Auteur of Horrifically Fantastic Films
Terry Gilliam. He is an animator, a member of Britains
most (in)famous comedy troupe, and an American. That withstanding, he
is still a brilliant director, and he has created some of the biggest
hits in film history. Granted, they are generally known as cult hits,
but nonetheless, the films he has directed are usually well received by
fans and critics alike.
In 1981, Terry Gilliam directed his second non-Monty
Python related film, called Time Bandits. This swashbuckling tale of a
young boy kidnapped by six little people who travel through time stealing
from historys most famous characters looked much like a Monty Python-type
film. It was low-budget, it was historical in nature (although it is a
skewed, dream-like history), and it featured a group of British actors,
including Monty Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin. However,
Time Bandits was the beginning of a distinctly Terry Gilliam-esque body
of films. In 1985, Gilliam released Brazil, a cautionary tale of government
control and the power (or fear) of love and dreams in a modern-day society.
Again, it featured a low budget and a performance from former Python Michael
Palin, but Brazil marked Gilliams movement further away from Monty
Python-style features into his own style of feature filmmaking. Gilliam
followed Brazil with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a time-bending
true story of an old man and his various dream-like journeys.
Again, while Baron Munchausen featured Python Eric Idle and a higher budget
(although some sets appear to be made of cardboard), Gilliams films
by this time had separated themselves from his work with Monty Python
to become a group of significant works that could stand on their own as
Terry Gilliam films.1
In Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron
Munchausen, director Terry Gilliam has created an informal trilogy dealing
with the process of growing older and how love, the imagination, dreaming,
and the belief and faith in heroes and magic affect this process. Besides
being linked in this way, these three films also share similar qualities
that identify them as distinctly Terry Gilliam films, and they identify
him as the sole auteur of his films. An auteur is defined as the primary
author or creator of his or her works, and that these works will share
many qualities that define them as part of the auteurs body of work
(Corrigan 84-5). In Gilliams films, these qualities include: the
Informal Terry Gilliam Repertoire Group, sudden and generally
unnoticed explosions, including sudden entrances, fantastic
and/or nightmarish locations, the use of time-travel and the bending of
time as well as the effects of time on a person, the decay of buildings
or human bodies, the use of hand-held or other unusual shots, and the
reliance and subsequent discarding of modern gadgetry. These three films
are also written or co-written by Gilliam.2
With a budget of five million dollars and filming locations
in the United Kingdom (Wales and England) and Spain, Gilliam created the
story of a young boy named Kevin and his technology-loving parents in
Time Bandits. The film opened on July 13, 1981 in the United Kingdom and
on November 13, 1981 in the United States (www.imdb.com). The film, co-written
by former Python mate Michael Palin, focuses on Kevin, who would rather
read about historical characters than watch television with his parents.
When a group of six time-traveling little people land in his room late
one night, Kevin takes the opportunity to leave his home and go on a fantastic
adventure. However, by the end of the film, Kevin has become slightly
disillusioned and disappointed with his childhood heroes, including an
overly upper class twit-like Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon
(Sean Connery), who would rather show Kevin magic tricks than swordplay.3
Within Time Bandits, one can point out features of Terry
Gilliams style that would later show up more clearly in his subsequent
features. Time Bandits features a group of well-known British actors and
actresses, some of whom would appear in later Gilliam films. These actors
and actresses include Ian Holm as Napoleon, Michael Palin as Vincent,
Jim Broadbent as the compere (game show host), John Cleese as Robin Hood,
Katharine Helmond as Mrs. Ogre, Jack Purvis as Wally, Charles McKeown
as the theatre manager, Sean Connery as King Agamemnon, Winston Dennis
as the Bull-Headed Warrior, David Warner as the Evil Genius, Kenny Baker
as Fidgit, Derrick OConnor as the leader of Robin Hoods robbers,
and Myrtle Devenish as Beryl.4 Crew members who would participate in Gilliams
later films include Ray Cooper (music producer, musician), Julian Doyle
(editor), Irene Lamb (casting director), Norman Garwood (art director),
and James Acheson (costume designer). These cast and crewmembers go on
to work on Gilliams next feature, Brazil, and in some cases, The
Adventures of Baron Munchausen as well.
