With The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, alas, the malign gods were paying attention and behaving not unlike Terry Pratchett’s Auditors, practically warping time and space to mess with Terry Gilliam. They failed to ruin the film — Munchausen is magnificent, and a fitting conclusion to the Trilogy of the Imagination — but they ruined everything they could, to such an extent that Munchausen is unfairly and incorrectly called one of the most expensive disasters in cinema history.
The irony is that Columbia presented this handsome DVD edition, with its abundant bonus features, after doing its best to stifle the film in its theatrical release. You can find out why in the making-of featurette (amongst other things, only 117 prints were released for distribution, whereas most major films get 400). It’s a long and improbable story, with studio heads behaving like vicious idiots, supposedly-cheap shooting locations costing a fortune, major stars pulling out mid-film, and a campaign of lies spread by the film’s guarantors. The miracle is not that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a great film, but that it ever got made at all.
Where people were actually able to see the film, they responded very favorably indeed. The plot revolves around the legendary German adventurer Baron Munchausen, whose tall tales were published in 1785 by R.E. Raspe and later adapted by Gottfried Burger. We first encounter the Baron as a stage character, part of a troupe of struggling actors presenting his adventures. They are attempting this in a ruined theater in a European city being besieged by the Turkish army.
All is chaos, smoke and desperation, not in the least helped by the fact that the city is governed by Jonathan Pryce as the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, who is as narrow-minded and sniffily superior as… as a Columbia Studios executive. His whole ethos is summed up in a scene in which he confronts a wounded soldier (a cameo by Sting) who has just performed noble and extraordinary feats of heroism. Jackson condemns him to death, because such flashy behavior on the soldier’s part will surely make the common run of soldiers feel less secure in their own self-esteem. Jackson tolerates the theater troupe, just barely, as an aid to the city’s morale, but very much disapproves of their material. People ought not to allow themselves to indulge in fantasies! This is the Age of Reason, after all!
But the troupe struggles on, until interrupted in mid-performance by an ancient man claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen. This Baron is portrayed by veteran actor John Neville, giving a bravura performance in a part requiring him to shift between the ages of thirty and eighty-five, sometimes within one scene. The Baron promises to raise the siege, but must first locate his four lost companions, each of whom possessed a super-attribute: strength, acute hearing, speed, phenomenal eyesight. He sets out therefore on a quest through fantastic realms, discovering too late that the smallest member of the theater troupe — nine-year-old Sally — has stowed away in the gondola of his balloon-ship.
Gilliam’s child heroes are never coyly cute little moppets. Young Kevin in Time Bandits is sort of a junior version of Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy helplessly dragged from one life-threatening adventure to another, and only his interest in history and his common sense preserve him. Sally is likewise a real child, well used to the hard realities of life. Her bravery is rooted in anger. Whenever the Baron is about to pull one of those grown-up cop outs and surrender to exhaustion and despair, Sally goads him to action. We age into ruins, life cheats us, the bad guys win, but we’re not allowed to give up! No will is stronger than the steely will of a child who insists that the story come out all right in the end. Young Sarah Polley as Sally gets this across particularly well.
As with Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a marvel of unforgettable images and choice performances. Robin Williams’ uncredited performance as the King of the Moon makes you wonder how anyone else could ever have been considered for the part, when in fact he stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Sean Connery. Charles McKeown (who co-authored the screenplay with Gilliam) is splendidly weird as Adolphus, the Baron’s sharp-eyed servant. Oliver Reed, for unfathomable reasons of his own, opted to portray the god Vulcan as a 19th-century industrialist with a broad Northern English accent and a definite insecurity complex. But it works; he’s hilarious and scary. My favorite moment in the film is perhaps the marital squabble he has with his gorgeous wife, the goddess Venus, as portrayed by a very young Uma Thurman. His iron-red eyes stand out of his head like an enraged bull’s as he bellows “Yew trollop!!!” to which she responds like an indignant and shrill fishwife. It all ends in a fond embrace, to the thunder of factory hammers. That’s screen chemistry, man. Or perhaps my favorite scene after all is when Bill Paterson, as the head of the actors, is scrambling frantically through the ruins of the theater trying to dissuade Jackson from shutting down the show, waving the troupe’s rave review from the Glasgow Herald: “Good value for money!”
As should be obvious, however, neither this film nor Time Bandits are suitable for little kids. “May be too intense for younger viewers” decidedly applies here. Gilliam’s work is cerebral entertainment for the bright young adult and will refresh the heartsick older adult.
Production values on this edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are excellent. Once again, we get anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1. Gilliam and McKeown provide the commentary track, there’s a 3-part documentary on the making of the film and its attendant difficulties, there are storyboard sequences and deleted scenes. Good value for money, indeed.
(Columbia Pictures, 1989, 2009)