The Mythoversal Newsletter
The Mythoversal Newsletter brings author commentary, mythological movie reviews, and occasional essays to your inbox.
Terry Gilliam’s “TIME BANDITS” through a mythological lens
I was reminded recently of Time Bandits, the 1981 movie from director Terry Gilliam. In the film, an eleven-year-old boy named Kevin, portrayed by Craig Warnock, falls in with a group of diminutive thieves who have stolen a map to secret passages built into the fabric of space and time, which they are using to plunder all the treasure they can grab.
Time Bandits remains one of my favorite films of all time, fondly remembered even though I last saw it many years ago. Thinking about this movie always makes me laugh, which is weird considering how this movie ends.
SPOILER WARNING: To discuss how this movie’s relation to mythology, I need to spoil the ending. And the middle. And much of the beginning. This paragraph would be a good place for readers unfamiliar with this film to stop for a proper screening. Time Bandits is currently available on a variety of platforms and is well worth your time. It’s the first movie in Gilliam’s thematic trilogy of youth (Time Bandits), maturity (Brazil), and old age (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), so you might as well binge all three. Just remember to come back when you’re done.
At the end of Time Bandits, Kevin’s house burns down. He and his family barely make it out alive. Moments later, Kevin’s bathrobe-clad parents discover a chunk of pure evil that’s lodged itself in a burnt-up kitchen appliance. Kevin, recognizing the danger, warns his parents not to touch the chunk, but they do, and both of his parents explode right before his eyes. The film’s IMDb page describes the ending in the grimmest possible way:
Kevin is left all alone and bewildered on the front lawn to look back at the smoldering remains of his destroyed house and smoldering (now dead) parents while his nosy neighbors look on.
The camera zooms out from the town, the world, and the galaxy to reveal its location on the Supreme Being’s map. The Supreme Being’s hands then roll up the map, ending the film.
This is not a happy ending. On its face, it’s not even a hopeful ending.
And yet, despite everything Kevin loses, this ending doesn’t feel like a tragedy. In fact, once the audience recovers from the disorientation of the fire and the shock of the explosion, we are rewarded with George Harrison’s upbeat but mysterious “Dream Away” over the ending credits.
So what’s going on here? And what does any of this have to do with mythology?
I’d like to propose three factors:
First is a perspective shift.
In the aftermath of the fire, Kevin finds the collection of Polaroid photos he took along the course of his adventure. This proves to him and to us that all the fantastical events of the movie actually happened, not as a dream or spirit vision, but at the same level of reality as the more “normal” parts of Kevin’s life.
After the explosion, the camera pans out from the house-fire scene to a universe-scaled map of creation. Kevin’s problems on this level are insignificant, while Kevin’s significance remains. Because he has proven capable of using the map of creation, the entire universe is always within his grasp.
The second factor is Sean Connery.
Yes, that Sean Connery, the definitive James Bond, who plays Agamemnon as an action hero with gravitas and a Scottish brogue!
Euripides’s Agamemnon from Iphegenia at Aulis is a terrible father who sacrifices his own daughter so that the gods might give him a better breeze for sailing his ships.
Homer’s Agamemnon from the Iliad is a terrible commander whose irreverence and vanity invites a plague and alienates his best warrior.
Aeschylus’s Agamemnon from Agamemnon is a terrible husband whose wife is driven to stab him to death in the bath.
But Connery’s Agamemnon is a hero who slays a dozen monsters before breakfast, including a much-out-of-place Minotaur (with Kevin’s help). This is an Agamemnon before the Trojan War, ruling Mycenae with Clytemnestra by his side.
To Kevin, whose own parents are shown as self-absorbed, materialistic, and neglectful, Connery’s Agamemnon is the ultimate heroic role model and parental figure. After arriving in Bronze-Age Mycenae, Kevin pledges never to leave, is soon adopted as Agamemnon’s heir, and has to be “rescued” by his time-traveling companions, very much against his will.
Connery returns at the end of the film as one of the responding firefighters. Is he a reincarnated Agamemnon? Has he been transported through time? Is his presence a reward by the Supreme Being for Kevin’s help in field-testing the concept of free will? We never find out, but to a boy whose modern-day role models have failed him, Connery’s Agamemnon handily counterbalances the disintegration of Kevin’s negligent mother and father.
Whatever the case, as the firetruck departs, Connery shoots Kevin a knowing wink, implying that this firefighter knows more than he’s letting on.
The third factor is that Time Bandits sends Kevin to Hell and back. Literally.
Over the course of the movie, the audience follows Kevin on a roller-coaster journey across space and time, through lands of history, literature, legend, and imagination, with a side course of philosophy, cosmology, mythology, and theology. It seems reasonable that once you’ve faced down the Ultimate Evil, personal tragedies aren’t going to have the same impact they once did.
When we come crashing back to a harsh reality, the movie invites us to ask, what comes next for Kevin? What’s it all been for? Where is the meaning?
While any child would be crushed by events like those at the end of this film, we are left with a sense that Kevin will be all right because of his powerful new perspective, upgraded role model, and the experience of having already overcome far greater challenges than this.
So how does this movie work as an adaptation of mythology?
Certainly, Gilliam must have known that it was Theseus, and not Agamemnon, who traditionally slayed the Minotaur. He’s a smart, creative, metaphor-minded director who seeds his films with deliberate ambiguity and misdirection to make his viewers think. He certainly must have had an important reason in mind to have Agamemnon, and not Theseus, presented as Kevin’s idealized role model.
I’d suggest that it was because Agamemnon, for all his flaws, was the figure who brought all of Hellas together under his command for a cause that was ultimately successful. And it was the story of that campaign and its aftermath, retold and refined into mythology, that nurtured a culture of city-states into a common civilization.
With Agamemnon as his role model, Kevin is able to inspire forces from all of time and space to join in a battle against the Ultimate Evil. And with the Epic Cycle as a template, Gilliam presents a movie that thematically equates itself with Homer’s Iliad.
Even a story that’s been told and retold for thousands of years can be remixed into new variations, as Gilliam has done, to deliver a new message to new audiences, just as Euripides, Homer, and Aeschylus created and presented their own versions of Agamemnon to the audiences of their times.
Mythology-making is an ongoing process that will continue for as long as there are people to tell each other stories.