Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, Time Bandits: The Movie Script (Doubleday Dolphin, 1981)
'I am the supreme being, I'm not entirely dim.'
Time Bandits is the story of a young English boy who encounters six dwarf thieves who enter his bedroom through his closet while fleeing God Himself, and who are using a map they stole from God Himself to find their way around space and time. Kevin joins the bandits in their quest for really cool loot and in their desire to escape God, who is not impressed that his map is being exploited. Did I mention that the dwarves were God's groundskeepers, really low-level groundskeepers at that? And inept thieves at best? Always hungry, inept, venal, and stupid thieves?
Now you might think that this was a long-shot for being a hit with the viewing public, but it was. That it got made at all is thanks to Denis O'Brien of Handmade Films, the company that George Harrison of Beatles fame created and financed. He liked Gilliam's idea for this movie so much that he agreed to finance the writing of a script -- a brave move, as Gilliam wasn't known for being easy to work with, or for staying within budget. A script was written by Gilliam and Palin, an inspired pairing. When it was complete, O'Brien toured the U.S., looking for a deal there. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to make or distribute the film. But the film was made. What O'Brien wanted was someone to pay five million dollars for the rights to distribute the film in the U.S. What he ended up doing was paying Avco Embassy Pictures to distribute the movie, and he had to provide another five million for prints and advertising.
Ouch. Double ouch.
Against all odds, it made money. Lots of it. That it did might have something to do with the cast (John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelly Duvall, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Ralph Richardson, Peter Vaughn, and David Warner are but a few of the actors here), a silly but well-crafted plot (Robin Hood and Napoleon have scenes here), and special effects that actually looked good (the final battle with Evil Himself deserves writing up in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as a textbook example of how to do a truly silly battle scene).
However, what I am reviewing here is not the film, but rather one of the curious artifacts of the attempts to milk yet a few more pieces of silver coin off the release of a film. Time Bandits: The Movie Script is not an actual text-only script, but rather an illustrated soft cover book, which includes the shooting script and lots of oddly charming film stills and other cool things, such as story boards used to plot out scenes. Even scenes that would get deleted. (Possibly. There's a tongue firmly in cheek introduction here that I doubt can be believed.) What we have here is a text, not a film. And the question at hand is, does it work as something to be read?
Film critic Pauline Kael was completely wrong when she wrote in her review of the film, 'This may be one of those rare pictures that suffers from a surfeit of good ideas.' Watching the film can be a bit of an overwhelming experience, but the script makes it clear that all is not madness. And that is what makes the movie a sheer pleasure to read. Now I admit that this is a different experience than, say, reading the illustrated version of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, as a film is much more than just text. But what I did get out of reading the script was a much better feel for what Gilliam meant to do in Time Bandits. Just consider this bit of the script:
RANDALL (pulling out map) 'We've got to find the pointing fingers.'
FIDGIT (who has been looking above them) 'Uh...Oh...'
WALLY (looking up) 'I think we have.'
CUT TO their P.O.V. Great hand/trees rise all around them, their fingers/branches reaching for the sky.
FIDGET 'Let's get out of here.'
RANDALL (getting up) 'No, we must be close now... c'mon.'
The GANG make their way through this strange forest of gigantic hand/trees. Horribly gnarled and twisted roots form the bases of these unpleasant growths. In the distance a WOOD CUTTER is chopping down a hand/tree. With each blow of the axe, the hand writhes in agony. They pass several fallen hands clawing at the ground. This is a truly awful place. The GANG stop. Some of them start to shiver. Even VERMIN has lost some of his bounce.
Great hands buried in the ground as if huge beings were beneath the earth? Brrr? Who were they? How did they get there? None of that is answered as they exist only to make the already tense mood a bit tenser. Hell, it even works when I read it here!
In watching the film, I (and I assume many other viewers), don't notice the sheer amount of detail that goes into the text. But here is where one can feel the hand of Gilliam at work. Time Bandits feels light and silly, as do many of his films, including The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, where the Baron is killed and Death steals his Soul. But if one looks closely at the text, here and for his other films, one sees something different. Gilliam has some pretty grim material here, including Kevin's parents getting killed. Gilliam explained their death in an interview (quoted from online):
A basic theme of Time Bandits [was] the notion of this little boy searching for his heroes and finding most of them coming up a little short. Napoleon is a drunken runt obsessed with height and Robin Hood is an upper-class twit who hasn't a clue about poor people. Even Agamemnon, who treats the lad well, turns him down when the boy wants to learn swordplay. Instead, Agamemnon teaches him magic tricks, which he says at one point are far more useful in life. Kevin's having learned to deal realistically with hero worship is one of the reasons I left him alone at the end of the film without his parents. I felt he was now capable of looking after himself in life not only because he had been through this adventure, but also because he had discovered that heroes are not usually what they're cracked up to be.
Death, transformation, growing up all these conditions of being human are touched upon in the text. I advise you to watch the film several times first before you read the script, as you'll appreciate the text even more. If you liked The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words, you love this script. It's rather obvious that these two ex-Pythoners are both still heavily influenced by their time with that project. Good work, chaps!
Time Bandits: The Movie Script is out of print, but readily available at online sources like ABE for very reasonable prices. There is a rarer version of the script that was released that includes the Map!