Stealing Reason from God: Theft in Time Bandits and The Fisher King

Time Bandits (1981) | Avco Embassy Pictures
> Theft as metaphor/metaphor as theft

Who is the God of the white man of the midwestern United States? And once we know who God is, we have to ask: does he have anything worth nicking? 

Former American Terry Gilliam has directed 12½ feature films, all of them fantastical reflections of our society and its foibles. Gilliam is the most cynical fantasist in cinema, and his surreal, misty films often put our own bad behavior on display. Gilliam crafts a shadow representation of ourselves, making us complicit in our own grim future. His dark vision of people and what they yearn for is permeable, like a mirror done by Cocteau. The reflective surface of these tragi-comic films is practically begging to be explored by the viewer. If the world according to Gilliam is a cruel, pointless place, what does that reveal about us—and, crucially, who is responsible?

I’ve always been suspicious of a freewheeling application of Lacan’s mirror theory to film. It’s hard to dispute that part of our attraction to film is the presence of self-projection, of empathetic reaction to the figures on the silver screen. It’s difficult not to look at other human beings in the world and imagine yourself as them, either in sympathy or jealousy, especially when the other human is a glimmering projection twenty feet tall. Like the myths and fables of yesteryear, film presents us with characters and situations larger than life, if not figuratively, then at least literally. So it’s easy to understand how attractive it is to yoke Lacan to the plow of cinema. For Lacan, the character on the screen becomes a subconscious reflection that is by definition unreachable. However dubious this theory of self is, it’s interesting to consider why film feels like a shadow-play version of the world we inhabit, and what that means for both the viewer and the creator. 

If the cinema is a mirror, it’s a funhouse mirror. The character and actions we see cast by the celluloid reflector take on a distorted, larger-than-life relationship to ourselves. We root for the little guy, the down-and-out; we see the edges of the Jungian shadow at play in the figures onscreen. There’s no use in pretending that the imagination doesn’t thrill at the idea of a well-executed, daring theft. Who wouldn’t want to be Arsène Lupin, Simon Templar, Danny Ocean, or Carmen Sandiego? Embedded in these cinematic crimes though, is a reflection beyond even Gilliam’s moral examination. Within the heist film itself is a desire for wish fulfillment and punishment. 

We want to see the morality play, to be washed over by our catharsis. We know that at the edges of this shadow reflection, there’s wealth protected by security, real or imagined, and a collection of people who must work together to “steal” it before some authority becomes wise to their scheme. In this type of film we are both actor and observer, a criminally complicit viewer/participant. We wish to both steal from god/authority/the man and, at the same time—as we pass judgment over our cast—to be god/authority/the man. Forget judge, jury, and executioner; in this genre, we are both the judge and the condemned, the hangman and the hanged man. 

Our “heroes’” lives and futures are on the line, there’s revenge or retribution at play, old wounds are exposed, personalities clash. Inevitably, things go wrong, via stupidity, greed, fate, or an old-fashioned double cross: what was expected becomes unexpected. Stealing is wrong, we know, internally, and also externally. We take examples from our own lives, real or imagined, and project them outwards onto our film facsimiles, Lacan’s pocket mirror. For example, if we’re stopped and handcuffed by a security guard at the now-defunct Tower Records near Lincoln Center in NYC because they saw us pocketing an absurdly overpriced import CD from the then very new and novel Icelandic band Sigur Ros, we’d feel a deep guilt; we’d been spotted clear as day by the eye in the sky. A closed circuit stand-in for God. 

Within a span of ten years, Terry Gilliam made two movies about plans for divine theft: Time Bandits, in which a cadre of former employees of God and one English child embark on a new life as international thieves, and The Fisher King, in which a man who has given up on his life executes a daring heist of the Holy Grail to save his friend who cannot come to terms with what life is, let alone give it up. Wildly different in scope and tone, these two films encompass ten years of history during which Chernobyl exploded, the Berlin Wall fell, America embarked on the Gulf War, and Chicken McNuggets were invented. During that same time frame—bookended by Time Bandits (1981) and The Fisher King (1991)—Gilliam was almost relegated to the dustbin of film for his own capital crime of not making a profit. The problem was, he’d made his dream film, and it nearly ruined him. Time Bandits was made because Gilliam couldn’t get Denis O’Brien to finance Brazil, and The Fisher King was made because after Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, no one wanted to finance Gilliam on anything else. 

> Little Thieves

Time Bandits would never be made now, and it was barely made then. The film was pitched to Denis O’Brien at Handmade Films as an alternative to the difficult-to-comprehend Brazil. Time Bandits would be a light-hearted romp through time that was much easier to understand on paper. Time Bandits is a children’s movie! A sweet story about a child’s imagination: we go to France, we go to Greece, we go to the Time of Legends! An adventure through history with a vicious band of thieves, in which multiple murders, thefts, tragedies, and accidents are perpetuated by the unmitigated cruelty of every adult in the world.

