(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.) “Most of you won’t remember me or my adventures, but I assure you, they are true.”
– Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen
I’m sure the few of you who know of this movie’s existence are jumping in your seats right now since someone on the internet is finally looking at it. I’m also sure that those of you who haven’t are scratching your heads in confusion. Allow me to elucidate –
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is a fantasy film released in 1988 that is the final chapter in Terry Gilliam’s Imagination Trilogy, the previous two being “Time Bandits” and “Brazil”. These are films that deal with escaping the humdrum, conformity, and injustice of society through imagination, with each film representing the struggle to do so at different ages. Time Bandits does this through the eyes of a child; with Brazil we see it happen with a middle-aged man. Today’s film does this with an old man, or rather, several old men breaking free of the constraints of modern-day progress and performing fantastical feats to fight back against those who would force it upon them.
In other words, if you ever wanted to see a 2-hour long version of “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”, today’s your lucky day.
But first a bit of background about the man behind this movie.
Terry Gilliam – three things usually come to mind when you hear his name: that one guy from Monty Python, weird-ass director/animator, or, as Hollywood tends to peg him, the Director With the Worst Luck In the Universe. Why is that, you may ask? Things started off well-enough for him, directing some of the Python’s most beloved films (though most of the credit went to the other Terry in the group) and the financially and critically successful Time Bandits (which is a film I’ve noticed people either love or hate; My boyfriend is in the latter category so I choose not to discuss it any further).
It all started during the filming of Brazil. The studio executives started meddling with his vision, insisting that they change the ending and cut stuff out, and in the end released a version that’s considered on par with the Mona Lisa after an unfortunate meeting with a chainsaw. This resulted in the film bombing at the box office, and from there, it all went downhill. Sure, “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys” kept Terry afloat for a while, but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? A cult favorite today, but reviled back then. His Don Quixote movie? Never even got off the ground due to production troubles. “The Brothers Grimm”? Failed in everything but the casting. “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”? His lead actor DIED halfway through filming (which makes me wonder if getting lost in playing the Joker was what really killed Heath Ledger). Terry Gilliam’s reputation for being a box-office curse has preceded him so much that he was turned down by Warner Bros. executives in favor of Chris Columbus to direct the first Harry Potter film despite being JK Rowling’s first choice, something that poor Terry has never gotten over.
I bring all this up because the film we’re looking at today, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is practically a textbook example of Murphy’s Law, in that everything that could go wrong during filming did. You could write a book on the problems that occurred; in fact, they have! There was constant fighting between Gilliam, the producers and the studio, the production went tremendously over budget, I’m certain almost every actor involved got PTSD (Eric Idle flat out said no one in their right minds should ever be in a Terry Gilliam film unless they want to be driven insane. Ouch.), and a major change in management at Columbia resulted in the film getting limited release, ensuring its total box office failure…
…which is why it’s such a miracle that this film is as amazing as it is.
I mean it. I really do love this film. It’s easily in my Top 10 Favorites, and it saddens me that it does not get anywhere near as much love and appreciation as it should. There are very few movies as creative, as funny, as adventurous, as fantastical, as occasionally heartwarming, or as flat-out insane as Baron Munchausen. Time Bandits may have a lot of nostalgic value for some, and Brazil is daring and bizarre in all the right ways, but this? For all the fiascoes behind the scenes, you could never tell by how well they pulled it off. This is one of those rare movies that somehow, subtly, worm their way into my heart by including just a little bit of everything that I adore without me realizing it until after I’m hooked. With every viewing I discover some new detail or level of brilliance. I seriously consider it one of the last great fantasy films of the 1980’s, and one that is overlooked far more than it should be. It had a decent shelf-life after being released on video, but not to the point of, say “The Princess Bride” or Don Bluth’s films, where kids growing up renting them on VHS have made them household names today. I can name the amount of people I know who are aware of this film’s existence on one hand – my boyfriend, reviewer Huey Toonmore, the cashier at the Barnes and Noble where I bought this movie who started up a conversation about it with me, and the lady behind me in line at said Barnes and Noble who joined our conversation. It’s rare when you find something that manages to stop a line for several minutes so three random strangers can discuss it, but there you go.
So I know what you’re thinking about this review after my singing of its praises and giving an overly long backstory – I wish I could say that’s the last Python reference I’ll make in this review, but I make no promises. Let’s begin.
So for those of you not sure about exactly when this movie takes place, we have some handy captions popping up over a view of a beach to tell us that this it the 18th Century…The Age of Reason…Wednesday.
