater manager is ready to hang himself with the curtain ropes when Napoleon himself comes backstage to congratulate him. He thinks that musical performance is the best thing that's happened to him since he decided to take over Italy, having mistakenly believed everyone there to be really tiny. He shouts down and sacks his long-suffering staff officers when they try to get his attention back to the war he started, and invites the singing and dancing troupe to be his new generals. I am not certain how he got the reputation for genius in this particular world, because he's petulant and dismissive on a level I wouldn't associate with a political leader until about 2000 to 2008 in America.
Napoleon drinks himself into a stupor while complaining about various other historical badasses who were shorter than him; outside in the cold, his former general staff shivers in their long johns. Once he finally passes out, Randall dispatches Strutter to find the nearby time hole (which will only be around until midnight), and everyone else packs as much coin and ornamentation as they can into a tapestry. The time hole opens up just as Og twists Napoleon's gold prosthetic hand off (NOTE: I spent a comically long time thinking that was the reason Napoleon kept his hand inside his jacket in all those paintings after seeing this movie; thanks for nothing, Terry Gilliam). The dwarves have less than a minute to get past Napoleon's loyal but dismissed soldiers with a giant clanking sack of their commander's worldly goods and it's a narrow thing, but they do make it into the time hole just before it shuts. It is, of course, the fired officers who have their commander's best interests at heart and who lead the charge against the bandits. But when they get to the time hole it closes and they all just bump into each other in an alley.
Five centuries or so earlier, in Sherwood Forest, a nobleman named Vincent and a lady named Pansy are talking about their future lives together (along with references to a "personal problem" of Vincent's that has cleared up and him not having to wear "the special..." thing that is not ever actually defined; when I was six, that all sailed miles over my head). Their kiss is interrupted by seven time-traveling criminals that fall into their coach and cause its destruction. Vincent and Pansy run for it while the dwarves and Kevin figure out where and when they are--unsurprisingly, Kevin knows more about the clothing of medieval England than the dwarves do.
It turns out that the brazen theft of Napoleon's stuff was the first time out for Randall's crew, and Kevin asks to join them (more out of a sense that he'll be able to see things he's only ever read about than out of a desire to take stuff from people with impunity, and good for him). While the other dwarves gather up all the coins, goblets, jewelry and trinkets that fell out of Vincent's coach Randall explains that he and the other bandits stole the map to all of creation from the Supreme Being. Creation, according to Randall, was a dauntingly massive job to put together in just seven days so God used a lot of subcontractors to make little things like ferns and trees while he was working on dividing the waters from the firmament, giving life to the first man and woman, and instilling to capacity for good and evil in his creation. After Og designed a six-hundred-foot-tall tree that smelled awful, the entire greenery department was busted down to the maintenance department and told to patch up all the fraying threads in the fabric of Creation. Instead of doing that, they swiped the map and ran off to fill their pockets to their six hearts' content.
Kevin takes a picture of the six dwarves with his Polaroid (with Randall brandishing the map and everyone grinning proudly) when they hear Pansy yelling "Help! Robbers!" Wally thinks that's a request for robbers to show up and the crew rushes off to see what they're needed for. Vincent and Pansy have been tied to a tree and robbed blind; Kevin and the dwarves walk right by them to follow the huge scary dudes who took Vincent's stuff. All seven of the bandits walk into a snare trap and wind up hanging upside down while some distinctly scabrous and frightening-looking Merry Men want to know what's up with them, as it were. Randall says he's the leader of a gang of horrible robbers and the Merry Man decides to take them all back to meet the boss.
Back at the Merry Men's hideout, there's all kinds of Terry Gilliam-style slapstick (the first two robbers we meet are arm-wrestling; one tears the arm off the loser and throws it on a wheelbarrow full of severed limbs. Yes indeed, six-year-old Tim freaked out at this scene as well). There's also a group of men target-spitting at some frying pans (and the bandits), and a general aura of squalor and filth to the point where you can practically smell the pre-Renaissance BO in the camp. The whole crowd of degenerate thieves falls into terrified silence when the boss finally shows up, and...
