Fantasy Films 101.02 1981's "Time Bandits"


Terry Gilliam's romp through time with some little people is one of the most memorable fantasy films of all time, helped along by a solid cast (including cameos from Sean Connery and John Cleese). Better still, the time-travelling dwarves are a great place to grab ideas for a one-night gaming session, or a full-blown year-long campaign...

Although 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail and 1988's Baron Munchausen might give it a run for its money, Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is arguably the most fun fantasy film you'll run across, mingling Monty Pythonesque dry humor with biting satire but never coming across as too silly, or too serious. It's the perfect place to garner inspiration for your next role-playing session.

The plot is at once amazingly simple and startlingly complex. It goes something like this: A young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) is, one night, startled to discover that his closet is actually a time hole, through which an assortment of dwarves spill through. Fleeing their master, "the Supreme Being" (Ralph Richardson), the dwarves bring an unwilling Kevin along for the ride as they journey through time with their stolen time map. Their original duty was to patch up these holes in the fabric of the universe, but this is hardly in line with their true goal - to steal famous treasures throughout history.

What more noble goal is there for a band of adventurers, I ask you?

The band of greedy dwarves is played to perfection. There's Randall (David Rappaport), Wally (Jack Purvis), Og (Mike Edmonds), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Vermin (Tiny Ross) and Fidgit (Kenny Baker, aka R2-D2 in the Star Wars films). It's the sort of little people humor that didn't quite work in later films like Willow and Return of the Jedi, but it just seems to fit here.

It's interesting to note that Mr. Baker is not the only actor in this film to be featured in a Star Wars film. Declan Mulholland, billed as "3rd Robber" from the Robin Hood scene, would go on to be the original Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars (first erased, then superimposed with a digital Jabba in the Special Edition release).

Their first stop is Napoleonic Europe, where they encounter the vain Emperor Napoleon (Ian Holm, not to be confused with another emperor, Ian McDiarmid), a drunken lout obsessed with his height. Though Kevin is initially glad to meet Napoleon, he finds him coming up a little bit short (even more amusing when you consider that Mr. Holm is starring as Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies, interestingly playing aside yet another Ian, Ian McKellen, who's playing Gandalf.)

The bandits steal some treasure and flee through time yet again, this time meeting Robin Hood (John Cleese), an upper-class moron with no idea about the needs of poor people. Predictably, Robin Hood steals their treasure, and the bandits have no time to get it back before they're forced to flee the wrath of the Supreme Being, who's intent on getting back his map.

Kevin winds up falling through a different time hole, and winds up in ancient Greece, inadvertantly helping Agamemnon (Sean Connery) defeat the Minotaur. Proclaimed a hero, and given the heirdom to the throne, Kevin appears to have found success... but then the bandits show up and steal Kevin away.

This time, the bandits decide to hang out on a 20th Century ship headed for New York City... which, of course, turns out to be The Titanic. Luckily for the gang, Evil has noticed their travels through time, and has decided to play his hand, saving their lives (for his own purposes) by sending them into the Time of Legends where they wind up aboard the boat, and the menu, of an Ogre and his wife. Only through Kevin's cleverness do the group escape, flinging the Ogre and his wife overboard just as a giant rises from the water and carries the boat to a wasteland, through which they wander to discover the Fortress fo Ultimate Darkness.

From there it's your typical showdown. The heroes are tricked into giving up their map, and locked in a cage in a deathtrap. After escaping, they assemble a strike force of knights, cowboys, archers and even a tank in order to take on Evil. They are no match for the power of evil, however, and are only saved through the intervention of the Supreme Being, who shows up in the nick of time to turn Evil into stone and retrieve his map.

The very end of the film is classic Gilliam - slightly off-kilter and out-of-place, but somehow satisfying nevertheless. But your own adventure need not end in the same way - when travelling through time, after all, your characters have as much time as you want to give them. The film not only plays well as a one-nighter - simply give the characters a set amount of time to travel through time accomplishing their task - but it's also got enough legs to carry your characters along for months and months.

In either case, here are the key elements:

  • A young hero. In this case, so young as to be a child. In the case of your role-playing session, this can as easily be one of the players, of any age, race or class. It's inexperience which matters here, not age, so this might be a great way to bring one or more low-level characters along for a fun ride.
  • A motley band of companions. There's nothing like a pack of short people to spice up a campaign. If your players are fond of halflings, gnomes and dwarves, they could very well be the driving force behind the story. If not, having a few "little people" NPCs to guide the action works too.
  • An ancient magical item. There are many ways to do this. A halfling rogue could steal a magical map which allows travel through time, or a gnomish inventor could have created a strange device which can do the same - albeit with unpredictable results. You might even have a dwarf discover a strange mineshaft which leads into different dimensions; the "magic device" need not be portable.
  • Time travel. Forget the physics of it - just go with it and have fun. By traveling through time, you can give your players a peek at their past, or a glimpse into a future you have planned for them. Maybe they get to meet their grandparents, from whom they can retrieve a magical heirloom before it gets lost. Or perhaps they'll wind up in the near future, a hellish wasteland which they must now prevent (and which they may have inadvertantly caused). Maybe they're just fleeing through time to get away from whoever is pursuing them, or maybe they're just trying to get home.
  • Wicked evil bad guy. This guy is so evil, he's just named Evil. Obviously, he wears black and has a scary voice, and has some pretty nasty spells to boot. And talk about evil lairs - this guy's fortress is filled with plenty of evil traps to keep your good guys busy for days. This guy is so bad, entire armies can't defeat him. In fact, it takes the power of the Supreme Being to bring him down. Which is where we get to point number...
  • Unbeatable odds. In this case, truly unbeatable, although the characters may not think so when they first set out. Let them think that they've got a chance, and then just as they're about to be roasted over an open fire, let your version of the Supreme Being come along and bail them out. This need not be a short, bald-headed Dungeon Master type. It could be just about anyone, most likely someone with a hidden agenda. Could be a time-travelling Githyanki, or a truly divine being, or even a powerful dragon, any of whom could need the characters for some reason. Of course, this divine savior could also just be after the magic time travelling device, which opens up a whole other can of worms.

It all comes together pretty simply. Hero (or heroes) discover some short people (halflings, gnomes or dwarves, or some combination thereof) who have control of a magical device allowing travel through space and time. Powerful forces are after them because they want the device for themselves. No matter what their agenda, in the end the heroes will all have to band together for their own safety, and in the end they'll be stripped of the device, which is, of course, far too powerful for beings such as them to have control of.

This one doesn't necessarily need a happy ending, however. Evil doesn't need to win, but when such a powerful device is involved, the lines between Good and Evil are pretty blurry anyway. Whoever gets control of the magical device is probably not going to use it for the benefit of all living things. And the fact that there are always hidden agendas means that this Time Bandits concept is one you can bring back into your role-playing sessions time and time again.

Speaking of time, next time I'll forge ahead into the grand old year of 1982, which features two classic fantasy films everyone will remember - The Dark Crystal and Conan the Barbarian. Any votes for which one I should focus on?