Time Bandits also features a stylistic effect that shows
up repeatedly in Gilliams films: the random explosion, entrance,
or loud sound. These sudden sounds or entrances generally seem to go unnoticed
by grown-ups and other authority figures. At the start of the film, Kevin
(Craig Warnock) attempts to sleep when suddenly a knight on a horse bursts
from Kevins closet. Kevins parents, however, apparently never
hear the horse in their house, since they do not come up to Kevins
room to ask him about it. The next night, the six time bandits, who all
create a loud, disruptive sound, invade Kevins room. Later in the
film, when Kevin and the time bandits arrive in history at the Battle
of Castiglione and see Napoleon, the infamous general seems to ignore
the fact that a battle is happening around him. In fact, he is not only
ignorant of this, but he is actually trying to enjoy a Punch and
Judy-style puppet show without being interrupted by his lieutenants,
making him even more ignorant. The fact that these explosions
all go unnoticed lends support to the idea that everything that happens
in the film after Kevin meets the time bandits is possibly all in Kevins
dreams, another factor of Gilliams films.5
Another Gilliam constant that could further lend credibility
to this statement is the fact that the film features The Fortress of Ultimate
Darkness, the castle where the Evil Genius resides. This fortress is an
incredibly nightmarish building, and looks like it could only belong in
a Gilliam film. It fits perfectly into the scheme of the film, and it
also appears as something out of a terrible dream. The building is old
and crumbling, and it looks like a decaying body, yet another characteristic
that appears in Gilliams films.
Other buildings crumble and decay in Time Bandits, either
by age or by human force. The buildings in Castiglione are all bombed
to destruction, and Kevins house is set on fire at the end of the
film. Buildings are not the only things to decay in Gilliams film;
Kevins family structure literally blows up at the films conclusion,
which is yet another unexpected explosion that no one, including nosy
neighbors, but Kevin notices.
Kevins point-of-view is a key to this film. The
audience must sympathize with him to enjoy the film, and Gilliam helps
the audience do that by occasionally giving the audience Kevins
perspective. Hand-held shots lend a sense of unsteadiness at the start
of the characters travel through time: at the Battle of Castiglione,
Kevin first comes across a soldier on a horse who startles Kevin, and
the audience sees the soldier from Kevins angle in a hand-held shot.
Later, when Kevin is in Mesopotamia with King Agamemnon, he is sacked
and taken to a banquet where he is announced as the next in line to the
throne of the king. Royal officials wake Kevin suddenly and place a blindfold
over his eyes; this is all seen from Kevins point of view, rather
than from an outsiders angle. The fact that these shots visually
do not fit with the rest of the film make them all the more sudden and
unnerving, which lend to the sense of uneasiness that both the audience
and Kevin feel throughout the film.
This film also features a kind of struggle between the
use of modern gadgetry and the use of intuition, intelligence, and wits.
Kevins parents are devoted to their household appliances, particularly
their television set and their kitchen utensils. However, Kevin rejects
those items in favor of his imagination and his intelligence. On his journey
through time, Kevin relies only on what he already has to survive; the
only modern device he has is a Polaroid camera, and he only uses this
to record his trip. Kevin survives at the end of the film, because he
has only relied on himself throughout his trip. Kevins parents do
not fare as well; at the end of the film, they explode while clutching
a toaster oven containing a piece of Evil. Technology loses in Time Bandits;
this theme is revisited in Brazil, and touched on in Baron Munchausen.
Nevertheless, by the time the film has concluded, both Kevin and the audience
have been on a fantastic and magical journey, led by tour guide Terry
The film was a critical hit for Gilliam both in the United
Kingdom and around the world. It grossed over 42 million dollars in the
United States alone, and worldwide returns nearly tripled that amount.
Many critics agreed that Time Bandits proved that a first-time filmmaker
could create a low-budget film with a high box office return. However,
Terry Gilliam would have to direct another hit film to prove that he was
not simply a one-hit wonder. In 1985, he would release his next film,
Brazil, but it took nearly a decade for the film to be recognized as the
classic it is known as today.
