Time Bandits | Digital Traditions

by Adam Beaty. Beaty is a Broadcast Journalism major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This review was written for the Spring 2012 class "Folklore and Film."

Managing to maintain both whimsicality and depth, the 1981 film Time Bandits is unique in its ability to force the audience to look beyond the surface and further examine the implicit themes throughout. Many times for comedic effect, myths and legends play important roles in the atmosphere of fantasy and parody that surrounds the movie. Most importantly, the film is a lighthearted critique on the culture of technological advancement in the 80s. As well as criticizing technological culture, it implies a dissatisfaction with the tradition of religion. Its comments on issues of the day are insightful and give the audience an idea of the attitudes that existed during the time period. In a way, Time Bandits is a cultural time capsule, not in how it preserves tradition, but the way it preserves in physical form the concerns and fears of a past generation. All of this comes together in a film that showed the world that the humorous can, at the same time, be very serious.

A great deal of the charm that the film has to offer is drawn from the ways that it uses folklore. Specifically, it includes elements of folk narrative into much of its plot—sometimes through parody—to give the film a humorous element. Though the theme of the movie is time travel, most of the periods to which the main characters travel are not set in history but, rather, varieties of tales that derive from folklore. For example, the first portion of the movie took place in the fictitious setting of the old English legend of Robin Hood. Instead of portraying Robin Hood as a gallant hero directing his brave group of merry men, the filmmakers choose to present him as a snobbish leader who heads a gang of mindless outlaws. His actions only vaguely resemble those of the legend by which he is known. Aside from comedy, folklore is also used to give the movie an aura of magic and fantasy. History—obviously—did not include ogres and minotaurs. The replacement of actual history with an account attributed to myths and legends leads to a sense of otherworldliness in the film. Even though the movie takes place in a world similar to that of the audience, the filmmakers’ decision to adhere to history according to folklore instead of actual history gives the impression that the world of Time Bandits is not of this earth.

The most fascinating part of the film is its sheer amount of depth. On the surface, it appears to be a movie about a boy and his misadventures through time with his abductors. Upon closer examination, one can see that there is much more substance to this film than meets the eye. Its subtle criticisms of religion and technology expose a message that the filmmakers are trying deeply to communicate to the audience. The purpose of this message can be understood by looking at the external factors of the time period that would have influenced the filmmakers to include this.

The 1980s were a time of extreme technological improvement. Everything was rapidly moving forward. Items like computers were beginning to take on a new role in society and replacing, in many aspects, the old way of thinking. From this expansion grew an entire culture thriving on the latest tech trends. It was this particular culture that the minds behind the film wished to criticize through their work. A possible interpretation of the film is that it reflects the feelings of an era knee-deep in the Cold War. Since the end of World War II, the world had been in a constant state of unease. The technology that had bestowed upon the world peace and prosperity in past years now was what the world feared the most. Progress was something to be celebrated and despised at the same time.

Time Bandits makes its argument against technological culture by associating it with the story’s main antagonist—aptly named Evil. His very appearance, consisting of a metal skull on top of his head with various mechanical parts protruding, serves as a defining characteristic that portrays him as a machine among men. His complexion is white as death, further setting him apart as something that is lacking an essential quality of goodness. Even his minions’ appearances evoke feelings of industry in their plastic bag-like garb. All of this imagery gives the audience a feeling of unease that they can relate back to the issue of technology. From the movie’s standpoint, Evil is the living embodiment of technology, an icon that equates mechanization with domination. His master plan is to harness the power of technology to defeat God and, ultimately, rule the universe. To him, God is old-fashioned. It is considered a waste to spend time not focusing on technology. Evil’s “understanding” of technology, he believes, will make him superior to God once he acquires the map of the universe and escapes from his prison.

The scene of the final battle also gives heavy emphasis to the aversion to technology that the movie advocates. In the scene, Evil has magically taken control of the vehicles that the protagonists are trying to use to kill him. As they fumble about one remarks to his friends that he can’t control his vehicle. To this, Evil replies, “Of course you can’t you silly little man. I control them.” Prior to this statement, the characters were clearly aware that Evil was the one controlling their vehicles. Still, the filmmakers felt the need to point this out in a line that highlights the bond between Evil and technology.

Religion is another subject that is present through much of the film. Though it does not directly criticize the institution of religion, the film hints at the idea in various ways—especially in the final scene. The movie centers around a group of men who, previously, worked with God in creating the universe. As the story progresses, they speak in derogatory ways about God, saying that he needed them just to make sure he could manage a task like running the world. Leading up to the point that Kevin meets God face-to-face, the audience is provided with descriptions that depict God as a cruel and unfair individual that could not effectively rule his own creation. When God is finally shown in physical form, he is portrayed as a feeble—and seemingly befuddled—old man. He is not shown as a powerful being that is to be feared; instead, he looks more like something that is in dire need of a replacement.

The God of Time Bandits can perhaps be taken as a metaphor for the weakness of religion. By showing God as incapable of containing his creation, the film may be reflecting the filmmakers‘ discontent with the abandonment that they feel from religion. With the movie’s abrupt and disappointing ending, it is easy for the audience to share in Kevin’s feelings of abandonment at the loss of his parents. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to the film. Once it has come to a close, there is only one question running through the mind of the viewer: Why was Kevin left to fend for himself? The realization of God’s neglectful nature in leaving Kevin at the end of the film is the defining moment of the movie’s argument against religion. The end of the film represents God’s purposeful neglect of Kevin in a time of need. Whether the filmmakers intend to say that there is no God by this plot element or to merely say that God is cruel is unclear. Either way that one chooses to address the issue, Time Bandits acts as a denunciation of the institution of religion by arguing that, in the end, it will abandon the ones that follow it.

Humor, one of the film's strong points, is also its biggest weakness. In the process of trying to make its message reach the audience, the filmmakers drown much of what they are trying to convey in goofiness and absurdity. Coming from members of the Monty Python troupe, this is not very difficult to believe. Time Bandits, in many respects, lacks the ability to be taken seriously. Even though the movie would lose a large amount of its character without the comedy, it would greatly benefit from a slight toning down of its humor so the audience can gain a better understanding of the statement that it makes. The ability to take in every detail of its plot without interference from the comedy would make it easier to deduce the meaning and allow viewers to savor Time Bandits in its entirety. 

Time Bandits is an excellent example of movie that is successfully able to convey deep meaning through symbolism. It offers a view into the minds of the filmmakers and a generation. In a time when technology was moving forward at an increasingly quick rate, the film acts as a gentle warning to people of the time to guard against the problems that come with advancement.  Regarding religion, it possibly voices the filmmakers‘ disappointment with the concept of religion. Furthermore, it establishes an atmosphere that caters both to those who seek its meaning and the ones who watch it for its humorous qualities. It is a film that requires heavy analysis on the part of the viewer to get the most out of watching it. Only once it is fully understood can Time Bandits be truly appreciated by its audience. Though years have come and passed, with technology taking on a greater role in society than the filmmakers had ever seen at the time, Time Bandits’ message still rings true in the present day. It has endured the test of time as an iconic hit that compares to no other and manages to fit into a category all its own.