So many Gnostic movies to cover, and Kronos is so greedy with time. But sometimes it’s good to steal some of that time back by mining for that timeless Gnosis in a film…so let’s talk about Time Bandits, Terri Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy
This is one Gnostic-themed movie I’ve wanted to cover for a while because of its relevance and meaning in my life. And, to a lesser extent, because I employ the film’s clips on the podcast. Listeners have heard aplenty this quote from Time Bandits that exemplifies the absurdity of our unintelligently designed universe: “God isn’t interested in technology…look how He spends His time! Forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!”
I’m going to let Jay Dyer do much of the Time Bandits covering, though, based on his excellent book, Esoteric Hollywood II: More Sex, Cults & Symbols in Film. Jay is no friend of Gnosticism, to say the least, but he possesses a keen and unparalleled sight when it comes to that nuclear place where pop culture and Occultism meet. It was certainly a pleasure interviewing him in a recent show.
Before dealing with the Gnostic themes of Time Bandits, I’d like to share how it affected me as a young and fine Catholic boy.
A personal Time Bandits
I had arrived in the U.S., ending up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places. A friend of the family, blessing my parents with a break, took my brothers and me to the movie theatre. None of us knew what to expect beyond the trailer promoting a comedic, adventure fantasy. Time Bandits began and ended, and this was one of my first moments of Gnosis.
Why is that?
Gilliam’s deconstructive vision of reality, religion, and reason challenged all my good Catholic boy, Cylon-programming. I sensed the film was close to the truth on both a metaphysical and philosophical level. Perhaps the universe wasn’t a harmonious creation but an imperfect construct, even a prison. Perhaps the official narrative of history I’d been given in school was less than kosher, or at least it should be continually inspected for overlooked psychological vitamins.
Gilliam’s expert use of myth and humor further informed me that, ironically, myth and humor were the main tools for finding out what was behind the official narrative of any consensual reality. Lastly, Time Bandits sparked a curiosity in me to go on an artistic, self-knowledge walkabout across the Desert of the Real.
Since then, it’s been a hard adventure where I’ve unfortunately sold out many times. But I continue in the Desert of the Real. My parent’s friend, his name Roy, hated the film. He walked out several times and scoffed at the plot afterward. Roy was an atheist, so that told me that Gilliam was the real, counterculture dope as his work was an equal-opportunity offender. Having an atheist father and devout Roman Catholic mother, Time Bandits was the perfect springboard for my later rebellion while stumbling into teenage years.
But let’s get to the film.
The Plot of Time Bandits
Time Bandits stars Sean Connery, Shelly Duval, Ian Holm, and David Warner, as well as Gilliam’s Monty Python team member’s Michael Palin and John Cleese. The film was produced by George Harrison.
The plot deals with a group of dwarves tired of their jobs repairing holes in the spacetime fabric for the Creator God (appearing half as animation and half portrayed by actor Ralph Richardson). The dwarves steal a map that shows all the dimensional flaws in the spacetime fabric. What better thing to do with such power than travel across history to steal fabled riches in various epochs? During this robbery escapade, they befriend Kevin, a neglected child of parents whom Jay calls “the apex products of western physico-materialism, collapsing into empty consumerism.”
Randall, the leader of the dwarves, explains at one point:
You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was a bit of botched job, you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use them to get stinking rich?
As a youth, I could relate to Kevin and his friendship to the dwarves, craving an imaginative adventure as I went through culture shock after just moving to the Land of Opportunity (and empty consumerism).
During the heists across western history and even parallel dimensions, Kevin seems to be the only being with any sensibility or desire for meaningful connections – even as he encounters (and the dwarves sometimes steal from) historical legends like Napoleon Bonaparte, Robin Hood, and King Agamemnon. The plot involves the continual pursuit of the Creator God, desirous to have his map back; and culminates in the “Time of Legends” dimension where Kevin and his friends must battle the personification of evil, aptly named Evil (played deliciously by David Warner).
Evil wants to take the map for himself to escape the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. Once freed, he feels that he can reboot Creation into a better, more utilitarian manifestation. As he tells his demons in one scene:
Slugs! He created slugs. They can’t hear! They can’t speak! They can’t operate machinery! I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I were creating a world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, day one!
Evil is almost Gnostic, but not quite, as we’ll see. Along with every other character in Time Bandits except for Kevin, Evil’s agenda is self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Like Alice in her adventures, one wonder’s if Time Bandits is about a child lost in the dysfunctional world of adults and their heartless societies. And like Alice, one also wonders if the story is all in Kevin’s head, as we discover that many of the figures he meets are toys in his room. Perhaps the entire saga is Kevin’s way to cope with the abuse of his parents and the cold, English culture around him. But as Tyler Durden said in the equally-Gnostic Fight Club: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
As above, so below. As within, so outside. Nipples for men, indeed.
I think you already grasp the Gnostic themes of Time Bandits: A petty Supreme Being poorly managing a disorganized, shoddy cosmos filled with dark and lonely beings. And a child shall lead them if they have ears to hear his plea for freedom from the bondage of the egoic ego.