Brazil, Gilliams homage to George Orwells
1984 opened on February 22, 1985 in the United Kingdom and on December
18, 1985 in the United States (www.imdb.com). Co-written by Tom Stoppard
(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and Charles McKeown, and filmed
in England and France, Brazil is the story of Sam Lowry, a civil servant
who, in his attempts to redeem a mistake made by the government, becomes
an enemy of the state himself (Matthews 10). Although budgeted at three
times the amount it cost to make Time Bandits, Brazil fared nearly three
times as poorly at the box office as Time Bandits due to studio interference
and cuts, mostly attributed to Sidney Sheinberg, then president at Universal
Brazil, in Gilliams final vision, is the second
part of the trilogy that began with Time Bandits. It is the story of Sam
(Jonathan Pryce), a government worker, and his search for the dream-woman
he loves. However, Jill (Kim Greist), Sams dream-woman, is possibly
a terrorist involved with a series of bombings across the city. Sam leads
a somewhat lonely and dull existence, going to work, living in shoddy
government-run housing, and meeting with his plastic surgery-addicted
mother (Katharine Helmond) and her equally addicted society friends. The
day Sams life changes is the day he meets the renegade repairman
Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro). From this point on, Gilliams film
goes from simply a 1984-style film to a strange and rather twisted nightmare
concerning, among other things, the ineptitude of government systems,
the corruption of society, and the escape that dreams can provide from
all of the above. Sam is a chronic dreamer, a grown version of Time Banditss
Kevin, and he fantasizes constantly about himself as an avenging archangel
who has to save Jill from an evil samurai warrior (who turns out to be
himself, in an interesting, if not slightly predictable twist). Gilliam
says, Brazil was about a man who refused to take his responsibility
in the real world and spent his time dreaming, ultimately escaping in
madness (qtd. in Morgan 240). There is so much that happens in Brazil
that it is difficult to pick out the qualities that make it a distinctly
Terry Gilliam film.
However, it is somewhat easy to recognize certain actors
and actresses that had appeared in Time Bandits, including Ian Holm (Mr.
Kurtzmann), Michael Palin (Jack Lint), Jim Broadbent (Dr. Jaffe), Katharine
Helmond (Ida Lowry), Jack Purvis (Dr. Chapman), Charles McKeown (Lime),
Derrick OConnor (Dowser), Myrtle Devenish (Jacks Secretary),
Winston Dennis (Samurai Warrior) and Ray Cooper (Technician). Crewmembers
returning from Time Bandits include Ray Cooper (music coordinator), Julian
Doyle (editor), Irene Lamb (casting director), Norman Garwood (production
design), and James Acheson (costume design). Jonathan Pryce would return
to work for Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, as would a
few of the regular actors, actresses, and crewmembers from both Time Bandits
Brazil also features, like Time Bandits, a series of
literal explosions that go unnoticed by the upper-class society. Sam and
his mother go out to eat at a fancy restaurant one evening, only to be
interrupted by half of the building blowing up. However, Sams mother
and her society friend, Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks), pay no attention
to this; they just resume eating their high-priced and barely unrecognizable
food. Near the end of the film, government buildings are destroyed apparently
near crowds of Christmas shoppers, yet none of them seem flustered at
all. The explosions in this film, like Time Bandits before it, are all
ignored by what is seen as an authority group, the upper class.7
Gilliam also uses his now trademark style in creating
frightening settings for Brazil. Not only do the locations in Sams
dreams seem nightmarish, but even the real world cityscapes are disturbing
and almost Expressionistic.8 Exposed pipes, computers that look like they
have been constructed from spare parts, and government buildings that
tower over the citizens of the city all have the same aura of dream-like
horror. These surroundings seem to come from everyones collective
unconscious right onto the screen. Also, the buildings are of no discernable
time period, which leads to another constant in Gilliams works:
the idea of time-travel, vague time, and/or play with time.
The times given in the opening credits for Brazil are
both exact (8:49 am) and vague (Somewhere in the 20th
Century). Again, Gilliam has messed with the audiences sense
of time and, by proxy, location. Where and when is this film? It does
not help the audience to answer this question by seeing futuristic subject
matter paired with Art Deco sets. Gilliam also plays with the effects
of time through Sams mother Ida. Ida, through a series of successful
plastic surgeries, appears to grow younger throughout the film. At Mrs.
Terrains funeral, she even briefly seems to look like Jill, Sams
love interest, showing just how youthful in appearance she has become.
Times effects, however, are not always as beneficial to people and
surroundings as they are to Ida Lowry.
Gilliams fascination with bodily decay also crops
up in Brazil. Idas friend Mrs. Terrain slowly seems to decompose
during the course of the film, in a reverse of Idas becoming younger.
At given points throughout Brazil, Mrs. Terrain becomes covered in more
and more bandages, and eventually she is seen in a wheelchair hooked up
to intravenous fluids; she explains to Sam her appearance as part of the
complications and complications of complications
of plastic surgeries she has received from the Acid Doctor,
Dr. Chapman. By the end of the film, Mrs. Terrain had died, and when Sam
accidentally opens and overturns her casket all that remains of Mrs. Terrain
is a messy lump of flesh and bones. She has completely decomposed.
The city also appears to be in a state of decomposition.
In fact, it more closely resembles the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness than
a real city. Again, buildings crumble or appear to be ready to crumble,
apartment complexes are more rotted and decayed than any inner city locale
in America, and government housing provides more of a danger for living
than anything else. Brazil is a film of deconstruction, despair, and disorientation,
particularly for Sam Lowry.
