A notoriously chaotic and troubled production – not that that distinguishes it particularly in Gilliam’s oeuvre – “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” saw the idiosyncratic director coming off the back of a bitter but ultimately successful battle with Universal over the release and distribution of his previous film, “Brazil”. Once again, he found himself at the mercy of bureaucratic machinations that even he could not have dreamt up as the film – initially at 20th Century Fox then Columbia – became a casualty of the boardroom politics that saw a CEO fired and the new studio head refuse to sign off on the previously agreed budget. Thus, the film developed a reputation for being out of control and over budget although, in reality, the final cost was pretty much on the budget originally set at Fox. But reality has very little to do with the tales of Baron Munchausen and, in a way the eponymous hero would no doubt find extremely gratifying, the film’s reputation is decidedly wide of the mark in nearly every respect. Celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year, it remains a bravura piece of satirical fantasy that deserves far more success than it received at the time of release.
In European city under siege by the Ottoman Army, a touring stage production of Baron Munchausen’s life and adventures is taking place. The Mayor of the city, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), pays the show no attention as he busies himself with the bureaucracy of civic and military protocols, pausing only to order the execution of a soldier whose act of near-superhuman courage on the basis that such bravery would be demoralizing to other soldiers. When the play is interrupted by an elderly man claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville), he reprimands the theatrical troupe for the play’s many inaccuracies. Having gained the audience’s attention, he proceeds to regale them with an account of his life-or-death wager with the Grand Turk, involving his trusty companions Berthold, the world’s fastest runner; Adolphus, a rifleman with superhuman eyesight; Gustavus, blessed with super-hearing and an extraordinary lung capacity that can knock down an army and the tremendously strong Albrecht.
I may have to go back and watch “Time Bandits” again (it’s certainly been too long) to break the potential tie, but right now, I’d probably have to say “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” is my favourite of Terry Gilliam’s loosely connected ‘Imagination’ trilogy and probably my favourite Gilliam film of all. It starts as sharp as you like with Gilliam’s camera flying over the siege in full swing, captioning the scene ‘The Age Of Reason’ and the satire cuts deep as he weaves a wonderfully intoxicating tale of fantasy versus reality, heroism versus pragmatism and the dark, dreary forces of conformity seeking to stamp out the whimsical and wonderful folly of grand storytelling.
In a fate, perhaps more chilling than the one which befell him at the end of “Brazil”, Jonathan Pryce here is cast as the villain – of sorts – an officious bureaucrat who prefers order and protocol to anything as messy as humanity and empathy.
The disdain, escalating to alarm, at the charismatic Baron and his tall tales inspiring the populace to hope is the driving force of the framing narrative which sees the elderly Baron (John Neville, more well known as The X-Files’ Well-Manicured Man) challenge the administrative view of the world with a more than inconvenient truth.
But where the Baron – and Gilliam – really lets his imagination soar is in the telling of the Baron’s past adventures which prompt the Baron to go to great lengths to round up his long-lost companions once again, for a last great adventure. From the palace of the Grand Turk and its fabulous treasury, to the moon and back, the Baron’s adventures with his young companion Sally (Sarah Polley, whose feelings towards the production are the epitome of ambivalence) bring them face to face with The King and Queen of the Moon, the Roman Gods Vulcan and Venus and even sees them swallowed by a giant sea monster.
Everything is served up with Gilliam’s trademark lavish visuals and the set designs and special effects are a constant joy. The movie, which blurs the lines between fantasy and reality to such an extent that the differences cease to mean anything at all, is a wonderful mix of pantomime, grand fantasy, savage satire and good old-fashioned adventure. It’s a marvellously modern fairy-tale, packed with twinkly-eyed wit and spectacle and a dream-like narrative consistency that works because it’s anchored by John Neville’s superb performance as Munchausen himself, a man supremely accustomed to meeting with the truth and legend and treating those two imposters just the same.
Now more than ever there’s thematic resonance in the movies foundation of a government in profound denial of the reality of their situation, obdurately continuing negotiations and discussions while their world crumbles around them, but “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” isn’t about those tedious, earnest and petty concerns. It exalts you to not only reach for the moon but enjoy tea with the Baron once you get there.