Time Bandits follows an 11-year-old English boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock), who falls in with a pack of divine dwarfs—Randall (David Rappaport), Fidgit (Kenny Baker), Strutter (Malcolm Dixon), Og (Mike Edmonds), Wally (Jack Purvis), and Vermin (Tiny Ross). These dwarfs are former employees of God, who were fired for inventing a deeply undesirable tree, and have now decided to embark on a life of crime. They’ve stolen a map, they tell Kevin, that contains detailed information about holes in the fabric of space/time that they were supposed to repair; they intend to use this knowledge to rob everyone they can and escape through un-darned moments in history. The perfect metaphysical crime. 

Kevin, it should be said, is an unwilling participant in the crimes that occur. He’s a child captivated by history, and is simply in search of a loving family. His biological parents care more about the latest kitchen gadget than their son, and only interact with him vis-à-vis how much noise he makes or does not make. The dwarfs appear, kidnap Kevin, and are subsequently chased out of the child’s bedroom by the floating head of God—or, as the bandits say, “the supreme being.” 

In the first ten minutes of Kevin’s adventure with his new friends, we get to watch the French execute captured soldiers by firing squad. It’s not just an off-screen shot, either; the men fall, slain, and another row takes their place. Right after that, in a bombed-out town square, we watch a puppeteer shot to death mid-routine, his attempt at entertaining Napoleon with a Punch and Judy show cut short—and that’s just the first part of our first act. Time Bandits is full of drugs, death, destruction and chaos—reflections of the adult world through a child’s fairytale. It’s representative of Gilliam’s view of the world as a land of smoke and mirrors, where everything is pretty much bluster and rules, barely obfuscating the background flats of supreme cruelty, danger, and “that’s just the way things are.” 

Two successful heists and one unsuccessful one take place over the course of Time Bandits. Our merry group of thieves rob Napoleon (Ian Holm), taking advantage of the conquerors’ love of all things small by becoming his generals and getting him drunk before divesting him of his rings and golden hand. They rob Agamemnon (Sean Connery), stealing the Mycenaen king’s crown as well as re-abducting Kevin from his adopted Greek family. Finally, after the unexpected sinking of the Titanic, they attempt to rob “The Most Fabulous Object in the World” from the “Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.” This turns out to be a trap, as our plucky heroes are imprisoned and have the time/space map stolen by Evil (David Warner). However, just as all hope is lost, God arrives on the scene. 

After vaporizing Evil with a glance, God, played by Ralph Richardson as a consummate English headmaster, unveils the futility of the entire exercise. As this “Supreme Being” tells us, in a classic final twist, he allowed the dwarfs to steal the map—and thus the riches of the ages—as a sort of test. Not of the dwarfs, though, or of the map—and certainly not of Kevin, whom no one even seems to notice in the presence of the besuited deity. No, the Supreme Being intended this as a test of Evil, his own creation. In the end, nothing can be stolen from the Supreme Being, because stealing requires an unwillingness to have a thing taken from you. If you want someone to take a thing, it’s not stealing—it’s a con. 

So if it’s all been a trick—if these heists, the time jumping, and the daring escapes from Evil’s fortress are all a big swindle—what’s the reflection in the mirror? Time Bandits is framed loosely through Kevin’s experience. He’s the “hero,” and we see through his eyes an absolute parade of terrible adult figures: they lie, obsess about their statuses, greedily hoard wealth. They’re obsessed with success, with beauty, with status and society. Even the noble Robin Hood (John Cleese) glad-hands with the eponymous dwarfs, saying pablum pleasantries as he shakes their hands and congratulates them, a hero of history without a single meaningful thing to say. Seen from the eyes of a child, no one is saying anything, and the world runs on madness. 

Kevin’s parents would just as soon kiss a new blender as their son. None of the bandits cares a lick about Kevin, unless they are in danger or can use him in a scheme. Even within the court of King Agememnon Kevin must endure the murderous gaze of the queen. Like cinema-as-mirror, it’s hard to shake the idea that part of Kevin, our young viewpoint character, is Gilliam. We see a young boy obsessed with history and myth, knights and fables—whose outsized imagination and moral curiosity is met with challenge, ignorance, and cruelty at every turn, an inherent indifference that goes all the way to the top.  (God, when asked by Kevin why evil even has to exist, says offhandedly, “I think it’s something to do with free will…”)

So this cynical view of the adult world is what a child sees, a child as a reflection of Terry Gilliam, as a reflection of the audience. A shadow self that reveals the truth of the world, a fool in a king’s court, or the kid who cries that the emperor is actually naked. Kevin, however, is denied agency here, like all children. The adults mostly breeze by; even the firefighters simply attend their job, give a wink, and take off. The child is not a participant in the world of adults, but merely an outraged bystander, the film’s own internal audience. Surely things get better when you grow up, right? Or at least your heists go off better, right? Right? 

