THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN —- “He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy.” Whether director Terry Gilliam came up with that line or if it spun from his screenwriting partner Charles McKeown, it must have echoed with no small measure of “Iceberg, dead ahead!” rue when their elephantine exercise in excess mouse-squeaked into 103rd place back in 1989. *
Somewhere in Europe, the 18th century. The Ottoman Turks are besieging a city. Distracting the citizens from the battering, a theatrical troupe presents a play about an aristocrat and his fantastic travels. The elderly real ‘Baron’ (John Neville) interrupts the show and precedes to tell ‘the truth’ about his escapades. Reality & fantasy change places until it’s unclear which is what.
The Good—–imagination to spare: the nonsensibility Gilliam conceived, delivered in the production design by Dante Ferretti, provides a visual knockout in the sets, costuming, props and special effects. Michael Kamen gave it a delicious music score. The crew’s fine work pulled four deserved Oscar nominations: Art Direction, Costume Design, Visual Effects and Makeup.
High marks go to casting renowned stage actor Neville, 63, who’s marvelous as the literally lofty hero. With a sparkle in his eyes, he unleashes delightful diction, poise, panache, presence, and flair. Amusing cameos come from Robin Williams (the randy ‘King of the Moon’) and Oliver Reed (‘Vulcan’, hearty, literally fuming). It’s also graced with one of the first appearances of Uma Thurman, 18.
The Bad—–the framing device Gilliam and his co-writer chose—using the stage play during the siege to begin and end the story and periodically interrupt it—is extraneous, just adding more noise and bustle. It pads the 126 minute running time by an extra twenty or more. ‘Sally Salt’, played by 9-year-old Sarah Polley, is another lead weight, screaming in every scene. Dump the whole ‘Angel of Death’ business, too. While the action and effects are impressive, they’re also geared to bombast: gets wearisome. When one shout or explosion will do, Gilliam forces three.
The Ugly—–filming in Italy, Spain and England went in fits & starts, and cost-overruns grew out of control. No one held tight on the reins; the budget, already big at $23,500,000 went as bananas as the title figure, reaching $46,500,000.
Columbia Pictures changed management. The new regime disdained projects their predecessors began. They then threw the movie away with but 47 prints for the U.S. opening, just 117 for total distribution: only 120 theaters worldwide showed it. Subsequently, box-office was a calamity when only $8,083,000 trickled in. **
“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”
Warts and all, still an eyeful; much of it is truly inspired, and the great John Neville is splendid. With the hard-charging efforts of Jonathan Pryce, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Valentina Cortese (‘Ariadne, Queen of the Moon’), Peter Jeffrey (good fun as ‘the Grand Turk’) and Alison Steadman. Sting appears for about 30 seconds.
* In 1785 German nobleman Rudolf Erich Raspe wrote a short satire entitled “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.” He based his hero on a real baron, one Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen (notice how these guys are never just Fred or Pete?), known for telling whoppers about his military exploits. Like Movie Munch, he’d fought the Turks, and also battled Time itself: when he was 74 he married a 17-year-old. Various adaptations of the stories developed worldwide popularity. Jules Verne was inspired by them, and American tall-tales were sparked as well (paging Davy Crockett?). From the early Silent Era, shorts, cartoons and feature films took on the fun, the most notable before Gilliam’s being Munchausen, a large-scale German color effort made during WW2 to take 3rd Reich audiences minds off how badly things were going, and the stylized 1961 Czech offering The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. In the early 1950’s, the medical profession recognized ‘Munchhausen Syndrome’.
** Co-star Eric Idle: “A truly horrible experience and even remembering it is a bit of a nightmare….Up until Munchausen, I’d always been very smart about Terry Gilliam films. You don’t ever be in them. Go and see them by all means – but to be in them, fucking madness!!!”
I did see this on one of those original 47 prints, in 70mm, when it opened in Portland: I thought it was terrific. That was partly because I saw it with a hot date (hi, Roz) and a small dyed-purple substance that made everything seem fab. Certain it would be a hit, flummoxed when it flopped: friends went on my exhortation, saw it like normal humans, and wondered if by ‘expanding my mind’ I had lost part of it (the jury still out). A few views in the intervening decades reduced my initial enthusiasm some, and the most recent served to point up the flaws that keep it from being as cool as it once seemed back with Roslyn and the wee purple pals. But does anyone believe the Baron….?