The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)

Welcome to the third and final part of our look at Terry Gilliam's

If you're just tuning in, read the introduction on my Time Bandits review.
And read
Brazil while you're at it.

I always identify with my lead characters. I was Sam in Brazil. "What will become of the Baron? Surely this time he will not escape," began as the movie's theme tune. It soon became mine.
--director Terry Gilliam

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, F***ING MADNESS!
--Eric Idle

Karl Friedrich Heironymus, better known to the English-speaking world as Baron Munchausen, born in 1720, died in 1797, was a nobleman of German descent who served under Duke Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Luneburg in his youth, and later fought the Turks of the Ottoman Empire with the Russian army. But he is perhaps best known for being the world's greatest liar, a storyteller who spoke of his life and adventures...or at least that's what several writers made him out to be, from which a completely fictional character named Baron Munchausen was born. This made-up Baron narrated himself as an adventurer of undeniable charisma and extraordinary luck, whose exploits included such implausible things as taking a ride on a cannonball and sailing away to the moon.

Terry Gilliam's 1988 feature was probably the fourth or fifth time the Baron's stories saw a movie release.

Time Bandits and Brazil had given Gilliam enough notoriety for Columbia Pictures to let him make The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but it turned out to be a taxing experience for those in front of and behind the camera. It was originally budgeted at $23.5 million but wound up costing double that figure. The owners of a similarly-titled 1942 film sued the crew for copyright infringement, despite the fact that the script was based off the original public domain texts. Production was frustratingly slow, and some of the cast and crew came down with illnesses. A new company took financial control and had set a date to shut down the project, and it didn't start up again until after tense negotiations and script revisions to cut out more expensive scenes. At one point, it was rumored that Gilliam was going to be fired from his own film.

The trade press that was flashing back to Gilliam's row with Universal over Brazil had a field day, calling him an out-of-control maniac who had finally been taken down a peg.

To make matters worse, Columbia CEO David Putnam, the man who signed on the film, was ousted just as shooting was about to begin. His replacement, Dawn Steel, promptly swept all of the films that Putnam had funded prior to his departure--including and ESPECIALLY this one--under the proverbial rug.

With little promotion in bigger markets and no promotion everywhere else, Munchausen flatlined in theaters.

Shame, too. The critics and the rest of the world loved it. It even picked up four Academy Award nominations.

"And you think I'M full of it."

In the late 18th century, referred to as "The Age of Reason" in the opening caption, we open to a war-ravaged town in...France? Italy?...well, somewhere in Europe. This town has never known lower morale in its meager existence--the Turkish army just outside keep throwing cannonballs at it so often it's now on a weekly basis--every Wednesday, in fact--while the municipal government have their heads so far up their asses they've even started beheading heroic, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty soldiers (one of whom is Sting in a cameo appearance) for demoralizing the rest of the army.

However, these people are not too downtrodden to enjoy a nice play at the remains of the local theater, and tonight a local actor's troupe has stopped by to present "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"...and not very well at that.

Luckily the play is interrupted by the chance arrival of the REAL (still fictional) Baron Munchausen, or John Neville playing a fancily-dressed elderly gentleman who CLAIMS to be Baron Munchausen. This man proceeds to ignore the protests of the actors, the audience and an annoyingly stuffy city official, the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce playing yet another bureaucrat) to proudly confess that the war they're currently...NOT fighting was all his fault.

As it turns out, the whole thing started from a bet between the Baron and the Grand Turk in which the Baron could get a bottle of wine delivered all the way from Vienna within one hour would have to forfeit his head if he were to lose.

We then cut to a flashback of this scene, where the bet turns out to be over the timely and speedy delivery of a bottle of wine from Vienna to Turkey before sunset.

Well, this is the scene where we first see the Baron's traveling companions, so we may as well meet them.

Co-screenwriter Charles McKeown plays Adolphus (at right), a marksman who would put any normal sniper to shame with his extraordinarily keen eyesight.

