Terry Gilliam once remarked in an interview that "when times are bad, I can't believe you can live without fantasy or imagination." This statement seems particularly valid in contemporary society when you realize all of the horrible things that are occurring. One only has to look in the newspapers or watch the news on television to see how rapidly society seems to be collapsing. Gilliam's statement becomes all the more true when you look at the success of a film like Forrest Gump (1994), which is beloved by many who see it as a hopeful reminder of better times. The problem with that film is that it is too literal in its fantastic elements, leaving little to the imagination. This is the strength of Gilliam's films – from his work with Monty Python to his own films – which transport the viewer to another world altogether. But this does not mean his films leave behind all traces of reality, but rather, like any good fairy tale, they play with and manipulate reality. To this end, watching a film like Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) is akin to reading one of those great fairy tales from your childhood. His film is the cinematic equivalent of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its ability to tell a good story, present colorful and unusual characters, and take us to places we can only dream about. And like these books, the film is set on an epic scale, spanning all realms, from the legendary city of Constantinople, to the Moon, to the insides of a giant sea monster.
Our story begins in the 18th Century, during The Age of Reason where a small, beleaguered town, ruled by an evil, bureaucratic Governor (Jonathan Pryce), is under constant attack from an equally cruel Sultan and his large army of Turks. Caught in the middle is an inept theatrical company trying in vain to entertain the battle-weary soldiers and shell-shocked villagers of the town with the fantastic tales of Baron Munchausen. During a performance, an old soldier appears, claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen and aims to not only set the record straight about his outrageous exploits, but save the town from the Turks. This sets in motion an epic adventure which has the Baron (John Neville) traveling the world and beyond for his former comrades, an eccentric group that includes Berthold (Eric Idle), a man who can run so fast that he must attach a ball and chain to both legs, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a sharpshooter capable of hitting "a bullseye half way around the world," Albrecht (Winston Dennis), the strongest man in the world, and Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a small man who not only has unearthly hearing abilities, but can "blow over a whole forest with just one breath." However, the Baron faces many obstacles from the outset of his adventure. He is old and feeble with the specter of death literally and figuratively pursuing him in all sorts of guises, but most notably as a horrific, winged, skeletal demon. Only his love of adventure and the help of his youthful companion, a little girl named Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), keeps Death at bay and his quest on track.
The idea for Baron Munchausen had been running around inside Gilliam's head for some time. He had always liked the 1962 Czechoslovakian film version and the various stories about the famed teller of tall tales. But it wasn't until he had finished his previous film, Brazil (1984), did Baron Munchausen become a viable project. Gilliam had fought Universal studio to release his version of Brazil and not the one they wanted – a more upbeat "Hollywood" ending. Gilliam, exhausted and jaded, was anxious to put that horrible experience behind him. And so, he and producer Arnon Milchan approached 20th Century Fox, pitched the idea for the film, and got the go-ahead from the studio. But then disaster struck. After Brazil, Gilliam and Milchan parted company and Fox lost interest in the project because the people who had made the deal were no longer there. However, Gilliam had going on at that moment and continued to work on Baron Munchausen. The source of this momentum stemmed from Gilliam's desire to finish what he saw as his "fantasist" trilogy: Time Bandits (1981) featured a young boy as-fantast, while Brazil presented an adult as fantast theme, and Baron Munchausen would complete the series with an old man as fantast.
Gilliam finally acquired financial support from Columbia Pictures and began writing the script for the film with his good friend and screenwriter, Charles McKeown (they had worked to get together previous on Brazil). They used the book, Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia as their starting point. Written by Rudolph Erich Raspe and published in 1785, it was based on the inflated exploits of a real German cavalry officer. Gilliam found that the book was merely a series of tales with no narrative connection and so he and McKeown created a story about a town under siege with a group of actors trapped in it, trying to perform The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only to have the real Baron showing up. There had already been two dozen screen versions of the Baron's endeavors in Europe alone. In addition George Melies had done a silent short, and two films, a German one filmed in 1948 and the aforementioned Czech feature in 1962, were in circulation when Gilliam decided to create his own take on the man. In writing the script, he and McKeown would talk about the scenes in detail and then McKeown would go off and write. Then, they would meet again and talk about what he wrote and the process would repeat itself.
Unfortunately, Gilliam's headaches did not end there. The studio forced him to begin production before he was ready and as the filming progressed, the usual budget problems began to rear their ugly heads. Principal photography began on September 14, 1987 at Rome’s legendary Cinecitta Studios (where Fellini had shot his films). After seven weeks of filming, the production was shut down for two weeks with rumors that Gilliam would be replaced by Richard Fleischer or Gary Nelson (The Black Hole). The studio threatened to replace Gilliam if he didn't get back on track. He had to convince the film’s completion bond insurer, Film Finances that he was in control of the project’s increasing budget. This forced Gilliam to cut out portions of the script but he could not decide what to keep and what to remove. Two days before the deadline, Film Finances threatened to sue Gilliam for fraud and this upset McKeown so much that he and the director went through the script in less than an hour and came up with revisions that appeased the financiers. Ironically, despite all of the script revisions they made, and the presence of Film Finances, the budget increased, the filming didn’t move any faster, and the sets weren’t built any quicker. According to Thomas Schuhly, one of the film’s many producers, there was no danger that Gilliam would have been fired: “You must accept the rules of the game, and that’s to make money, not to lose it. We had a better chance of making money with Terry than anyone else.”
