The recent BAFTA fellowship awarded to Terry Gilliam reminded me of just how wonderfully imaginative a body of work he has directed, none more so than his loose trilogy from the 1980’s, collectively named the Trilogy Of Imagination, comprising Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). The films, representing childhood, the middle years and old age respectively, show Gilliam at his most lavishly ambitious, yet also charts the most tumultuous filmmaking chapter in Gilliam’s famously problematic career. Do your senses a favour and dip your mind into these three fantastical masterworks.
Time Bandits is a joyous concoction of childhood fantasies – the terrifying and the beautiful, the hilarious and the heart-breaking. Backed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films and armed with an exceptional cast of acting and comedy talent, (John Cleese, Michael Palin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Ian Holm, David Warner, Sean Connery, Katherine Helmond, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent) Time Bandits is the definitive kids movie for adults.
The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance was a supporting feature to 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life and featured a crusty old British assurance firm taken over by The Very Big Corporation Of America. When the white-collar workers rebel against their employers they become pirates, sailing the company building out of the city and off towards the end of the world. Although a brief folly by Gilliam’s standards, the themes of escapism and the unleashing of ones imagination clearly pre-empted his next feature film.
Brazil is widely considered Gilliam’s greatest work (and one of my all-time favourites) and it’s little wonder. A crazy, ambitious, visually stunning take on dystopian sci-fi, appropriately made in 1984 considering the Orwellian overtones, the film had an eventful production. From an original screenplay by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, Tom Stoppard was brought in to give the script some clarity although in fairness he probably added to its complexities. Gilliam had to fight Universal tooth and nail for the final scene he wanted and he won, (a luxury denied to Ridley Scott on Blade Runner’s initial release) but it may have bolstered his reputation as a difficult director (from the studios point of view, not the critics or the audiences). Few films are crammed with as many ideas and, like Orwell’s novel, Brazil will only grow in stature and importance as each new generation discovers it.
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, again co-written by Gilliam and McKeown, meditates on the fantasies and illusions of old age. Told by the world’s greatest liar, Baron Munchausen, the adventures blur the lines between truth and reality. Life strangely imitated art during the making of the film, with Gilliam spun a yarn by producers who convinced him to film in Italy for 40% of the original cost, which proved to be disastrous. Eric Idle described it as the worst experience of his life and Sean Connery dropped out of playing the King Of The Moon before filming, to be replaced by an uncredited Robin Williams (whose representatives were worried his appearance in the film might damage his reputation!) One production issue after another meant the film wound up costing three times as much as originally planned. Twenty years later, none of this really matters and we are left with an incredible visual feast of a movie. Perhaps Munchausen’s status as a financial flop has prevented it from becoming the fantasy film classic it deserves to be.
Gilliam’s next feature, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, due for release in June, is his first collaboration with Charles McKeown since the 1980’s, only this time round there’s no sign of studio warfare. However, no Gilliam production is without its problems and the death of Heath Ledger in early 2008 robbed the film of its leading man.
Recommended reading: The Battle Of Brazil by Jack Matthews; Dark Knights And Holy Fools: Art And Films Of Terry Gilliam by Bob McCabe.