The serenity of the scene is shattered as cannon fire rains down on a small town and a troop of vaguely Austro-Hungarian-looking soldiers try to keep the vaguely Turkish-looking soldiers at bay. While that goes on, we get a look inside the town they’re fighting over. In classic Gilliam style, it’s grimy, slathered in dirt and impoverished. Flyers plastered over buildings urge people to ration their food by simply eating less or not at all. The people so ragged and filthy I keep expecting them to start belting out something from Les Mis.
Most of the townfolk go about their daily routine trying to not get killed by the war raging outside the walls, except for one small girl who’s scribbling across some posters on the base of a destroyed statue. This is Sally Salt, our young heroine (played by Sarah Polley. Yes, the chick from the Dawn of the Dead remake. Neat.) Her vandalism isn’t so much her attempt to become the next Banksy as it is to get some recognition from her father. You see, she’s his only daughter, and yet the play company he’s in charge of is titled “Salt & Son”, something tells him with annoyance. She’s met with the usual jerky/inattentive parental response, ie. “It’s tradition, now go backstage and try not get yourself killed while the grownups work.”
We get the feeling she’s not quite alone, however, as the one thing in the town that ironically doesn’t look like it’s going to hell is an enormous and quite eerie statue of the Grim Reaper looming over her from the clock tower, its shadow all but eclipsing the sun (I already made a foreshadowing pun in my last review, so I swore off of doing the same in this one. You’re welcome.)
That evening, Mr. Salt and his actors put on a play based on the misadventures of one Baron Munchausen, a soldier infamous for telling outlandishly tall tales of his escapades (By the way, Baron Munchausen was a real person who published his stories, claiming each one to be true. He’s also where we get the name for Munchausen Syndrome, where one lies about being hurt or ill for attention). The play’s going about as well as you can imagine under the circumstances – nobody’s remembering their cues to move the sets, everyone else is rushing around getting their costumes on and trying to remember their lines, and the audience is made up of a bunch of cackling hecklers.
Among the audience is the head of the town, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Johnathan Pryce). If it wasn’t for the fact that this takes place in a different time and place than Brazil, I’d say Horatio Jackson would be what Pryce’s character would have become if the ending of that movie was closer to 1984’s ending – a soulless bureaucrat obsessed with keeping order and stability while holding rationality and reason above all else (why he’s permitting a play all about fantasy and nonsense to be performed is beyond me, but that’s beside the point).
The perfect example of his attitude while also alerting us to who the bad guy of this film is is when a soldier (played by Sting of all people) is brought before him. This soldier has singlehandedly performed a miraculous act of bravery, rescuing several of his men behind enemy lines while managing to destroy a large number of their weapons. For his unwavering courage and fortitude, Jackson decrees that he shall be…executed.
Yes, while most people would reward this valiant soldier, Jackson sees his good deed as demoralizing to the other ordinary soldiers who aren’t trying to rise to any new heights. He would rather have them all remain on the same equal level than allow someone as extraordinary as this hero to be among them. In every way, Horatio Jackson is the antithesis of Baron Munchausen, and the perfect villain for this story because while the Baron is absolutely fantastical, Jackson is all too real. He is so set on running everything with a cold, tight, logical, rulebound fist that he doesn’t care about the people. If you don’t fit into his worldview, then you’re gone. Everyone has run into this kind of asshole at least once in their lives, or worse, worked with them or for them. I know I have on more than one occasion, and let me tell you, they have not been pleasant experiences.
Anyway, despite the major hiccups at the start of the play, the rest of the first act goes on smoothly. “The Baron” stages an escape from a sea monster by making him sneeze him out with some snuff in a way that I’m positive will not come back into play much later in the film (and also because movie logic dictates that snuff is just instant allergy powder). Before they can go on with the second act, however, they are interrupted by someone from the audience jumping on stage and stopping the show with a vital message.
If you haven’t already guessed from the picture, this is Baron Munchausen, the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville), and he’s none too happy that the play has gotten almost everything about him up to this point completely wrong. When he threatens to impale everyone with his wild sword flailing, Mr. Salt is forced to call an intermission while they try to sort this out.
Nobody believes that the doddering old man in the worn old uniform standing before them is the actual Baron Munchausen, but Sally is the only one who listens to his ravings with piqued curiosity instead of fear and annoyance. The one thing that calms him down is the sight of some of the more comely actresses, and he immediately turns his charms (and also activates something in his coat that produces endless fresh flowers to give to them).
