Last night I settled in front of my computer in a more comfortable chair, and tuned my browser to YouTube, where someone had posted the entire film, “Time Bandits”, in twelve segments of ten minutes each.
This was one of my all time favourite films when I was small. The idea was to have a lovely evening of nostalgia, without having to do any complex philosophical work, such as I have been doing all week as I prepare to teach a course at McMaster.
Well, if that was my plan, why on earth did I choose a Terry Gilliam film? For “Time Bandits” is not just an entertainment adventure, it’s also a philosophical thesis, about disillusionment, materialism, and the nature of good and evil.
– When the film opens, Kevin (our child-hero) is reading about the Greek warriors and trying to share his amazement with his parents, who are watching television and ignoring him. (in fact their easy-chairs are still wrapped in plastic, to keep the dust off. Why does Gilliam always feature things in his movies wrapped in plastic?)
– Kevin meets Napoleon, who is obsessed with his shortness (he’s 5’1″), and apparently invaded Lombardy because he was “compensating” for being a shorty! When we first meet him, he is listing the names and the heights of famous generals and commanders, some shorter than himself.
– he meets Agamemnon (played by Sean Connery), who has just been knocked unconscious by a monster with the body of a man and the head of a boar. Kevin accidently lands on him, waking him up just in time to kill the creature. Kevin is delighted to meet one of his heroes, and immediately attaches himself to this new, generous, kindly, and smiling father-figure. Agamemnon is everything Kevin’s real father is not. But Agamemnon demonstrates a capacity for deception and trickery (using the old “which cup has the walnut under it?” trick), which leaves Kevin a little disenchanted.
– He meets Robin Hood (played by John Cleese), who is like a kind of politician or businessman, not much of a hero. Where his Merry Men are dressed in period-accurate cast off rags and makeshift armour, Hood is dressed in a bright green foppish “Robin Hood” costume, straight from an Errol Flynn movie.
But the best bit is near the end. The Supreme Being has just arrived in the nick of time, to save the heroes from certain doom at the hands of Evil, in the heart of the Fortress of Ultimate DArkness (which has a striking resemblance to the lego bricks and other toys strewn about Kevin’s bedroom floor.) There’s a bit of dialogue between God, Kevin, and one of the other adventurers, which goes like this:
Supreme Being: You think I didn’t know? I had to have some way of testing my handiwork. I think it turned out rather well, don’t you?
Supreme Being: Evil. Turned out rather well.
Kevin: You mean you let all those people to die, just to test your creation?
Supreme being: Yes. You really are a clever boy!
Kevin: Why did they have to die?
Supreme Being: You might as well say why do we have to have evil?
Randall: We wouldn’t dream of asking a question like that, sir.
Kevin: Yes. Why do we have to have evil?
Supreme Being: Ah. [walks out of the shot for a second, then returns.] I think it had something to do with free will.
I love it. The child asks the questions that the grown up and mature adults dare not ask. He poses the very toughest, deepest questions. And he presents them straight to the source.
Let us never be disillusioned out of that part of our childhood which wants to ask questions like that.