More Gnostic Themes in Time Bandits
Let’s bring in Jay’s analysis. His book summarizes the Gnosticism of the movie:
Our band of little people, the rebellious dwarfs are both comical and accurate portrayals of the fallen angels. Former servants of the demiurge, this band of sweet n low simpletons managed to steal the “Supreme Being’s “Map” and have since become time fugitives. Like Bill and Ted cut in halves, these buffoons happen upon the psyche of a young boy named Kevin, fumbling their way into his subconscious. Now, that might seem like a stretch, but recall we’ve seen this notion before – in Labyrinth, for example. Just as Sarah’s bedroom, toys, dolls, books and games all become the architecture of her inner dream world experience of the Labyrinth, so with Kevin all the drawings, toys, miniature playsets and historical figures become the architecture of his inner dream world. For most, the interpretation would be this is merely a symbolic representation of a child’s fantasy world, or the inner workings of Kevin’s association schema, etc.
In the film, it’s evident that the Creator God represents the bureaucratic, law-giving authorities that propagandize us into believing in superstitions – like non-unionized low wages that will set us free or that there is some benign, QAnon-esque cosmic plan. Evil epitomizes the technocratic spirit seeing only salvation in scientism and eugenics.
Here are some other symbolic depictions:
- Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) represents the Masonic insecurity of social leaders, as he only conquers to find shorter people than him to ridicule.
- Robin Hood (John Cleese) represents the well-meaning but body-count happy communist/socialist, as every poor person is savagely beaten before they get their equal share.
- King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) represents the hopeful and entrepreneurial capitalist who always ends up losing the people he loves the most.
Whether these characters are real or part of Kevin’s mind doesn’t matter, for he must suffer them along with the Creator God and Evil. He loves the dwarves, but like everyone in the movie, they’re only motivated by moving time forward and not anything everlasting.
Kevin, the divine imagination of the Gnostics and Hermetics, is lost in all the passionate intensity of the worst that WB Yeats wrote about in The Second Coming. And right in the middle of the battle between superstition and technocracy, an innocence without conviction.
Even worse, it’s not even a battle but the classic dialectic or controlled opposition that Jay often writes about in his blog. Towards the end of Time Bandits, Kevin and the dwarves discover that Evil is just an extension of the Creator God, one of his many “tests” on Creation. Religious superstition and technocracy are one and the same. In one scene, appearing like an elderly executive of a company, the Demiurge blames true evil on “free will.”
Nice try, Yaldi Baldi.
The Central Gnosis of Time Bandits
Jay writes that one of the lessons of Time Bandits is that of “something major being lost in consumerist modernity, namely the imaginal.” As I’ve said in many shows, and William Blake would agree, our imagination is nothing more than the authentic expression of the Divine Spark of the Gnostics. Ultimately, the fake, repressive battleground of Time Bandits is not for the human soul but the human imagination, even if it might be in all in our heads.
Gilliam himself referred to Time Bandits as the first in his “Trilogy of Imagination,” followed by Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three movies are about the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.”
What’s more, Jay contemplates that in the film, Gilliam sees all matter as oppressive. He states:
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, here identifying evil with matter, materialism and consumerism, ends in the destruction of Kevin’s worthless boomer parents. We might be tempted to say the purpose of the film was a comical, atheistic mockery of an apparently absurd and “childlike” story of good versus evil. The story at first appears to do this, but reveals a deeper, more esoteric conception that reality is actually. made up of various planes and spiritual levels, from the present world to the psychosphere to the spiritual. While attempting to present a Masonic mockery fable, it is also possible Gilliam (wittingly or unwittingly) hit upon a much more accurate architecture of the kosmos than he expected.
Of course, Jay disagrees with many of the themes of the film:
That said, God is not a stodgy old British man, nor is evil a substance. While Gilliam is right to critique the nonsensical absurdity of transhumanism as the result of rampant consumerism and the fetish of technology, the dialectical double think of the Masonry he seems to espouse is the cause of the modernity he critiques as absurd.
I think it’s evident with whom I agree with. Reality is the ultimate grift, and most of the aspects of society and our own ego are in cahoots.
Alone and afraid in a world we did not make
Time Bandits ends with Kevin alone before the ruins of his house. His dwarf friends have returned to the beginning of time to work for the Creator God in the shrubbery department (with a pay cut). His parents (“worthless boomers” as Jay calls them) have perished by touching a leftover remnant of Evil (symbolizing how consumerism/materialism destroys life). His adopted father and personification of the capitalist entrepreneur spirit, Agamemnon, appears as a fireman, winks at him, and leaves in a firetruck. A spanning camera shot sees Kevin stranded within a complex universe that is the maze-map of the Creator God.
Welcome to the Gnostic plight, Kevin. We are all fallen angels, pieces of the divine imagination abandoned in the labyrinth of time and space. There is no salvation except our endless imagination telling us a story that finds more cracks in the spacetime fabric and oppressive society.
Looking for more of an existential crisis that leads to awakening? Check out more Gnostic film and visuals:
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