Several of the actors come in and the Baron instantly recognizes them as some of his old friends, despite them protesting that they’re only parts that they’re playing and not the people he’s referring to. (Remember how in The Wizard of Oz the characters Dorothy meets are based on the people she knows in Kansas and are played by the same actors? This sets us up for the same thing, they’re just putting the “And you were there…” scene first instead of saving it for the end.)
Horatio Jackson pops in to see what the delay is and is also dubious that the Baron is who he claims to be. The Baron isn’t exactly thrilled with Jackson either. When Mr. Salt toadies up to Jackson by introducing him as the one who’s winning the war, the Baron declares that only he can end the war because he was the one who started it in the first place. Jackson firmly replies that he needs to get a better grip on reality.
In response, the Baron gives one of the best lines in the movie, and my personal favorite:
“Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say I have no grasp of it whatsoever!”
I think this quote is just brilliant. If you want to get philosophical, what is reality anyway? Should we judge what is real based on what one person or one group or society dictates it as, even if it’s utter bullshit? In my opinion, hell no! Nobody should force their worldviews upon you. Though there are some things you can’t change, in the end, reality is what you yourself make of it. In other words, the Baron is telling Jackson that he’s rejecting his reality and is substituting his own, and it is glorious.
The Baron goes out on to the stage and addresses the audience. Despite their sneers and jabs, he continues politely, treating them as ladies and gentlemen instead of just the rabble. He announces that he knows the cause of this war as well as how to remedy it, and proceeds to tell them.
From there we seamlessly transition into a flashback – the camera travels through the formerly two-dimensional set as it becomes the palace of the Turkish Sultan, full of courtesans and oddities. The Sultan and the much younger Baron are sampling some of his wine, which the Baron simply thinks is “not bad”, but says he can get better. A wager is struck between the two – if the Baron can get his fastest man to procure some wine better than the Sultan’s within an hour, he can help himself to as much treasure as his strongest man can carry. If not, his head belongs to the Sultan.
The Baron writes out a note to his friend, Catherine the Great (whose hand in marriage, he’ll remind you several times, he once had the honor of declining), asking if she wouldn’t mind lending some of her booze, and gives it to his friend Berthold, played by Eric Idle. Berthold is one of the most enjoyable characters in the picture; Eric Idle gives him a lot of snark but also some innocence, as if he’s only going on half of these adventures because he’s got nothing better to do today. Also, he gets some of the best lines in the movie. Not as good as the previously mentioned one, mind you, but they’re some pretty hilarious reactions to some of the more unusual occurrences throughout the film.
Berthold is apparently so fast that to walk normally he has to keep a ball and chain around both feet. When he’s released he goes speeding down the road kicking up dust behind him so quickly I swear I keep expecting him to go “meep meep!” or “arriba arriba!” as he’s running. To entertain the Baron while they wait, the Sultan performs bits from a work-in-progress operetta on an organ that works by poking people trapped in a cage with spears.
After enduring the “music” for quite some time (it gets really awkward with the eunuch’s chorus comes in, let me tell you) the Baron whistles for his horse and they jump out a freaking three story window. Geez, not even Schwarzenegger was able to pull that stunt off! What makes you think you can do it, Baron?
They land safely before the rest of his men who were waiting outside and he tells them what’s happening, but they don’t seem all too concerned that their boss’ head is about to be chopped off – until he tells them it’s part of a wager. (Wagers are serious business, bro.) One of them, Adolphus, has some keen eyesight along with some wicked sniper skills, so after spotting where Berthold is (taking a nap under a tree a short 50,000 miles away), he shoots an apple off said tree to wake him up and he sprints back.
With only seconds left to go, the Baron is taken to the chopping block. The Sultan starts the countdown, but just as the last bead goes through the hourglass, Berthold rushes in with the wine. The tasting goes over well and the Baron is given the keys to the treasure room. The big black guy among them, Albrecht, starts piling up as much treasure as he can carry as per the agreement…and manages to clear out the entire room.
When the treasurer tells the Sultan the bad news, he takes it the way any bad boss does – by grabbing the nearest sword and decapitating him (Well he did want a beheading today, and if you want something done right…) He immediately sends his guards after them. Never one to back down from a challenge, the Baron sics the shortest of their group, Gustavus, on them. With a single breath, he blows them all away (for their sakes, I hope he hasn’t had liver and onions for lunch). Undaunted, the Sultan has his army fire everything they’ve got on them.
