The Underrated ‘Adventures of Baron Munchausen’
This March marks the 30th anniversary of Terry Gilliam’s fantasy masterpiece The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — wait, what’s that? You’ve never heard of the fantastic Baron Munchausen? This must be remedied at once!
Premiering at the tail end of the 80’s, Munchausen marks the last of the great 80’s fantasy films. However, unlike The Princess Bride, Labyrinth or the works of Don Bluth, it didn’t quite find its second wind on home video. I believe it’s time for that to change. Let me show you what makes Munchausen such a fantastic adventure.
Once Upon a Time…
A girl named Sally is witness to a play about the impossible feats of one Baron Munchausen. An old man claiming to be the real Baron interrupts the show so he can set the record straight. He sets off on a journey to track down his long-lost friends, which include the world’s fastest and strongest men, so they can end a decade-long war. They, along with Sally, meet Roman gods, sea monsters, moon people, and the Grim Reaper, but can they save the day?
The Baron’s Bombastic Background
Baron Munchausen is Europe’s Pecos Bill — a larger than life figure who stars in many a tall tale. These include flights to the moon, cannonball rides, and more than a few brushes with Death itself. There have been some film adaptations of his stories in the past, but Terry Gilliam’s is the most recent one to date. It’s a delightful introduction for those unfamiliar with the Baron’s escapades.
Gilliam didn’t have an easy time directing it, though. There were constant feuds between him and the producers. The budget was in a constant state of fluctuation. The actors went through “working with James Cameron” levels of strain and stress. All this ensured Munchausen‘s reputation for having one of the most troubled productions in film history. On top of that, a sudden regime change at Columbia condemned it to the same fate as another infamous flop, Ishtar. The new management gave Munchausen a short theatrical run with little to no fanfare.
I bring all this up because, looking at the film on its own, you’d never know about the drama otherwise. Every minute is bursting with creativity. The toil and dedication is on full display. The actors never give away the trouble from behind the scenes. It’s much like The Wizard of Oz in that regard; the fantasy on display covers up all the background troubles. That’s a true testament to the power of the cast and crew who worked on it.
Familiar, Funny Faces
The late John Neville, best known as The X-Files’ enigmatic Well-Manicured Man, portrays the Baron as a man who’s been there, done that and everything in between. He carries himself with an inspiring air of confidence. He’s also unrecognizable in his old man makeup and comically large nose. Gilliam made a wise move in casting a lesser known actor because anyone with a reputation would overshadow the role. The Baron is a transcendent figure that shouldn’t be held back by an A-list name. When I see Neville on the screen, I see THE Baron Munchausen, and no one else.
Monty Python alum Eric Idle plays the Baron’s right-hand man Berthold, a speedster who’s a few steps behind everyone else. But he still retains Idle’s infamous cheeky sense of humor (After a whale swallows and nearly drowns our heroes, he blithely asks “Is there a doctor in the fish?”). A young Sarah Polley is Sally, the straight girl to the Baron’s antics. She pushes him to action, but it’s her staunch belief in him through the incredible odds that forms the movie’s heart. The scene where she rescues the Baron from Death by urging him to finish his story is their defining moment. It’s hard to not feel something when the aging Baron turns to her and hopefully whispers, “You really want to know, don’t you?”
A young Uma Thurman and the late great Robin Williams put in surprise appearances as characters in the Baron’s exploits. Rather than distract viewers with their presence, the actors’ lose themselves in their roles. Thurman’s resemblance to her Botticelli’s Venus is uncanny. Williams’ knack for improv feeds the Moon King’s lunacy. I dare not spoil who else pops in since seeing them for yourself is one of the movie’s great joys.
The fantasy world of the Baron’s tales are filled with extreme opposites stacked right next to each other. The Moon King’s realm juxtaposes extravagance with extreme isolation; ancient ruins and empty palaces dot the lunar landscape. Living constellations dance through the dark void of space to the music of Beethoven. Vulcan’s domain houses a factory, and a ballroom straight out of Beauty and the Beast. The plot occasionally takes a backseat so we can take in the absurdity and beauty of these scenes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sally’s war-torn town. It’s a reflection of the grimy, downtrodden side of humanity Gilliam often highlights in his works. I keep expecting the crowds of peasants to break into a chorus from Les Mis. It’s a world in dire need of a savior like Baron Munchausen. After the Baron’s stories inspire the people to revolt, the gates burst open to a bright dawn. The sky is clear and there’s room for everyone to live and breathe freely.
Of course, it’s not a Terry Gilliam movie unless there’s some commentary on humanity’s ridiculous standards. Munchausen is never short of that. In one scene, Vulcan shows off his latest creation, a nuclear warhead, and delightfully explains how it can wipe out all of the enemy at once. Berthold decries this notion — not out of respect for human life but because there’s no fun in that. The movie’s main villain, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, executes a soldier for the “crime” of going above and beyond the basic call of duty. Through the Baron’s tales — and by a certain extent this movie — we catch a warped glimpse of our own foibles. And speaking of…
The Power of Stories
Tall tales, and how they’re told, are a central theme. The town’s council, led by Jackson, twists logic and facts to fit their agenda. Meanwhile they discourage fantasy because it is “demoralizing” for those trying to live ordinary lives. When they permit flights of fancy, it’s presented as a mockery, as seen in the play which opens the film. In reality, Jackson represses all creativity so his authority won’t be threatened.
Jean Cocteau once said that poets are liars who tell the truth. The same could be said for the Baron. The fantasies he weaves provide a brief escape from the war raging outside, while also exposing the powers that be as hypocrites. His unbelievable stories reveal a kernel of truth about our endless quest to achieve the impossible. It’s interesting to note that the actors in the play are double-cast as figures in the Baron’s tales. It’s his way of showing how ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.
Nobody takes the Baron seriously at first. The town is full of poor, jaded souls quick to write him off as an old fool. The only one willing to listen is Sally, who is also dismissed by the adults. Is it any wonder that the best audience for a fairy tale is an impressionable youth? The climax throws us for a loop and reveals how much the town has been moved by what one man can accomplish. Inspired, they follow in his example and overthrow Jackson. By the end his stories appear to be so strong that they drive away the war itself.
And Those Who Had a Talent For It Lived Happily Ever After
There’s no denying that this is a bizarre movie. But we need more films with this much imagination rolled in. I can’t think of any in recent years that come close to matching it. Its visuals are a callback to old school Hollywood. There’s plenty to marvel at but there’s also room to think. It has the happiest ending out of all of Gilliam’s works, even if it’s a bit of a mind screw. How much of what happened and didn’t is left up to the viewer. Personally I’m inclined to go along with what Sally thinks — “It wasn’t just a story, was it?”
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen marks the final part of Terry Gilliam’s Imagination Trilogy, the other two being Time Bandits and Brazil. They explore fantasy escapades through the eyes of youth, adulthood, and old age. The Baron shares everything he knows and values to Sally through his adventures. Before he leaves, he gives her a flower. It’s a symbolic act of the old passing everything on to the young. This brilliant gesture transforms the trilogy into a cycle. It shows that as long as someone believes in the impossible, there will always be imagination in the world.
Thank you for reading! Have you ever seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or any Terry Gilliam movie? Comment down below!
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