Time Bandits (1981) and the Limits of Imagination – Retro Review

Terry Gilliam is a difficult filmmaker — stylistically, politically, personally. He’s divisive as he is beloved for movies like Brazil and The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits; he’s the living definition of an acquired taste. But as time goes on and he has more and more time to dig himself into a hole, the harder it becomes to judge his movies as something wholly separate from himself. The argument for judging an artist by their art and not by their actions and values fails when those unsavory actions and values actually inform the art, and when they become inextricable from the finished product.

Time Bandits is my dad’s favorite movie. It’s incredibly fun, thoughtful, and imaginative, documenting a magical world and a trip through time and space through the eyes of a young boy on his first-ever adventure. He encounters his heroes; he encounters drama and hardship; he encounters consumerism and authoritarianism, topics Gilliam confronts across so much of his work. Mostly, though, he has a good time with his friends, and he learns valuable lessons about loyalty and companionship. 

(As a quick sidebar, Time Bandits has one of my favorite end credits songs of all time. George Harrison, who also produced the movie, produced and performed “Dream Away,” which is just so much fun it absolutely warranted mention). 

I enjoyed watching it as an adult as much as I enjoyed watching it as a child. But I kept finding myself mentally returning to Gilliam’s recent interview with journalist Alexandra Pollard, where he went off on #MeToo and identity politics and facetiously declared himself “a Black lesbian in transition” to prove some kind of point about the apparent absurdity of greater, wider acceptance of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual identities. Why is it so easy for Gilliam to imagine a world where time travel exists, legendary figures are easily accessible, and a singular evil force controls all the evil of the universe, and so difficult for him to afford humanity to Black trans lesbians and other real people who really exist in the real world? 

Gilliam’s expansive imagination begins and ends with people who fit his own demographic profile. That’s a shame! Imagine a Time Bandits that is interested in exploring the history of a world outside of Europe (we might get to, if Taika Waititi’s series adaptation comes to fruition). Imagine a Time Bandits that cares about the non-white imagination. 

Movie fans who don’t fit Gilliam’s demographic profile have been imagining more inclusively for generations, through fan art, fan fiction, and simply just projecting their own identities onto audience surrogate characters like the ones in Time Bandits. But: a white dude is only an audience surrogate because a century of moviemaking has prioritized his stories. Children deserve to see a smart, thoughtful, entertaining impression of world history that is not so homogenous. 

Maybe I shouldn’t hold Time Bandits accountable for actually encompassing the whole of human history! It’s no crime to make a movie about Napoleon, Agamemnon, and Robin Hood. It is, however, deeply uncreative. I’m not calling for a performatively woke Time Bandits, or even a different Time Bandits; I’m just suggesting that history is not as white and male as textbooks and Time Bandits would have us believe.

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