...it's John Cleese acting like a genteel upper-crust snob forced to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. He's also wearing a spotlessly clean costume of frilly green velvet over a perfect white tunic--the disparity is amazing. I didn't notice for years how goofily huge his Robin Hood hat is as well. He winds up looking like a ridiculous cartoon. The upper-crust twit is deeply impressed with the haul that the bandits have brought to his camp and can't wait until he gives it all away to the poor. You can practically hear the mental "...Wait, WHAT?" from Randall once it becomes clear that Robin Hood will be taking all of the gang's ill-gotten gains and distributing them to the impoverished people in and around the greater Sherwood Forest metropolitan area. But the bandits are surrounded, outnumbered and completely cowed by the
Randall decides to leave the Merry Men since they're just going to take all their stuff, and during a thunderstorm (passing Vincent and Pansy, still tied to the tree). Fractures in the band's leadership structure manifest themselves, and while everyone other than Kevin squabbles in a mud puddle over who's going to get the map, the scene shifts to a scrying pond in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil is looking at the bandits and plotting to take their stuff. And this is where I became a David Warner fan for life (Hi, Mr. Warner, on the extremely minor chance that you're reading this. You are the best.)
Evil is stuck in a dingy industrial space with his minions, who are a bunch of thickheaded middle-aged and older louts in protective plastic clothing. Whenever one of them says something that Evil doesn't like (which is often) he zaps them with lightning from his hands, destroying the henchman in a fit of pique. Which is right and proper for a mastermind, because hench are a dime a dozen.
I should point out here that Warner isn't playing Evil as "the devil", although he's wearing flowing red robes and is explicitly described as a creation of the Supreme Being. He's Evil. That means that he is short-sighted, brutal, cruel, subtle, devious, witty, egomaniacal and obsessed with proving his place in the world--which, to him, is "in charge of the whole shooting match". He claims that he created himself and that he's all powerful, so you can add "deceptive" to that list of adjectives I listed a line or two farther up in this paragraph. Of course, one of his hench asks why he can't escape the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness if he's really all-powerful (and of course all the remaining peons shuffle away from that guy as he asks the question, because they know what's coming). Evil claims that he's hanging out with his coterie of bozos because he wants the Supreme Being to think he's safely locked away. But if he gets his hands on the map, he'll have the ability to go anywhere he wants, at any time. And that means a universe made over in Evil's technophilic image ("I would have started with lasers. Eight o'clock, day one!"). And he does have at least a glimmer of a point, in that the Supreme Being came up with three and a half dozen different types of parrot. Are they all truly necessary?
While Evil's ranting about his future of a world where everything's part of a massive mechanical construct his minion Benson spots the bandits and Kevin with the map. After vowing a horrible torture for his follower if the guy's wrong about anything, Evil decides to get the bandits' attention by mentally dominating Og, the dimmest of the crew. Speaking through Og, Evil tempts the bandits with the promise of "the most fabulous object in the world", and everyone but Kevin thinks that sounds like a really cool thing to have. But before a vote can be taken about whether or not they should go get whatever the most fabulous object in the world is, events force their hands. What Wally mistakes for a forest fire is something arguably worse for the crew as that giant floating head shouts at them to return the map before something bad happens. They bolt for a nearby time hole and find not one but two of them. Kevin gets to the site first and finds not one, but two time doorways. He runs through one that closes right behind him as the bandits struggle through the gale-force winds to get away from the giant floating head.
This has the function of returning the focus exclusively to Kevin, since he's been separated from the bandit gang and is now completely on his own. The time hole he ran through drops him off in ancient Greece (just like he was reading about at the start of the film). In fact, it's Kevin plummeting down from a hole in the sky that fatally distracts a minotaur that was winning a fight against King Agamemnon. The legendary actor that plays Agamemnon wound up in this movie thanks to a willingness to schedule the film around his availability as well as a joke in the screenplay that the original agent 007's agent heard about (something along the lines of "The king removes his helmet to reveal it is none other than SEAN CONNERY or an actor of equal stature that the production could actually afford"). After making short work of the minotaur, Agamemnon decides that the child who fell from the heavens and saved his life must have been sent by the gods. Therefore he should treat the boy with respect and gratitude, even if "Kevin" is not a name that sounds particularly divine. He rides back to Mycenae with Kevin in tow for a celebratory feast (and showing off the minotaur's severed head as a trophy).