There's also Albrecht (center), the literal muscle of the group, played by Winston Dennis.

Gustavus (at left), a man of small stature who packs a super-deep set of lungs with which to knock many a man down just by blowing on them, completes the hat trick for ex-Time Bandit and former plastic surgeon Jack Purvis.

Speaking of recurrences, every Gilliam film I've reviewed so far has had at least one other Python appearing in it--and this one is no exception. Eric Idle stars as Berthold, who walks around with heavy balls and chains strapped to his feet so he can walk normally--because he's the world's fastest man.

He also has a fanatical hatred of tortoises.

Anyway, the Baron wins this bet by the skin of his teeth, and in celebration, he and his merry men clean out the Grand Turk's treasury room. One angry Ottoman leader later, the war began apparently.

So far in the movie, the only person who takes him seriously is the troupe leader's young daughter Sally Salt (played by a young Sarah Polley, who would grow up to star in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead). Lucky for the Baron. You see, Munchausen is a tired old man with a restless, eternally youthful spirit, who resents living in a world full of order and logic and reason, much like a child with an active imagination in a technology-obsessed family or a daydreaming wage slave in a city that's choking itself to death with paperwork, and when he's backstage contemplating ending it all, she's there to inspire him to end this one-sided war once and for all.

As he tries to help the artillerymen (who otherwise couldn't be bothered--it IS Wednesday, after all), a freak trip on a cannonball and a mortar shell reveals to him that the Turks have gotten bored with calling ahead and scheduling appointments to throw heavy objects at them at high velocity and have decided to do one big final siege on the town. It's also the first we see of a hooded and caped skeleton who pops in every now and again.

Baron...you didn't use CANNED salmon, did you?

The Baron decides to search for his missing friends and ask their help to defeat the looming Turkish army. Using his charm with the ladies, he asks them to donate their bloomers to stitch together into a giant makeshift hot air balloon to will carry him out of the city and on his journey, with Sally stowing away on board.

And also the Baron has the power to make himself look younger whenever he's overcome with a sense of excitement.

What? Because he's embarking on another adventure! What did you THINK I meant?

"How on earth were you able to get enough underwear to make a giant hot air balloon?"
"...we must be close to the moon by now. Where did I leave my star charts?"

His first stop is, weirdly enough, the moon, where he claims to have last seen Berthold. Here we are introduced to the King of the Moon (credited as "Ray D. Tutto", but you probably know him as Mork) who has a history with the Baron for having an affair with his wife, the Queen of the Moon (Italian actress Valentina Cortese). Some flirting happens, they get captured, they find Berthold in the same cage with amnesia, the queen's floating head helps them escape, Bert gets his memory back, and our heroes all fall off the moon.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the King and Queen's bodies are both decapitated. Both their heads float around everywhere while their bodies make love to each other and generally run around like chickens with their...well, you get the general idea.

Ever since he got satellite reception, Orson's been coming in loud and clear.

Rather than orbit the Earth until they asphyxiate and die, they plop down from an impossible height into Hell.

Well okay, it's not really Hell, and they're not really dead. While it IS deep below the Earth's surface, it's actually the fiery lair of the fire god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), who is actually very hospitable despite his living conditions and his visual resemblance to Brian Blessed.

Here we find out what Albrecht's been up to--he took a job as Vulcan's maid. He's got the outfit on and everything.

Yes, I know.

Everything goes fine until the easily-distracted Munchausen meets Vulcan's beautiful wife Venus (from that one painting where she's standing on a clam shell stark naked with her long hair held over her naughty bits...imagine Uma Thurman in that pose and there you go...and now go take a shower, you pervert, she was only 17). He shares a nice, romantic dance together ignorant of Sally's urgings to leave and the guy in the beard getting really, really angry. So angry in fact that he fires Albrecht and literally throws them all into the sea.