> Hobo Kings

Ten years exist between Time Bandits and The Fisher King. After the relative financial success of Time Bandits for Gilliam and Handmade Films, he’d go on to make two serious flops, Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Despite their status as respected pieces of filmmaking, especially for their performances and imagination, both movies cost and subsequently lost a tremendous amount of money. Furthermore, some of the ongoing problems with Gilliam productions had begun to be fairly easy to attribute to Gilliam himself, who was reportedly difficult, obsessive, and had little regard for actor comfort or financial responsibility. So off of the colossal failure and disappointment of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and after passing on a Watchmen adaptation and an Adams Family script, Gilliam read a spec script written by Richard LaGravenese called The Fisher King. The practical nature of the script appealed to him; it was a break from all of the special effects he’d wrestled with for the last ten years. The characters seemed real, the dialogue sharp, and so Gilliam took a gamble and embarked on a different kind of film—one that he hoped he wouldn’t regret. 

The Fisher King, as Gilliam often repeats, broke his three cardinal rules of filmmaking: never make a film he didn’t write, never make a film set in America, and never make a film in the Hollywood system. Based roughly on a psychoanalytic text called He: Understanding Masculine Psychology by psychotherapist, then monk, then psychotherapist Robert A. Johnson, The Fisher King is a story of tortured men adrift in the adult world, unable to find happiness because of their guilt and pain. And it also stars Robin Williams. 

In Gilliam’s 2016 memoir, Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir, he describes his early dissatisfaction with The Fisher King, saying that he was brought onto the script as a sort of “bait” for his friend, Robin Williams. Gilliam claims he had to restrain his “monomania” and avoid putting his fingerprints all over the film. It’s fascinating how much the mirror of the film reflects Gilliam here, a director repeatedly slammed with misfortune and financial disaster, both of his own making and of the world’s (or God’s). Even his objection that the film wasn’t what he wanted it to be seems in tune with the idea of making it. Gilliam never drove anyone to murder, as the protagonist of The Fisher King does. But it’d be foolish to ignore the reflection of Gilliam, 51 years old when he made this movie, in the shadow of two middle-aged men haunted by their pasts, themselves shadows of myths and legends that Gilliam had been interested in his entire life. 

The Fisher King is the story of Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a depressed former radio personality circling the drain. A brush with death ties the fate of Jack and Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man trapped in a biblical fantasy. Parry is convinced that Jack is “the one” sent to help him retrieve the Holy Grail, a symbol of God’s grace that’s currently sitting in the home of a billionaire on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Jack, do you really wanna help me?” Parry says, offering a clear statement of what he needs, i.e., a daring heist for the most holy of objects. 

Jack resists the call to heroism, though, trying everything possible to avoid confronting the thing he must do for Parry. Instead, he tries to assuage his guilt, giving Parry money, setting him up on a date with his dream girl Lydia (Amanda Plummer). All the while, he relies on his own girlfriend Anne—played by Mercedes Ruehl, who turns in a masterclass performance—to keep him going and prop him up. He’s a classic wounded narcissist, providing no support to anyone, doing no work on himself, while asking everyone around him to tend to his wounds. Despite his best efforts, though, he cannot free himself—or save Parry—if he doesn’t do what is asked of him, and retrieve the Holy Grail. 

As opposed to our entire movie of crime in Time Bandits, the heist in The Fisher King covers barely six minutes of running time. Hinted at in the beginning of the film, Jack finally confronts the fact that he will have to risk his life to save his friend, to bring God’s grace both to him and to Parry. The scene unfolds like a classic, albeit abbreviated, cartoon heist. Using a slingshot arrow, Jack gets a grappling hook line and rope up the side of the castle, scales its walls, and makes his way down a comically raked set of tower stairs into the study of our modern-day Croesus, where he retrieves the “Grail”—which turns out to be an award for participating in a Christmas pageant. The heist works, though, and what Jack really wanted—life for his friend, and forgiveness for himself—is achieved. God and thievery truly work in mysterious ways. 

If God is the ever-present antagonist/mastermind of Time Bandits, he’s the Holy Ghost in The Fisher King. As a specter that haunts the characters of the story, his absence and the inability to understand his plan torments both Parry and Jack. God doesn’t make an appearance in The Fisher King like he does in Time Bandits, but he exists on the periphery of the entire movie, even beyond the Holy Grail parable of the mythological fisher king; all of the characters live within the “world that God made,” not in a biblical sense, but in an atheistic 80s sense, when the tide of American religiosity had long receded, leaving a divine watermark on the landscape. The evidence of God is there, but his grace left these characters long ago. They’re battered by their choices, hardened by the world. Their only solace is to confront the absent divine. 