This turns out to be a pleasant interlude for the boy, with crowds of admiring ancient Greeks cheering him (and their king, of course) as they enter the city. There's plenty to eat, no homework, and as many hyperviolent murals showing battles between hundreds of warriors as a kid could want. And in Agamemnon, Kevin finds a father figure that's supportive and interested in him, a complete 180 from his own loutish father back in England and several millenia in the future. And it's interesting that Kevin appears to be getting what he needs from this relationship rather than what he wants (he thinks learning how to swordfight would be brilliant; Agamemnon is more interested in showing off conjuring tricks to perhaps the one person in the city-state that won't excessively fawn over him). Kevin burns through at least a couple packs of Polaroid film capturing images of the city and tells the king that he wants to stay there rather than returning home to his real father and his friends. Well, Agamemnon assumes he's got friends but I'm betting a bookish ten-year-old did about as well in England in 1981 on that score as I did in 1985 in the suburbs of Chicago.
Agamemnon declares that the next day he'll make an official proclamation about whether or not Kevin's going to return home, although what anyone's going to do without the map of holes in time to restore him to his rightful place is anyone's guess. A pair of silent, golden-masked figures drag Kevin out of his bed and place him on a horse, leading him into Agamemnon's public audience chamber (and Kevin, like the viewing audience, has no idea if these guys are planning to kill him or not). It turns out that he's hit the jackpot--Agamemnon not only says that Kevin can stay in Mycenae, but that he's going to be adopted as the king's son and heir. Looks like Kevin picked the right time hole to flee through, though from the scowl on the queen's face when she hears that news (which Kevin and Agamemnon utterly fail to notice) he might want to invest in a couple guards and a food taster.
Speaking of food tasting, there is a celebratory banquet after the king's pronouncement complete with a troupe of masked and elaborately costumed dancers spinning and shaking their way through the throne room. Six of them, as it turns out, none of them taller than a child. Once their full-head masks come off Kevin recognizes his erstwhile gang, and shouts that he doesn't want to go when they drag him towards their heap of treasure "donated" by the guests at the banquet. They raise a tapestry up to shield themselves from the revelers' gaze and when it falls to the ground they've all vanished completely. It's Agamemnon who first figures out that they're not coming back, and the film cuts to smokestacks on a luxury liner in the Gilded Age before he can do more than stand up in shock. Like his arrival in Mycenae, it looks like Kevin got what he needed out of the bandits' arrival, not what he wanted.
On that luxury liner, incidentally, are another Vincent and Pansy, professing love to each other despite Vincent's nose (it's got a "thing on the end of it" in his words). Vincent's marriage proposal is fatally injured by six dwarves and a child landing on top of him and dislodging his toupee, the poor bastard.
But despite an inauspicious arrival, the bandits settle in for a pleasant sea voyage. They had enough gold and jewelry to pay for a ticket, it would appear, and the on-board tailor has fitted all of them out in perfectly tailored tuxedos. They all clean up quite well, as it turns out. But even with suits and bow ties and fresh-cut carnations in their boutonnieres the bandits are still greedy little jerks. But now they're greedy little jerks with a plan. Randall took a look at the map and found that the most fabulous object in the world really does exist, and its location is indeed listed on there.
It turns out that the ultimate treasure is hidden away in "the Time of Legends", which sounds like the right place for it. There's no time hole that leads to the legends though; you just have to believe in it strongly enough to get there. Randall also mentions that the most fabulous object in the world is stashed away in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, which means that Evil just has to hang out for a little while longer vaporizing the occasional henchman in a fit of pique until Randall and his gang bring the map to him directly. Kevin's not really sold on this plan (and is still sulking about getting kidnapped out of ancient Greece) but it looks like events are going to make his mind up for him quite soon. That luxury liner of the Gilded age they're all sailing on? It's the Titanic. Incidentally, the lifesavers in the movie have "S. S. Titanic" painted on them, but the actual ship was the RMS Titanic. This also makes the James Cameron blockbuster the second movie to have both David Warner and the Titanic sinking in it.
There's nothing like clinging to a scrap of wreckage in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic to make people get over their misgivings, and the seven members of the group decide to believe their way into the Time of Legends as opposed to dying in a shipwreck. Og's the one who tells everyone that it's time to start the quest (but Evil's voice is overlaid on the soundtrack when he talks) and the group gets sucked down a whirlpool of Evil's making as they start believing their way into the place they need to get to. They wind up falling up into the sky while the film is reversed (a low-budget but neat way to show that things are different where they've gone) and find themselves bobbing on alien tides as a pirate ship floats near them.