Sams disorientation, like Kevins in Time Bandits, is shown through the use of hand-held shots. When Sam first enters
the Ministry of Information for his new job, he seems to be lost and chased
by an unseen force. Hand-held camera movements represent this force:
Sam sees a large group of men following one man, and the camera movement
becomes jerky and out-of-place with the rest of the shots in the film.
By seeing this literally through Sams point-of-view, the audience
becomes just as disoriented and disheveled as Sam does.
Again, Terry Gilliam revisits the idea that technology
and gadgets are not as grand as they seem. In Brazil, the film takes place
sometime close to Christmas, and Sam keeps receiving the same gift from
everyone he sees. The gift is an executive decision-maker;
basically, it is a pendulum that, when dropped, lands either on yes
or no. Even though Sam uses his decision-makers,
they cannot help him find his dream-woman. Ultimately, Sams office
is cluttered with decision-makers, and he rejects all of them
at the end of the film. He decides to use his own faculties, his mind
and his body, to locate Jill.9
For all the fascinating imagery in Brazil, most audiences
never understood it all when the film was first released. By only grossing
about half of its budget in the United States, Brazil did not fare well
with audiences. However, it was a critical success, and it was nominated
for the Best Art Direction and Best Writing Academy Awards, two BAFTA
Awards, and a Hugo Award. It won the BAFTA Awards, among other awards.10
Brazil is now seen as one of Terry Gilliams greatest achievements,
and it remains at least a cult classic to this day. Gilliams next
film would end up in a similar state, but on even more grandiose terms.
Gilliam and now-longtime collaborator Charles McKeown
authored The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1987. Their screenplay
was based on novels by Gottfried August Buerger and Rudolph Erich Raspe.
Munchausen tells the story of an old man, the Baron Hieronymous Karl Friedrich
von Munchausen (John Neville), who is generally known to be a liar and
a teller of tall tales, and how he relearns to have faith in the power
of magic and imagination. The film cost around 40 million dollars to produce,
making it one of the most expensive independent films at that time (Yule
4). Opening in the United States on March 10, 1989 and on March 17 in
the United Kingdom, Baron Munchausen would only make about one fifth of
the budget in the United States, and nowhere close to that amount elsewhere.
Like Brazil, Baron Munchausen fared poorly at the box office, but would
end up as a huge cult hit, particularly with Monty Python fans and with
admirers of Gilliams previous work. The film shares many characteristics
with its predecessors, including the use of many of the same cast members.11
Returning from Brazil and/or Time Bandits is Jonathan
Pryce (The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson), Jack Purvis (Jeremy/Gustavus),
Charles McKeown (Rupert/Adolphus), Ray Cooper (Funtionary), and Winston
Dennis (Bill/Albrecht). Crewmembers from previous Gilliam films include
only Ray Cooper (co-producer, music producer).12
Although few people returned from Time Bandits or Brazil,
many characteristics were retained within Baron Munchausen, including
the multiple unnoticed explosions. Throughout the film, a Turkish army
is attacking the city where the focus of the film lies. Even though there
are many explosions and sudden loud noises or bursts, the Baron and his
captive audience ignore them almost entirely. He goes on with his fantastic
stories, while the theatre crumbles around him.
Again, crumbling buildings and decay play a part in Gilliams
film. Not only do buildings decay around the Baron and his audience, but
also the Baron himself seems to grow older when he loses the attention
of the beautiful Venus (Uma Thurman). In fact, in keeping with Gilliams
fascination with the idea of bending or playing with time, the Baron grows
older and younger throughout the course of the film. When he finds love,
when he uses his imagination, when he is on adventures, the Baron grows
younger. Ultimately, his imagination and his vitality return and restore
And again, Gilliam uses the film to show how technology
is overruled by cunning and wit. The Baron uses ladies undergarments
to fashion a hot air balloon, he employs his own intelligence to outsmart
his foes, and his sidekicks rely on their own super-abilities to help
the Baron. The Barons friends use their super-human bodily facultiesexcellent
sight, superb hearing, fast running, ultra-strength, and powerful lungsto
outwit the enemy. The Baron and his friends succeed, not by the use of
technology and gadgets, but by the use of their own natural abilities.
