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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

"Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the biggest flops in cinema history. Its failure is something that still haunts director Terry Gilliam to this day. But is the film itself actually bad?

Let's find out.

[Warning: This review contains spoilers]

Written by Gilliam and his Brazil co-writer Charles McKeown (who also plays Adolphus) and loosely based on the book Baron Munchhausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia by Rudolf Erich Raspe (itself based on the tall tales told by Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen, a German nobleman who fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–1739), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was the third and final entry in Gilliam's Trilogy of Imagination, which also included Time Bandits and Brazil. According to the man himself, all three were about the "craziness of our awkwardly ordered society" and the desire to escape it through imagination at different stages in life: a child in Time Bandits, a man in his thirties in Brazil, and finally an elderly man in this film.

Not surprisingly for a Terry Gilliam film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen suffered through a notoriously troubled production which saw the film's already hefty budget skyrocket (although Gilliam denies it ever went anywhere near the reported $46 million). Sarah Polley, who was only nine years old when she played the Baron's unwanted sidekick Sally, found the entire ordeal deeply traumatising while Eric Idle, Gilliam's friend and fellow Python, described the whole experience as "fucking madness" and that one should only see Terry Gilliam films, not actually star in them.

But as bad as the production was, Gilliam has argued that it wasn't the complete horror show it was made out to be. Most of the negative stories were the result of studio politics with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen becoming the unfortunate victim of a regime change at Columbia Pictures that saw Dawn Steel replace David Puttnam as CEO. Steel wasn't interested in making a success of any of the films started by her predecessor and gave the film a limited released (only 117 prints according to Gilliam) with almost no promotion. To the surprise of no one, the film tanked, making only $8 million, with the blame for the film's failure pinned solely on the director.

Like so many box office failures, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen gained the reputation of being something of a turkey in the years following its release. This was rather unfair since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is in no way a bad film. I don't think it is some misunderstood masterpiece, and it is unquestionably the weakest instalment of Gilliam's Imagination Trilogy, but as a standalone piece of fantasy cinema, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is actually really rather pretty good.

The film opens in an unnamed European town, currently under siege by the Ottomans, sometime in the late 18th century (a Wednesday to be exact). It is the Age of Reason, a time of logic and rational thought, here personified by the town's mayor, and the closest thing this film has to a villain, Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). This is a man who wants to run a nice orderly war and has soldiers executed for being too extraordinarily brave because it sets a bad example. As the town is bombarded by canons, a group of actors put on a play about the life and adventures of that notorious teller of tall tales, Baron Munchausen (John Neville). Just as the second act is getting underway who should appeared in the audience but the real Baron himself. Now horribly old and longing for the sweet embrace of death, the Baron is none too happy with how he is being portrayed and proceeds to tell everyone how it really happened.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the kind of lavish, fantastical adventure film that studios don't really make any more. Hell, even at the time it was released, 30 years ago today, it was the kind of lavish, fantastical adventure film that studios don't really make any more. It's the ideal film for such a creative filmmaker as Terry Gilliam. Like the Baron, he also delights in telling tall tales with little care for how realistic they are or how much sense they make. This is his greatest strength as a director as well as his biggest weakness. Gilliam is one of cinema's great visualists, possessing imagination that few can match, but at the same time he's maybe not one of its best storytellers. Many of his films have a rambling, episodic quality and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is no different.

There is some semblance of a plot about the Baron finding his old servants in order to save the town and defeating the Turks, but it's really just an excuse for sending the Baron and Sally from one fantastical world to the next and for the director to let his creatively run wild. With no one to hold him back, Gilliam indulged himself to the fullest with this film, embracing the Baron’s far fetched flights of fancy with absolute relish. From the clockwork lunacy of the moon to the heavenly grandeur of Vulcan and Venus' ballroom, the whole thing is a feast for the senses (well, two of them at least).

The cast is something of a mixed bag. Neville is wonderful as Baron, bringing the right mix of charm, theatricality and matter of fact-ness to one of literature's most absurd creations. I love that Oliver Reed plays the god Vulcan like a Northern factory boss, forever at war with his disgruntled workers, while Robin Williams (who went uncredited and unpaid) is at his most manic as the King of the Moon. It's a shame, though, that the film never seems bothered about doing anything remotely interesting with any of its female characters, a problem shared by almost all of Gilliam's films. Polley is saddled with a character who seems to do nothing but nag and complain, Uma Thurman (as the goddess Venus) is just there to be admired by everyone, while the rest have nothing better to do than swoon over the inexplicably irresistible Baron.

Time Bandits and Brazil were both notable for having pretty dour endings. Gilliam famously had to fight tooth and nail to get Brazil released without the studio's preferred "happy ever after" ending. For a bit it looked as if The Adventures of Baron Munchausen would continue this trend. After saving the town by driving away the Sultan's army, the Baron is assassinated by Jackson, allowing the Grim Reaper to finally get his boney hands on the man who has eluded him all throughout the film. But just as he is being given a hero's burial, we jump right back to the theatre and discover that this has all just been another one of the Baron's outrageous stories, and not even the first one in which he died. None of it really happened. Except that it did, because the Turks were defeated and the town saved. Which make no sense, but then it wouldn't really be a Baron Munchausen story if it made any sense. And so Gilliam ends this unofficial trilogy on a more uplifting and triumphant note, showing us that while imagination can offer one person salvation in the darkest of times, an imagination shared, through stores, can help save others as well.

Notes and Quotes

--Yes, that is Sting as the soldier who gets executed for being too extraordinary. He landed the role because he was Gilliam's neighbour at the time.

--Where does the Baron get all those fresh roses he keeps handing out to all the beautiful ladies he meets?

--It was a brilliant move on Gilliam's part to cast Pryce, the daydreaming hero of Brazil, as this film's bureaucratic villain.

--To the surprise of no one, Oliver Reed spent most of his time on set getting drunk and trying to seduce the teenage Uma Thurman. This was actually her first acting role, but because of the numerous production delays she made two other films before this one was even released.

--There are so many great visuals in this film, but this shot is by far my favourite:

--As bad as the making of this film was, it still sounds like a absolute picnic compared to the making of The Abyss, that other big budget box office failure of 1989. 

Sultan: "Have you any famous last words?"
Baron Munchausen: "Not yet."
Sultan: "'Not yet?' Is that famous?"

Baron Munchausen: "Abandon ship!"
Berthold: "I think the ship's abandoning us."

Horatio Jackson: "We can't start escaping at a time like this. What would future generations think of us?"

Baron Munchausen: "Go away! I'm trying to die!"
Sally: "Why?"
Baron Munchausen: "Because I'm tired of the world and the world is evidently tired of me."
Sally: "But why? Why?"
Baron Munchausen: "Why, why, why! Because it's all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me."

King of the Moon: "My kingdom for a handkerchief!"

Baron Munchausen: "Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after."

Baron Munchausen: "I'm Baron Munchausen!"
Berthold: "That sounds nasty. Is it contagious?"

Three out of four tall tales.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

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