The ship turns out to be crewed by a seven-foot tall snaggle-tusked ogre and his wife (who was supposed to be in extensive makeup until the actress convinced the director that it would be funnier if she was just a perfectly ordinary person married to the ogre). In keeping with Terry Gilliam's bent sensibilities, the monster and his wife are a perfectly happy middle-aged couple devoted utterly to each other. Their domestic bliss is interrupted when the ogre casts a net out into the sea to catch his dinner and winds up with six dwarves and a child on the deck of his boat. The ogre's got a bad back ("I grew too fast when I was younger", he complains) so he can't do much more than roar at the dwarves when he tries to terrify them, but that turns out to be quite sufficient until the ogre inevitably throws his back out picking up Kevin.
Kevin's gotten better at thinking fast since he got dropped out of his bedroom and into an adventure and he tells the ogre (who turns out to be named Winston) that if he and the dwarves stretch his limbs out it'll fix his back. That even turns out to work, but the main thing Kevin wanted to do was get the ogre on his back while he and the dwarves grab his limbs. Winston and his wife are rather easily outwitted, as fairy-tale monsters are, and after the ogre coughs hard enough to fill the boat's sails the crew makes their escape. Everything looks like it's going well for once until the ship runs aground on something that lifts it into the air. Which turns out to be a giant so huge that it doesn't notice the ship on its head as it stomps off onto the shore (an amazing image on the big screen, and pretty great even just on television).
The scene with the giant, incidentally, is one of the more Pythonesque bits in the film. In the Monty Python's Flying Circus television show Terry Gilliam's job was to link the various sketches together in each episode with his trademark cutout animations. Here in the film each previous vignette ended when the Time Bandits had to put on their boogie shoes and flee the giant floating head, but this time it's the giant striding along that gets them away from the ogre and on to the next section of the narrative. And that's certainly random and surreal enough to be a Terry Gilliam linking animation, even if it is in real life.
The episodic nature of the film can also be explained by the fact that two of the Monty Python troupe wrote it--it's the sort of thing that would make up an episode of their show. Other than having the continuing group of characters in Kevin and the dwarves, I can certainly imagine that an episode of the Flying Circus would make fun of Robin Hood one moment and have Satan griping about how God put nipples on men for no reason in another. It's the through-line of Kevin's adventures that makes the narrative cohere, although how many acts the screenplay is using and in what order they are is an open question.
The bandits try to figure out a way to stop the giant, and the best they can come up with is prying up the planks in the bilge and hitting the giant's exposed head with a mallet. Of course he doesn't even notice that, and it's up to Kevin to think of something again. The ogre had a bunch of patent medicines and pharmaceuticals to deal with the infirmities of middle age--among them is a gallon jar full of sleeping potion. Filling a fireplace bellows with the knockout elixir and using it as an improvised hypodermic needle means that after a slight stinging sensation on his scalp, the giant wants to take a nap. One he lies down it's a simple matter for everyone to bail out and make their way towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.
Somewhere in a gravelly wasteland where the map indicates the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is supposed to be (but where nothing's visible to the horizon in every direction, the crew walks straight into an invisible barrier. ("Oh! So that's what an invisible barrier looks like!"). Nobody figures out how to breach it until an argument with Randall turns more violent than usual; he throws a skull at Wally when his subordinate takes the map and the barrier shatters, leaving a hellishly jagged mountainscape filling the screen while the fragments of the barrier show an empty stone desert stretching off impossibly at the same time (this one shot, more than anything else in the film, proves that Terry Gilliam was going to have one hell of a career in fantasy and science fiction cinema).
The group is suitably awestruck at the sight in front of them and proceeds towards the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, a slate-grey castle made of spikes and spires, and impossibly tall. The group tries to sneak inside, their minds on the most fabulous object in the world, when the gates slam shut behind them and trap everyone in Stygian darkness. A dazzling spotlight illuminates the subject of the group's quest off in the distance and the stone maze they have to traverse is another staggering vista made possible by a matte painting and Terry Gilliam's outsized imagination.
It turns out that the most fabulous object in the world is actually just that kitchenette that Kevin's parents barely paid attention to on that game show in the first five or ten minutes of the movie--which is nothing that he's impressed with, but Randall and company sprint off to find their way through the maze to get to it. None of them listen to him when he tries to explain that it's got to be a trap, but when he sees his own parents behind the MC he knows for sure that it's got to be some kind of illusion.