As the battle reaches a fever pitch, the theater is hit by artillery. The audience panics and stampedes out, despite the Baron begging them to let him finish his story. To make matters worse, Horatio Jackson has had enough of this nonsense and tells Mr. Salt and the actors that they’ll have to leave the city by tomorrow morning. While they panic and plead, Sally follows the Baron’s dog – who I forgot to mention until this point because he only appears in the very beginning and end and in all honesty doesn’t play that a big role in the film – backstage. She stops when they come across the Baron lying still and unconscious on the floor as a huge, winged skeletal figure cloaked in black hovers over him.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this movie’s interpretation of Death.
I have to admit, even though I probably would have loved this movie if I saw it as a kid, I’m glad I didn’t until I was older because this movie’s Death would have sent me screaming from the living room straight into therapy. Death is a figure that has been played around with quite a bit in media, both straight and comically, but I can say without a doubt that this is probably the scariest interpretation of Death I’ve ever seen on screen. Even if it looks like your traditional Grim Reaper, something about it makes you feel like your facing every fear concerning death personified. The eyes are sockets blazing with fire, a few straggles of hair cling to its skull, and it never talks. Instead, it lets out this long, high-pitched, inhuman scream. Remember how I said in my Secret of Kells review that the further removed from humanity something is the scarier it can be? That definitely applies to this creature.
Death tries to take the Baron’s soul, represented by a tiny glowing ball, from out of his mouth and…
…remember how I said Terry Gilliam almost directed Harry Potter?
Yeah, this can’t be a coincidence. Either Warner Brothers was keeping tabs on some of Gilliam’s ideas or Alfonso Cuaron wanted to pay a subtle homage to him, but there’s no way I can watch Sirius almost get his soul sucked out by dementors and not think Baron Munchausen did it first.
Sally accidentally catches Death’s attention and it comes screaming for her. She tosses her lantern at it and it vanishes. The lantern burns up a painting of Death in a backdrop, so was it ever there to begin with? This is the first mindscrew to come in this movie, so sit tight, there’s more to come.
The Baron wakes up to find Sally standing over him with a prop angel’s wings and sky background right behind her, making him question if he is truly dead. She tells him no, much to his disappointment. This is where we get one of the most important scenes of the movie, a rare glimpse into where its heart lies. It’s quiet and subdued compared to the rest of the film, but it is ingenious.
You see, the Baron hasn’t come back to the town to fight the Turks and finish what he’s started. He’s come here to die.
The world has changed but the Baron hasn’t. He’s become an exaggerated figure of myth. Progress and concrete laws have replaced what imagination and the fantastical once held dominion over, he says to Sally. No one wants to listen to him or his tales, to believe the impossible can be possible. There’s no place in the world for cucumber trees or seas of wine, no place for cyclopes or trips to the stars, no place for him anymore. It’s better for him to get on with being dead and let the world continue without him.
And yet through it all, Sally keeps asking him why. She pushes him for answers about himself and how his story ends. She listens to his replies but is not content with him giving up. When he tries to shove her away, she shoves back with equal intensity. The Baron is initially annoyed by her pestering him when he’s trying to die, yet as he goes on, he gets more spirited. Now at long last, there’s someone who does want to listen to him, to believe him, and as he nears the end of his tirade, he realizes she is right there, waiting for an answer.
He looks at her, smiles a little, hopefully, and quietly asks, “You really want to know?”
More cannon fire in the distance brings them back to the war at hand, and because the movie remembers that Sally is still a child, she goes ahead and does something stupidly childish by running out to where the action is and yelling at the armies to stop fighting so she can hear the rest of the story. The Baron manages to follow her and is appalled that the soldiers on the wall aren’t fighting back against the Turks’ onslaught. They reveal that they can’t fight back because it’s Wednesday; doing so would be against the rules. Having none of that, the Baron loads a cannonball into a cannon and it goes off and flying over the battlefield – while he’s still holding on to it.
This is actually a pretty cool sequence. Almost every adaptation of Baron Munchausen’s adventures has him riding a cannonball through the air and this is no exception (though it’s subverted here by having him clinging on instead of sitting on it). As he goes in and out of clouds and smoke, he catches glimpses of the enemy encroaching even further.
