Terry Gilliam, an expatriate American living in England, who's earned a reputation for strange bits of animation unlike anything anyone has ever seen, earned his stripes as a member of Monty Python.
Born in Minnesota, his career started as an editor at a satire magazine called Help!, for which he made comic strips that you may recognize. Through the mag, he met a tall Englishman named John Cleese, who formed a friendship with him. As you may have suspected, the two of them were going places.
From art, it was a quick jump to animation, and Gilliam eventually moved to Britain, where eccentric oddballs are kind of a national treasure. He composed a short called Beware of the Elephants, which caught the right eyes and landed him a gig doing animation for a British comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set. The short was pretty cool, and again, we suspect it may look familiar. Don't believe us? Take a look.
There were a couple of other names connected to Do Not Adjust Your Set that you may have heard of: Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle. When that show was canceled, the four of them got together with Cleese and former medical student Graham Chapman. They weren't ready to be finished with their TV adventures just yet, and less than six months after Do Not Adjust Your Set was canceled, they hit the British airwaves with another comedy show.
It was called Monty Python's Flying Circus. We're pretty sure you've heard of it.
The show ran for five years, and it pretty much set a standard that no oddball comedian can ever match. They used absurdity as the cornerstone of their humor: their jokes didn't have a specific target or point but were so inspiringly silly and weird that they made you laugh. Gilliam didn't perform much on the show, but he brought his animation skills to the table, and oddly enough, that was a big part of the show's success.
Why? Sketch comedy usually depends on a given bit having a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's tough to do, especially if you have a concept that can't hold up for very long. (And if you've ever seen a lousy Saturday Night Live sketch, you know exactly how bad that can be.) But Monty Python didn't need to stick to that. Their bits were already going off in weird directions; it wasn't hard to simply drop one sketch after it had run out of gas and shift to another.
And that's where Gilliam came in. He could take a sketch that had finished its run and move it to the next level. Queen Victoria's head on a giraffe's body? Tap-dancing teeth in the face of a game show host? Giant feet coming out of nowhere to crush chicken-winged generals who hatched out of eggs?
These guys were like rock stars, and when the show ended, they weren't ready to stop it. Live stage performances followed, as did records, and, of course, movies. The first one was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam directed along with the other Terry in the group—Terry Jones.
Gilliam's animation background meant that he was great at setting up shots—figuring out where everyone needed to stand and pointing the camera in the most interesting directions. Jones could coach the actors, while Gilliam fiddled with the camera.
The success of this first movie led to more Python films—Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's the Meaning of Life—which Gilliam did not direct. Gilliam went on to do a few duds, but with the sophomore slump out of his system, he was ready to try a bigger challenge—which is what brings us to this little flick. He co-wrote it along with Michael Palin while trying to get his movie Brazil off the ground.
Time Bandits was an easier sell (though not necessarily an easier production), and with help from George Harrison, the money came together enough to let Gilliam run with it.
The production was, well, difficult, which is something Gilliam's films became known for. Producer Denis O'Brien repeatedly locked horns with the director. And some things happened by pure chance. For instance, the script describes King Agamemnon as "Sean Connery, or someone of equal but cheaper stature." O'Brien missed the last part and went and got the actual Sean Connery for the part. But that meant squeezing the shooting schedule into 007's very narrow timetable.
So things were kind of chaotic, which might have been a good thing, considering that the movie is actually about chaos. The worst of it perhaps came in the editing, when O'Brien's control-freak tendencies went full tilt against Gilliam's, and—in a clash worthy of Wally and Randall—the two fought right down to the end. O'Brien didn't want to blow up the parents at the end, for example, and he also wanted more Snow White-style songs in the film, among other things. Gilliam claims he actually threatened to destroy the only negative of the film rather than submit to O'Brien's ideas.
The good news? Time Bandits was a hit, and the director's willingness to put it all on the line probably contributed to it.
We cover Gilliam over in the "Director" section, so we're going to focus on his tag team partner here. Michael Palin started out at the University of Oxford, but he loved performing, and he's much better known as an actor than he is as a writer. When you're part of a legendary comedy troupe, though, you do your share of writing, and Palin has proved more than up to the task.
After getting a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford—those Pythons were smart lads—Palin started working in television, teaming up with fellow Python-to-be Terry Jones to write a lot of comedy shows. The most notable was The Frost Report, which brought the boys into contact with John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman; it was followed by a children's comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set.
All that was a set up for the big enchilada, of course: Monty Python's Flying Circus brought Palin, Jones, Cleese, Idle, and Chapman together again, along with American animator Terry Gilliam. In four seasons, the Pythons became comedy legend, marshaling their combined brainpower and love of absurdity into one of the most brilliant comedy series ever produced.