Not that it helps anyone when Evil snags the map from Randall. Kevin, even though he wasn't dumb enough to run right into Evil's power, gets captured by a shrieking black-cloaked figure with a horse skull for a head and joins the dwarves in an iron cage that's hanging by a rope above a massive black abyss, with darkness as far as anyone can see in any direction, including up--another striking yet simple image from Gilliam and his production designers. Incidentally, one way to make the space look even bigger than it was? Having some of the other model cages built half-size so they look farther away from the cage the protagonists are in. With nothing other than a black void on the screen, it's impossible to accurately judge the distance between things.
Moping in the cage and reflecting on the fact that Evil's going take over the universe, Kevin sorts through his pictures and spots the one of everyone holding up the map. Which means he's got at least a cruddy copy of the map that can get him and the bandits anywhere in time and space. And, happily enough, there's a massive time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. All they have to do is figure out some way to get from one cage to the next and work their way back to the fortress (and then defeat Evil and get the map back, but first things first). The plan involves picking the lock on the cage door with a knife Kevin appropriated in his adventures and then slicing strands of rope from the gigantic knot securing the cage. Tying the rope around Strutter's waist, he becomes a living grappling hook on a pendulum and eventually grabs on to the next cage. Now he's got to hang on while Wally swings to the next cage and serves as an anchor for the rope so each of the bandits can slide to safety. It's an ingenious plan, and shots of the rapidly fraying rope atop the original cage show the audience how little time and how much risk is involved in carrying things off. The sequence is almost wordless as well, showing rather than telling as each phase of the plan is carried out.
The plan succeeds and Randall is ready to find the gigantic time hole and run away; Kevin tells him that Evil's going to destroy everything if he keeps the map and it looks like the bandits have been changed by their exposure to Kevin because they immediately agree to go back into mortal danger to keep the map out of Evil's grasp. Right now Evil's coming up with a plan to "remake man in Our image, not His". While he's working on his plan, Evil turns one of his surviving henchmen into a dog and commands him to guard the map (correctly assuming that a dog would do a better job than the idiots he's been saddled with). As he walks off with another henchman explaining computers and nuclear reactors to him the dwarves sneak in along with Kevin and Benson, growling to warn Evil about the intruders, gets told to shut up by his master and then winds up distracted by a bone.
Og snags the map and chucks it at his compatriots, but gets found out and Evil zaps him, turning him into a pig-man. As the Time Bandits make a run for it Evil summons a shrieking cohort twelve foot tall, of horse-skull-headed demons that bash their way through solid stone while tracking down the intruders. But they're not the cleverest beings in the whole entire world and miss their quarry while searching. Kevin comes up with a desperate plan: Each of the dwarves other than Og (who can't talk while he's a pig) will dive into the gigantic time hole in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness and bring back help. Hopefully that'll be enough to defeat Evil. In order to buy time for this plan, Og and Kevin are going to stick around in the fortress and distract the forces of Evil.
After Kevin yells at the demons to get their attention in an insanely reckless charge, he turns a corner and comes face to face with the glowering form of Evil. Surrounded and outnumbered, he still refuses to hand over the map (and even threatens to burn it after swiping a torch from a conveniently close and slow minion). Evil incinerates all of his forces and blasts Og when the half-pig tries to run, then swipes the map from Kevin when he's distracted by that. His face glowing red, Evil advances on Kevin when a tank busts through the wall with Randall in command. A quartet of knights in shining armor, a squadron of Roman archers, a spaceship piloted by Wally and a trio of cowboys all join in as well, and each one is made short work of by Evil as they attack.
The cowboys are flung over the walls of the fortress to fall into the abyss while Evil flicks the arrows back at the archers with universally fatal results. The knights charge in and Evil puts on a gas mask as evil yellow smoke billows around him (which is almost certainly a comment on mechanized warfare of the Twentieth Century and its total disregard for the laws of chivalry). The horses get out of that boondoggle but the knights all wind up spitted on their lances and wind up looking like a macabre piece of modern art. The tank and spaceship are taken over by Evil (who laughs about how machines are his to control) and Fidgit doesn't survive the attempt to take Evil down.
I should point out here that knights, soldiers, cowboys and spacemen are all the kinds of heroes a grade school boy would have (and the archers are also the kind of thing a bookish history buff would know about); there have been several hints over the running time of the film that all the adventures are taking place in one fantastically detailed dream of Kevin's--for one thing, everyone he meets speaks English that Kevin can understand, which doesn't seem too likely in Sherwood Forest or in ancient Greece. The tank, the knights, the spaceship and everything else he's encountered so far can be glimpsed either on the incredibly cluttered floor of his bedroom or on the wall that he and the dwarves shove down an impossible hallway to get away from the Supreme Being at the start of the film.