The Fisher King is a story about acceptance and forgiveness, not for the theft—which turns out to save two lives—but for the things we’ve done to our fellow man. If Time Bandits is a child’s polemic against greed and selfishness that ultimately ends in the reveal of the truth of the universe, then The Fisher King is a movie in which our hero steals the truth about himself back from the cold hands of the universe and an uncaring God. 

> But I’m an atheist

Why is theft so central to these films? Our heists and capers here exist again as reflections, ways of addressing a desperate psychological need: forgiveness in The Fisher King, and freedom in Time Bandits. We the characters and we the audience are stealing ourselves back. In Time Bandits, the crew of thieves are stealing what they believe is owed to them, freedom to be themselves, to act on their own. In The Fisher King, the theft is an allegory for retrieving the grace of God through charity—forgiveness for your past through sacrifice and acts of mercy. In each film, the heist is both necessary and a subversion. Here, stealing is a vector for engaging with the world as it is—a tool in the hands of anyone to change their fate. Why did Gilliam erect the funhouse mirror like this? 

The specter of God hangs heavy over western film history, and especially haunts crime films. That many (often white male) western filmmakers lived in fear of divine punishment—or, at the very least, lived their childhoods in it—places a veil of moralism atop the film canon. After all, “thou shalt not steal.” So the wafting incense of Christian moralism is ever-present, especially in films where the viewer is compelled by the illegal actions of the characters. God always lurks at the corners of the picture show, even in the films of proclaimed atheists.

Like many men his age, Gilliam toyed with the idea of entering the priesthood. Eventually, though, the realization that the priests didn’t share his sense of humor made him feel he might not be a perfect fit for ecclesiastical duty. Something in the life of rigid services, though, was comforting;  the routines just made sense. Within the monastery or the priesthood, there is no need to reckon with the idea of the chaotic world—the world that Kevin is thrown into, that Jack Lucas has been wounded by. One could simply follow the schedule and life of a monk, prescriptive and orderly.

Gilliam, born in 1940, grew up in a period of expanding religiosity in America. Over the next thirty years, Americans would start to attend church again in record numbers, and the Christian values imprinted onto the silent generation and the boomers haunt us to this day. Gilliam’s cynical perspective of the world is on full display in these films. The people of his world are obsessed with status, money, possessions, and television. Kevin’s parents are tied to their television, Jack Lucas obsessed with his face on TV. The Evil Genius is convinced that technology is more worthy than any creature created by God. These characters have turned away from the orderly life of religion;in the new world of technology and status, they have not yet found a way to be human, to be good to each other. 

If God has abandoned us—if the world is full of danger, lies, torment and greed—how do we proceed? Who can we steal a future from? Terry Gilliam, it seems, has found a likely mark. After all, who could be a bigger target for a heist than the heavenly father? He is perhaps the biggest score of all. 

To steal something is to understand it. So can we grasp truth from the vault of the divine?

> The Bank Vault of Self

If God has created evil, why does it need to be tested? Surely, supreme as he is, he doesn’t need to farm out his quality assurance. Furthermore, if the Grail is a symbol of God’s grace for mankind, why does it have to be stolen in the first place? Why is it held in the home of a reclusive billionaire? 

Perhaps the answers lie in the religious questions of morality that arise in any crime movie. Is it morally right to steal? I mean, yeah. Probably. Modern Christian architecture certainly takes a dim view on theft. The profligation of big box store security systems speaks to the sort of work that Gilliam approaches presciently in his films. The video surveillance of our modern lives—Lacan’s mirror self on every Walmart security camera. For the dispossessed, stealing can be a transformative act. 

In a spectacularly rigid way, a heist film almost always ends with the start of a new era for our characters. Something is transformed; they get the girl, or lose her; they get the gold, or lose it; they get their life, or lose it. Because there’s always a scheme or a plan, a trick to be revealed or a tension to be deflated, the ending of the heist sits closest to the educational film in the “what did we learn” echo of its final moments. The heroes/villians have attempted their grand design, and now, amidst the pieces or riches, the characters—and the audience—are left to see what was gained and lost. We’ve reached the end of the hall of mirrors, we’ve lifted a truth about our world and the people in it from those who created it, God, the director, ourselves. The child—ignored and mistreated by the adults of the world, unable to escape or find solace in the world of adults—and the adult, haunted by past mistakes, unable to accept happiness or charity, “find” mercy within love. They find it in the same way that Kevin and the thieves “find” their gold or Jack Lucas “finds” the Grail. If one must steal mercy to survive—if theft is necessary for filling a world absent of God with humanity’s bounty of love, understanding, and forgiveness—steal away.