He catches a ride on another cannonball going in the opposite direction, races by Death and laughs as he passes it, and lands on his own two feet back at the wall. This feat convinces Sally that this has to be Baron Munchausen. The other soldiers are also in awe…until they’re hit by a different cannonball and are instantly killed. The two wisely decide this would be a good time to make a tree before they’re cut in two.
Back at the theater, everyone rushes around packing their things and lamenting their fate. Mr. Salt berates Sally for having run off with the Baron, but she excitedly tells him everything she saw him do. Unsurprisingly, nobody believes her and seeing as how her only other witnesses are as alive as the Norwegian Blue, she entreats the Baron to back her up. The Baron, however, also dismisses her tales of him flying a hundred feet on a cannonball as poppycock, which makes her very upset.
With that explanation out of the way, the terrified women plead to the Baron to save them. Moved by their cries and placating them with the flower trick again, the Baron promises them that he already has a plan, but he requires something very important from them – they need to remove their undergarments.
Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Using the big, frilly, old-fashioned undergarments of every lady in town, the Baron creates a huge balloon to go over the wall and find his four loyal friends, promising they’ll return and face the Turks in a battle to end all battles. When Horatio Jackson gets word of this, he orders his men to take him down (they can’t have anyone escaping when they’re so close to being properly defeated, now would they?) but with the help of his loyal dog, the Baron escapes and bids everyone a fond farewell. That’s when Mr. Salt and his wife realize that Sally is missing. I wonder where she could be…
So it seems the Baron is now stuck bringing Sally along for the ride. They manage to escape being fired on by the Turks and Jackson’s soldiers and they fly up into the clouds.
And is it me, or is anyone else getting a sense of deja-Pixar?
The Baron explains that first they’re going to find his friend Berthold, whom he last saw up on the moon. I like the conversation they have when Sally seems dubious about being able to fly there; the Baron is very matter-of-fact about these incredible things he’s telling her about and Sally is slowly but surely learning to accept them just as frankly (“You believe me, don’t you?” “Well, I’m doing my best.”)
Unfortunately, they run into a terrible storm, which isn’t helped when Death makes a brief appearance, circling over them like a vulture. Lightning strikes the balloon, separating it from the ship and they crash into the ocean. After tossing and turning on the waves for a little while, they wake up the next morning to find themselves sailing on the sandy seas of the moon…I’m not going to question it because the last time I did it nearly made my head explode.
Sally notices that the Baron has suddenly become much younger, to which he attributes to being swept up in a new adventure (Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen to Sally or the Baron’s going to be stuck carrying a zygote around for the rest of the picture). He happily notes that they’ll most likely be visiting the King of the Moon, of which he is very good friends with, and his Queen. Both of them have heads that are detachable from their bodies so they can enjoy more intellectual pursuits as opposed to being perpetual slaves of the needs and desires that control the body. There’s some excellent commentary in here but I know what you were really thinking the moment I mentioned detachable heads in an 80’s movie – since I already subjected you to Death incarnate, however, I won’t bring it up here (and I also couldn’t get a good screencap of Jean Marsh yelling “DOROTHY GAAAALE!!” so there you go.)
The Baron and Sally sail through a cardboard town filled with invisible cheering people…and unfortunately, this is where I have to point out when the budget restrictions start to show. Terry Gilliam originally planned for this section of the movie to be full of moon people who could do the same head trick as the King and Queen and take place in an opulent palace with a high-speed chase. Since we don’t get that, we instead have the moon mostly be a barren, lifeless wasteland with a few ruins and remnants of a few well-furnished but separate manor rooms. Thankfully, it’s more than made up for when you see who rules this floating rock –
Yes, Robin Williams plays the absolutely lunatic King of the Moon, or Rei di Tutto as he likes to call himself (but you can call him Ray; he’s listed as that in the end credits). I don’t know if he was shielded from some of the horrors that went on during filming, but whether or not he was, you wouldn’t know based on his performance because he looks like he’s having a blast. Terry Gilliam allowed him to completely improvise everything, and with a lesser actor this would have been another case of the camera being left on while they jabber away incessantly. Instead we’re treated to the King’s head’s remarkably silly attempts at enlightenment while the Baron and Sally try to appeal to his good side. It’s sort of a reverse Alice in Wonderland scenario, except the person who would normally shout “Off With Your Head” has already lost their head. I admit I used to feel these scenes went on a bit too long for my tastes, but then something happened about a year ago this month, and well…let’s just say my tastes have changed since then.