Speaking of the Supreme Being, he's the only thing that could possibly stand between Evil and the destruction and blasphemous recreation of the entire universe now that Evil has the map, so it's a good thing for the surviving (and human-shaped) protagonists that he petrifies Evil and ends the threat more or less effortlessly. Randall and his compatriots scoop up all the fragments of Evil they can find (after a hint from their boss, God, that they should be doing that). While they're busy picking up chunks of charcoal in the shape of a David Warner statue the Supreme Being restores Og to his normal shape and Fidgit to life. Because, after all, he has powers even greater than Evil does and also because those stone fragments aren't going to pick themselves up.
While the dwarves are busy putting all the chunks of carbonized Evil in a post box (where the British postal service can apparently be trusted to ensure that it will never be seen by anyone else, ever again) Kevin gets his travel-demolished clothes back from the Supreme Being--who, in a charmingly fussy detail, makes the boy sign for them before handing them over. But Kevin's not satisfied with the conclusion of his adventures, and takes the Supreme Being to task for all the people who just died in a futile attempt to defeat Evil. He winds up asking the ultimate question (and one that marks the intellectual development from a child to an adult as far as I'm concerned): Why is there such a thing as Evil in the world, if the Supreme Being that created everything is supposed to be benevolent?
And the film doesn't put any remotely convincing words in the Supreme Being's mouth when he gets asked. First he ducks behind a pillar to avoid engaging with Kevin and then steps back out to say "I think it's something to do with free will". Forget the ogre married to a middle-aged British woman and the arm-wrestling match that tears someone's limb off every time they lose; that line of dialogue is the most twisted thing in the film, and viciously unsuitable for a child to overhear. I'm indebted to Gilliam on a level I can barely articulate for having heard it when I was too young to process what it meant.
Randall and company are all punished by the Supreme Being for running off with his map and stealing things by getting demoted as well as a pay cut "backdated to the dawn of time" but considering what kind of things the old man did to smite anyone that looked at him cross-eyed in the Old Testament they got off lucky. And as for Kevin, he gets restored to his bedroom in a cloud of smoke that could either be a reference to the pillar of white smoke that gets sucked up into the sky with the dwarves and the Supreme Being in it (another really cool looking thing that Gilliam put in the movie) or the billowing yellow smog emanating from a loaf-of-bread sized fragment of Evil that everyone overlooked while cleaning up.
The smoke follows Kevin to his bedroom, where a fireman smashes down the door and hauls him out of his bed while flames billow in the hallway. Outside his parents are arguing about whether or not to run back into the inferno to rescue their toaster (mom votes for it; dad's against the idea). Kevin's still got his satchel with him, though, and inside it are a series of Polaroid photos featuring daily life in Mycenae, a group of eclectically dressed dwarves holding up the map of all the frayed spots in time and space, and everything else he captured for posterity on his journey. Oh, and the fireman that grabbed him up and yanked him out of mortal danger? He looks pretty familiar to the boy.
But there's still one last jolt coming. The toaster oven was apparently running all night and whatever was inside it started the house-destroying fire. What's left inside it now is a carbonized lump a little larger than a closed fist that's emitting a foul-looking yellow smoke. A very, very familiar-looking yellow smoke. Kevin shouts to his parents that it's evil and they shouldn't touch it...and, well...they really should have listened to their son for once. The firemen drive off and Kevin looks like he's got the real adventure ahead of him, with no help from anyone to get him where he's going. Congratulations, kid, you just grew up in a matter of seconds.
I adore this movie. I am an utterly biased reviewer. You should watch it and you should make sure your children, if you have any, see it when they're too young to process all the caustic wit and realize what Gilliam is really saying at the end. This film is one of the things I saw that was wrong for me, and I wound up desperately wanting more. I still do.
This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes' look at oddball movies pitched to children but possibly screamingly inappropriate for them. You know, for kids. The other entries in this roundtable are as follows:
Micro-Brew Reviews studies The Magic Serpent and draws several conclusions.
Psychoplasmics cracks The Gate open a bit to see what's on the other side.
Seeker of Schlock swings into view with Spider-Man.
The Terrible Claw Reviews puts on a referee shirt for Gamera Vs. Viras.
The Web of the Big Damn Spider counts up The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.