Even though he may look old at the end of the film, the
Baron is young at heart. The man has returned to the state where he began
in Time Bandits: a wide-eyed, open-minded, adventuresome human. Gilliam
himself has stated that Munchausen is really the happy ending [of
the trilogy], the triumph of fantasy (qtd. in Morgan
The audience has followed the path of a boy on a journey
through adulthood. He has been on fabulous adventures, he has met his
childhood heroes only to find that they are either too short, too snobby,
or too preoccupied with magic tricks to be of any good, he has taken a
government job, even though he is still a dreamer at heart, he loses his
sense of reality as the rest of the world knows it, he grows into an old
man who can do little more that tell tall tales, and he finally returns
to the audience as the same person he started out as. He is, whether his
name is Kevin, Sam, or Hieronymous Karl Friedrich, the child we have in
us throughout our lives. He may change and grow older, but he never really
loses that wide-eyed wonder at magic, imagination, dreams, love and adventure.
Through these three adventures, Terry Gilliam has proved to be a true auteur. Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen all show and share a multitude of similar characteristics, so much so that it is nearly impossible to not see Gilliam as the true, singular author of these three films. Subsequent films by Gilliam, including The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), do not share these characteristics. This presumably is because they were American studio releases, and were not written, originally or otherwise, by Gilliam. Further research may entail a look at all of Gilliams films together to attempt to find shared characteristics. However, since Time Bandits, Brazil, and Baron Munchausen were primarily British films, and were generally made as independent productions, there will be many stark differences between his early films and his later works. Even so, Terry Gilliam is still a director who creates fantastic, horrifying, beautiful, disturbing, and amazing films, no matter where they were produced.
1 Since there is so little information on Gilliam as an auteur, the claims
made in this paper, while shared by many people, have never been officially
documented in another published work.
2 Looking at Gilliam as a British director is a little more difficult
to do, since he was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He spent much of his
childhood growing up in Hollywood, and he did not travel to Britain until
he was well into his adulthood, when he became the lone American in the
Monty Python comedy troupe (Gilliam 5). His style of animation was something
he brought to England as an adult. He was awarded British citizenship
eventually. Even so, I will not look at Gilliam as a British filmmaker,
although further research would allow for a possible connection between
other British filmmakers (especially Nicholas Roeg and Peter Greenaway)
and Gilliam. Also, his first film Jabberwocky (1977) does not fit with
his second, third, and fourth films as a separate body of work (the trilogy),
so it will not be included here, even though some of the same characteristics
appear in all four of these films.
4Two notes about the cast: one, when Gilliam and Palin wrote the script
for Time Bandits, they wanted Sean Connery for the part of King Agamemnon.
The original script stated that when Agamemnon removed his helmet,
he should look like Sean Connery or someone of similar stature (The
Terry Gilliam Files). When Connery was cast, the script was changed to
read when Agamemnon removes his helmet, he should be Sean Connery;
two, the character of Beryl (played by Myrtle Devenish) was cut out of
the film for time and plot considerations. Her character, along with a
second, was to be a large spider that temporarily trapped Kevin and the
5 Indeed, the concept of the film seems to validate this: a boy with
a big imagination goes on a fantastic journey through history with six
midgets. It must be a dream; furthermore, when Kevin does return home,
he is in bed, in his pajamas, and his room is filled with smoke. He is
not wearing the same clothes as he was in the previous scene, so it is
a possibility that Kevin was simply dreaming the entire film. In fact,
the tag line for the film reads All the dreams youve ever
hadand not just the good ones (www.imdb.com). Gilliam himself
says that Time Bandits was a story about a boy going through space
and time and history, and never knowing whether it was real or a dream
(qtd. in Morgan 240).
9 In the Sidney Sheinberg Love Conquers All version of Brazil,
Sam and Jill end up living away from the city in a small country cottage.
This further supports the rejection of technology theory.
10 It won two Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, one for Best Supporting
Actor (Ian Holm) and one for Norman Garwood for Special Achievement in
Production Design. It also received three Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Terry Gilliam), and Best Screenplay
(Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard).
12Baron Munchausen was filmed at Cinecitta in Italy; this would explain why many of his crewmembers are not the same from Gilliams two previous films (The Terry Gilliam Files).
References and Works Cited
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film.
4th ed. New York; Longman, 2001. 84-86.
Gilliam, Terry. Gilliam on Gilliam. Ed. Ian Christie.
London/New York; Faber and
Matthews, Jack. The Battle of Brazil. New York; Applause
Morgan, David. The mad adventures of Terry Gilliam.
Sight and Sound. v. 57.
Yule, Andrew. Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the
Munchausen Saga. New York;
Internet Movie Database. www.imdb.com (Dec.
The Terry Gilliam Files. http://members.aol.com/morgands1/closeup/indices/gillindx.htm (Dec. 6, 2002)