The Baron admits to Sally that the King is in fact, utterly insane and the King remembers that the last time the Baron was here, he made goo-goo eyes at his Queen. With that, he materializes a cage out of thin air and locks them both up just in time for his body to return and forcibly reattach his head back on. The King instantly changes into a crass horndog, stuffing his face with food and outrageously flirting with his wife. The Queen is more than thrilled to see the Baron again, but the King drags her away before they can get reacquainted.
As Sally and the Baron try to figure a way out, they find they’re not alone. Berthold, now much older, is stuck there with them. Apparently he’s been caged for so long that he doesn’t remember why he’s in there or who he even is. When asked, he replies “I’m a dangerous criminal. I must be, otherwise I wouldn’t be chained in here.”
The Queen’s head arrives shortly after, having left her body behind with the king. She frees them, all while she’s making some…interesting noises. Sally asks why she’s doing that and the Baron responds, a bit hesitantly, that the King is tickling her feet. As they make their escape, we see that the King is, in fact, really tickling the Queen with an oversized feather. While they’re both in bed. In their pajamas. Ummm… Unfortunately, he discovers his sweetheart’s head is missing and figures out where it must be. There’s only one thing left to do now!
Anyway, The Queen takes them for a flight on her head to the other side of the moon. It’s a cool sight but Berthold and Sally are holding on for dear life screaming and I just want to yell back “You’re riding across the surface of the freaking moon! Shut up and enjoy the ride!!”
I should mention that this movie was nominated for a few Academy Awards, including Special Effects, but lost that to The Abyss. Still, all things considered, these effects still hold up very well, and even when they don’t, just the way the sets and models look give it a lot of charm.
The Queen bids the Baron a fond farewell and lets him chop off a lock of her hair to remember her by. Of course, being a giant floating head, the lock is a huge, long braid (she’s lucky he didn’t ask for the whole wig). Just as the trio continue on their adventure, the King arrives on a chariot to chase them down with his giant flying robot Dodrio…there’s something I never thought I’d type today.
The Baron manages to give it the slip by having him, Sally and Berthold run in opposite directions. The three heads split apart trying to follow them and it crashes the chariot, causing the King’s head to fly free once more. Before he can continue the chase, he sneezes and blows himself out into the far regions of space. (Some people reconciled Robin William’s death by saying he returned to the planet Mork is from, I say his head’s still floating through the universe bringing joy, laughter and his special spark of madness to every world he passes by. Sorry, I think I got something in my eye…)
While running away, Berthold crashes into a spear the King threw at them and comes to with his memory now fully restored (because that’s how amnesia works, right?) He’s overjoyed to see the Baron again…until he remembers that he’s the one who left him behind in the first place so he could play Tickle Me Queen-o. Infuriated, he asks if the Baron thinks he can just pop back in after years of imprisonment and expect him to follow him to the ends of the earth, to which the Baron simply answers yes…and Berthold just shrugs and says ok.
Yeeeah, I have to admit, when you get right down to it, the Baron can be kind of an ass sometimes. Sure, he’s the perfect embodiment of adventure and old-world chivalry, but when he gets caught up in the more rewarding aspects of his quests, he tends to think more about himself than others. Even with John Neville’s unwavering confidence and charm, I can see how this might be a turnoff for some people. So come on, what do you have to say in your defense, Baron?
So Sally, Berthold and the Baron climb up to the very tip of the moon (and yes, I realize the serendipity of Eric Idle once more traversing through the cosmos in a scene directed by Terry Gilliam; that and the fact that he’s also a character with a penchant for boldly running from danger) and prepare to climb back down to Earth using the Queen’s braid as a rope and ohhhmahgerrrd…
Seriously though, these stills do no justice. It’s a short scene, but the stars and constellations…they come to life and dance in the background. They give this moment so much size and scope, reminding us that this a huge galaxy, full of beauty and wonder, but we are still so small compared to its grand design. Incorporating Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the soundtrack certainly adds to it as well. Altogether it’s the kind of detail that you could have shot the scene without -just have them start climbing and keep the movie going – but it’s those little touches that makes it so beautiful and memorable.
Our trio runs into some trouble when they’re not even a tenth of the way there and they run out of rope, but the Baron gets some from the top and ties it to the bottom so they can keep climbing. It’s a classic use of the Wile E. Coyote method, but like the Wile E. Coyote method, it stops working once you stop to think about it, and our heroes soon find themselves plummeting towards the earth.
Don’t worry, they fall into the safest place possible – an active volcano.
Rather than getting incinerated, however, they land in the center of the earth, where the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and his giant cyclops workers are busy at the forges.