Gilliam wanted to make the film in Rome because it gave him the opportunity to work with legendary Fellini collaborators, production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno. However, working in Italy presented its own unique set of problems. "This film was terrifying difficult, even before those other pressures from the studio began. The fact that the film was falling apart at the seams was bad enough – the organization was terrible,” Gilliam said. In retrospect, he regretted filming there because they were ill-equipped to do special effects films and his crew were speaking four different languages: English, Italian, German and Spanish. This resulted in miscommunication among crew members. Gilliam said, “The moment you say something it’s instantly mistranslated.” Gilliam became bogged down by the slow pace of Italian filmmaking and their unusual working methods. Gilliam and Ferretti redesigned the film several times with certain locations in mind only to find out after several weeks that no one sought permission to use them. They had to start all over again.
Due to delays and studio demands, the King of the Moon character was recast with Robin Williams replacing Sean Connery. The budget constraints forced Gilliam and McKeown to reduce the Moon sequence from a world of 2,000 people with detachable heads to only two people. When this happened, Connery lost interest and left the project. Eric Idle was good friends with Williams, who just happened to be in Rome at the time promoting Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Gilliam had actually offered him the role of Vulcan but he wasn’t available until they had to recast the King of the Moon and he agreed to help out. The role of Vulcan had originally been written for Bob Hoskins but he was busy making Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Gilliam cast Oliver Reed instead.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was generally well-received by mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The special effects are astonishing, but so is the humor with which they are employed … These adventures, and others, are told with a cheerfulness and a light touch that never betray the time and money it took to create them.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “With their remarkable contributions, Baron Munchausen is full of moments that dazzle, just for the fun of seeing the impossible come to life on the screen.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “A few episodes test the viewer's patience, and there is considerably more wit in the film's sumptuous design than in its dialogue. But anyone with an educated eye and a child's love of hyperbole can take delight in Gilliam's images and incidents.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Thanks to such contradictions, the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame … A fantasy in which literally anything can happen at any moment runs the serious risk of flying apart without a center; and there is hardly a moment in this movie’s 126 minutes when Gilliam isn’t taking that risk — both eyes open and full speed ahead.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe felt that Gilliam had “created another brilliantly inventive epic of fantasy and satire.”
With a budget estimated to be in the $40-45 million range (which sounds pretty small now but back then that was a big deal), Baron Munchausen harkens back to Gilliam's love of old epic "special effects movies" like The Sea Hawk (1940) and Thief of Baghdad (1940), which the filmmaker enjoyed as a child. As a result, Baron Munchausen is a stunning visual masterpiece on a grand scale that depicts all sorts of flights of fancy: characters ride cannonballs through the air, get swallowed whole by monstrous whales, and fly to the moon in a hot air balloon. Everything is set on an absurd mythical level that at times becomes wonderfully surreal. This is particularly evident in a remarkable sequence where the Baron and Sally travel to the moon. At first, it seems that the Baron's ship is adrift along a calm stretch of the ocean, but this gradually changes to the surface of the moon, a barren landscape where the constellations come alive, becoming what they are. One of the joys of Baron Munchausen is that every scene is filled with this kind of atmospheric, incredible attention to detail that sets it apart from any other feature you're likely to see.
Uma Thurman (as Venus the Goddess of Love) creating memorable scenes with their characters. To top it all off there is even an uncredited cameo by a delightfully unhinged Robin Williams as the King of the Moon who bounces from lunacy to lucidity with the frequency of a schizophrenic on speed and who is also not averse to lobbing giant asparagus spears at our heroes. He would subsequently star in Gilliam's next effort, The Fisher King and expand on the trilogy with a fourth option: crazed man as fantast.
If there is a central theme to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it is the notion that fantasy and fun complement science and reason. When the Baron first appears, he is an old man that feels pushed to the margins of a world he can no longer relate to. "The world is evidently tired of me," he says, "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." The film not only becomes a battle against the Sultan and his army, but against the stifling sterility of science and reason as represented by the corrupt Governor of the town (an wonderfully campy performance by Jonathan Pryce, who goes all out with his role) who sees a world "fit for science and reason," and not for the "folly of fantasists who do not live in the real world." And yet, Gilliam's film shows that you cannot have one without the other. As he once said in an interview, "Fantasy and reality, or truth and reality – whatever form it takes – that which the world perceives as truth, and that which really is truth. I like the idea that a good lie is probably better than what appears to be the truth – and maybe even more truthful!" Baron Munchausen constantly plays with these notions of fantasy and reality, constantly manipulating them throughout the film to keep us guessing. Eventually, it no longer matters as both blend together to form a new reality where one is not sacrificed for the other, but rather both co-exist peacefully.
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