They emerge in the middle of a vast ocean and find Gustavus and Adolphus anticipating death in the belly of the giant fish that's just swallowed them, playing cards to pass the time. By this time Munchausen, rudely interrupted from his dance with Venus, is suddenly an old man, decrepit and depressed, and wanting his old mates to deal him in.

Hey, you know what would cheer him up right now?

One of Sally's nagging yet inspirational speeches?

Venus suddenly appearing before him?

Well, how about the Baron's trusty steed Bucephalus crashing through the wall of the ship they're staying in deep in the belly of the giant fish. Because that's what we get.

I really have nothing to say here, I just like this picture.

Suddenly inspired to head off into adventure yet again, and with the help of a "modicum of snuff", the Baron and his companions make it to shore, finally returning to the embattled city.

What follows is a very cartoonish battle sequence between the Turks and the Baron and company. The Baron, seeing his men too old to fight, decides to give himself up and allow the Grand Turk to have his head, and Sally must build up the others' resolve to rescue him. And thus starts the final battle - heads go flying off bodies, soldiers get picked off in merry-go-round fashion, ships are tossed around like a rock in a sling, and in the end the Turks are sent running and the Baron and our heroes have won the day.

Then Jackson shoots him in cold blood during his victory parade.

The 18th-century equivalent of FIRST REPLY GTFO YOUR MOM IS A HWORE YOUR GAY.

The entire city turns out for the noble hero's funeral procession, hopefully followed by the public execution of the irritable Horatio.

...and suddenly we're back in the theater.

Yes, not unlike Sam Lowry's happy ending, it turns out everything we just saw was all one of Baron's tall tales.

Mr. Wet Blanket Jackson returns to arrest the very-much-not-dead Baron for wasting everyone's time as he urges everyone to open up the city gates. Despite the annoying Horatio's persistently bothersome protestations, the whole city follows the Baron to the city gates, where just outside they discover...

...nobody there. Just an abandoned Turkish camp. (Wait, what?)

With nothing more to do in this movie, the Baron mounts Bucephalus, gives a beautiful rose to the young Sally, and with the cheers of the properly-convinced townspeople roaring behind him, he rides off into the distance and...vanishes.

Wait, so he was really dead?

But wait, that whole plot turned out to be one of his stories, so he couldn't have...

Ehh, screw it.

Haters gonna hate.

Ironic it was that a movie featuring the world's greatest liar would be, as Gilliam put it in an IGN inverview, "a victim of the world's greatest liars."

It's utterly remarkable when a movie such as this is known more for the chaos behind the scenes that in the finished product, and yet comes out as a very decent, solid effort. It isn't quite as epic or madcap as Brazil or as witty as Time Bandits, but the scale of the film sufficiently makes up for it. The visuals play out as though it were one of his Monty Python cartoons--they don't make a lot of sense, but then again they're not supposed to. And for the third review in a row, we get a WTF ending, this one more ambiguous than the other two.

Plus it has to be said: the fact that a director can put up with so much crap on the job--production delays, budgetary squabbles, miserable filming conditions (a young Sarah Polley found the experience particularly traumatizing) all for a studio that took his movie and threw it under a train--and yet make an entertaining movie that stands pretty well on its own just has to be applauded. If that isn't dedication to one's craft, I don't know what is.

And yet Gilliam's next film, The Fisher King, was also a Columbia-TriStar release.

So, how do these three films stack up against one another? Well, I'd recommend any one of them if you're looking for extravagant fantasy movies, and they all carry the theme of escapism and silliness in a world soured by rules, red tape and too much modern convenience. They all include scenes of one or more of its characters hanging from suspended cages. They have very strange endings, what with Time Bandits' exploding parents, the climax of Brazil turning out to be all in the main character's mind, and then...this. They all have Jack Purvis and at least one other Python in them...


I guess for me it'd be Brazil one, Time Bandits two and Munchausen a very close three.

I don't like to complicate things.

"...oh, and by the way, you know that Seven Years' War? I started THAT one as well."

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