And Palin was in it right up to the tip of his dead parrot. He specialized in playing either mild-mannered straight men—meek and unsure of themselves—or agreeably cracked idiots designed to drive other characters nuts. (Think the parrot sketch or the cheese shop sketch.) He did plenty of writing as well, including the famous Spanish Inquisition sketch and the Lumberjack Song (both of which he co-wrote with Jones).
Alas, all good things must come to an end...but when Python stopped, that didn't mean that Palin did. He starred in Terry Gilliam's first post-Python movie, Jabberwocky, playing a love-struck peasant pressed into fighting the title monster through a series of silly circumstances. The movie didn't work, but it did highlight Palin's hapless everyman quality. More importantly, it put him and Gilliam in more formal cahoots together. They decided to partner on their next project: Time Bandits.
Over in the "Director" section, we talk about Gilliam—and his fellow members of Monty Python—being kind of like rock stars. That's our sneaky way of getting to this bit. You see, the Pythons had a big admirer...and when we say "big," we mean biggest ever. That admirer was George Harrison, former Beatles guitarist and avid fan of dead parrot sketches. Dude love-love-loved the Pythons with all his sitar-playing heart.
Harrison and his business partner, Denis O'Brien, set up HandMade Films as a way of getting the Pythons' second feature, Life of Brian, off the ground. It was touch and go for a while: financing fell through for that movie at one point, and Harrison had to put a mortgage on his house to get the money for it. But, hey, he was a Beatle, which meant it was probably a very, very big house.
Life of Brian became a hit, and HandMade Films was on the map, now with enough funding to produce its own movies without anyone having to mortgage anything.
What were they going to lead with? Why, this film, of course. Gilliam was keen to get Time Bandits made, and HandMade was the way to make it. The film didn't have much money to work with—about $5 million, which was low even back then—but with Harrison and O'Brien keeping their hands on the purse strings, everything worked.
The film became a big hit—pulling in about $40 million against that $5 million starter—and HandMade Films capitalized on that with a few dozen other films released in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of those films were comedies involving former Pythons, like The Missionary and Nuns on the Run, but also crime films like Mona Lisa and unbelievably bad Madonna vehicles like Shanghai Surprise.
Time Bandits was produced by HandMade Films, and that's an accurate name in more ways than one. It was made the old-fashioned way, on 35mm film, and when the time came to edit it, the film was assembled on traditional editing machines with not a computer in sight. Considering that the top-of-the-line computer at the time had less power than a single app on your phone, that's not surprising.
And yet, the effects in the movie are pretty brilliant and have held up over time—despite the fact there's not a single CG image in the whole thing, and despite the fact that the budget was about $5 million. That's about $14 million in today's money. In contrast, the first Avengers movie cost about $220 million.
Gilliam and company used a lot of photographic tricks to make it all work: camera angles, for instance, can easily make a normal man look like a giant, while double exposure and some easy sound tweaking gave the Supreme Being that otherworldly look. The biggest asset here is Gilliam's imagination, which helped give the film a timeless look that no effects budget could possibly match.
Handmade films really can be better, provided you make them with a little style.
George Harrison wrote the closing theme song, but the actual job of scoring the film went to Mike Moran, not a name most movie buffs have heard of—he's only got a handful of movies to his credit.
So, how'd he get the gig? George Harrison, who was delivering the money to make this thing, had one or two teeny connections in the record industry. Moran, educated at the Royal College of Music in London, worked as a composer and a session musician. He got tapped to do the job because he worked quickly and efficiently, and he didn't need a lot of bells and whistles to get the job done. For a movie operating lean and mean like this one, he was perfect.
It didn't always seem that way, though. One of the producers, Denis O'Brien, wanted Harrison to write songs for the whole thing. Gilliam didn't agree, and though there was a fight over it, Gilliam won. The score would be orchestral music instead of songs, and Moran was the guy to compose it.
Moran's score is remarkably effective: it's memorable, but it's also good at helping this production on a budget send us to different times and places. It starts with an energetic, upbeat piano and synthesizer riff, which puts us in a nice, peppy mood and gets us ready for some swashbuckling adventures.
The music shifts gears to match each of the times and places Kevin travels to while still keeping the music linked.
Time Bandits is one of those movies with more admirers than fans. Sure, it's got the Monty Python thing going for it, and with plenty of outlandish images and wild costumes, you'd think it would be perfect for conventions and fanfic detailing the further adventures of its eternally bickering characters, but no such luck.
Still, here and there, you can spot signs of the kind of deep and abiding affection people have for this movie. Check DeviantArt every now and then, and you'll find some talented dude or dudette displaying their talents for the movie.