What can I say about Oliver Reed as Vulcan? Is there really anyone out there better for the part? I should clarify that though this is the same actor, this isn’t the lean, dangerous, scary mother-effer Oliver Reed that was in “Oliver!” and “Burnt Offerings”. This is the big, boisterous, 20 pints-a-day-guzzling Oliver Reed that could hold his own in a shouting match against Brian Blessed, and he is clearly having a ball in this role. He switches moods on a dime and you don’t know whether he’s going to hug you in one moment or throttle you the next, but either way he takes a lot of joy in doing so.
The Baron politely asks Vulcan if he’s seen any of his companions, Albrecht in particular as a giant man would certainly feel at home here. Vulcan laughs it off as there’s nothing but giants here, and shows them around his factory. In this world Vulan makes weapons for all civilizations and races, past, present and future. He shows off his pride and joy, a prototype of a future weapon – a thermonuclear warhead. What follows is a nice darkly comic scene of him explaining how it works.
Vulcan: It kills the enemy […] All the enemy. All their wives and sheep and cattle and houses […] all of them.
Sally: That’s horrible.
Vulcan: Well, the best part is, you don’t have to see any of it happen. You just sit comfortably at home and press a button.
Berthold: Where’s the fun in that?
Vulcan then takes them into his parlor for tea and refreshments (and the image of a hulking, ash-covered Vulcan delicately sipping his tea from a tiny china cup is one that always makes me smile.) It’s here they discover Albrecht, who has become Vulcan’s “midget” manservant. Apparently Albrecht has rediscovered himself and doesn’t want to be big and strong and fight anymore. He likes being small and dainty compared to the other giants. I think Berthold sums it up best:
Then, something in the air changes. The walls shimmer like sunlight reflected upon the water. Everyone falls quiet as chiming bells and the music of a harp float through the room. Two cherubs lift a giant clamshell from out of the fountain, opening it to reveal the goddess of love, Venus (Una Thurman).
Now to be frank, I’ve never been all that big on Uma Thurman. I don’t think she’s the best actress in all of Hollywood and I don’t even think she’s that pretty, BUT she does perfectly fine here. She looks just like Botticelli’s Venus and we see she does have some good comic chops later so she’s good enough for me. (All right, all right, she’s fabulous in anything Quentin Tarantino directs, now please put the guns down and let me finish the review!)
After Venus’ handmaids dress her up, Vulcan shows his affection by creating a diamond out of coal and presenting it to her. Venus looks at it and passively tells him how sweet he is before tossing it over her shoulder on to a pile of diamonds in the corner. I have to hand it to this movie, it gets the relationship between these two gods perfectly. To put it in a nutshell, Venus, the most beautiful and vain of the gods, was forced into marrying the least hot one, Vulcan, to prevent all the other gods from fighting over who gets to be her arm candy. Vulcan is very proud of the fact that he got the hot chick, but Venus isn’t going to let a small thing like being married get in the way of her affairs. Her myths tend to revolve around who she bangs behinds Vulcan’s back and how he gets his revenge. They just love making each other miserable and nothing shows that better than this scene alone.
Vulcan introduces his guests and Venus and the Baron take an instant liking to each other (liking isn’t exactly the right word, but you get the idea). Venus invites him for a dance and they glide into the ballroom – literally – without a look back. Vulcan takes this well.
Then we get the Munchausen Waltz, and ohhhh…
You know, Michael Kamen is one of those film composers who’s done work for a lot of great movies (Lethal Weapon and The Iron Giant, to name a few), but he himself has never become as widely known as someone like John Williams or Danny Elfman. It’s a shame, because this song alone is one of the best pieces of music that I think was ever written for a film. It encapsulates the entire movie – lush and lovely orchestration that often veers into the bombastic and silly but sweeps you away nonetheless. It’s so good they play it again over the end credits. I know love at first sight may not exactly be real, but this movie proved to me without a doubt that love at first sound exists, because if it wasn’t for this piece of the score, I may still have been one of those poor souls doomed to remain blind to this film’s existence.
Some years ago I came across a fan-made tribute to the film on Youtube utilizing this very song, and the strange and fantastical images set to such wonderful music made me want to check it out for myself.
So thank you, Michael Kamen, for creating such a symphonic masterpiece, and you, anonymous youtuber, for sharing it with the world.
Anyway, Vulcan shows off the ballroom to his guests, doing his best to keep his temper under control (and failing utterly). It’s a beautiful cave-like room with candles, fountains, and waterfalls, topped with a dome of the sky. The Baron and Venus aren’t just dancing, they’re waltzing through the air up into the clouds, and the image is like something out of a fairytale.
Actually, is it just me, or is Terry Gilliam trying to compete with Hayao Miyazaki over how many flight scenes he can put in one movie at this point?
Berthold tries to distract Vulcan from his wife’s usual way of entertaining guests with his own dancing. Moves like Jagger he certainly does not have, but damn if it isn’t hilarious (Vulcan’s “dancing” in the background, which resembles a big gorilla jumping up and down and huffing and puffing, also adds to the funny).
Sally, however, isn’t having any of it, and tries to remind the Baron of their quest to no avail. He reassures her the town is in no immediate danger…and we immediately cut to the people back in the town desperately trying to hold the gates as the Turks swing a battering ram into them, in time with the music no less.
Left with no other choice, Sally alerts Vulcan that the Baron’s getting to first base with his wife. Needless to say, he doesn’t take it well. Oliver Reed’s reaction here is priceless, switching from total outrage to quiet barely contained calculation in a matter of seconds. On finding them in each other’s arms, he drags them back down to earth (literally) and…
You know, going back to what I said earlier, I just realized that most of the conflicts in this movie can all be traced back to the Baron’s one fatal flaw, and tying back to the mythological characters here, it’s the same cause for almost every Roman and Greek myth:
Vulcan tosses the Baron and his friends out through a whirlpool despite Venus’ protests. The back and forth banter between the two is also really funny, as Vulcan refuses to take any of Venus’ crap and she goes from sensual goddess to petulant brat on being referred to as a floozy (Don’t worry Uma. Come Batman and Robin, people will say much worse things about you.) After our heroes go down the drain, Venus sniffs “Are you satisfied? Did I…excite you?” And without any words, Vulcan melts like a pound of butter under her gaze. They fall into each others’ embrace and kiss passionately while the cyclopes hum a love song. As I’ve said before, they’re a couple that will always enjoy giving each other hell and nothing will change that.
Then we see the Baron, Berthold, Sally and Albrecht falling and ok, I think I must have put the wrong dvd in. It just switched from the movie to the opening of Dr. Who somehow. There’s a swirling otherworldly blue void with a bunch of other colors mixed in. Let me take it out and check…
..Nope. It’s still Baron Munchausen. They’re falling through this weird wormhole through the center of the earth into the ocean. That’s a weird way to go about showing that, isn’t it? I keep half-expecting them to bump into the TARDIS while this happens!
Now it seems our heroes are worse off than before. They’re stranded in the ocean on the other side of the world and the Baron has suddenly returned to his real age due to being expelled from a state of bliss. There’s an island not too far in the distance, but it seems to be moving towards them instead of the other way around…
So yes, our heroes are now in the belly of a whale-like sea monster (and no, despite there being a ship already inside, there’s no living puppet or his woodcarver father inside to keep them company). What we do get instead are the Baron’s other two companions…you know…that one guy and the little guy…I totally remember them…
Ok, I admit, it’s been so long since we last saw them that I completely forgot what their names were. It doesn’t help that it feels like the film only now just realized that there’s about 30 minutes left and we haven’t reached these two yet, so the way we’re re-introduced to these characters feels a little rushed and contrived. Maybe they blew the budget on the previous scenes before they could devise something better for finding the other half of the crew or maybe it’s just me nitpicking at this point, but who cares? It’s time for a director cameo!
Trivia time: Terry’s appearance was supposed to be extended slightly by having him drop dead in a similar fashion to his animator in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but for whatever reason it was cut.
Anyway, our heroes are literally in the belly of the whale, so they decide to make the best of it and spend whatever’s left of their lives playing cards. It’s up to Sally to rally them once more, but can’t get through. It’s not until she notices who’s the dealer that she snaps the Baron out of it.
The Baron is upset that this little moppet keeps interrupting his attempts to quietly die, but then they’re alerted to another presence on the ship making its way to them and sending Death off once more –
Actually, it’s the Baron’s faithful horse, Bucephalus. Spurred by this
hugely coincidental fateful reunion, the Baron feels that it’s finally time blow this blowhole and finish the quest. This looks like a job for Chekov’s snuffbox!
Sally, Berthold, Albrecht and Sirs Not Appearing in This Movie Until Now manage to get into a lifeboat, but where’s the Baron? It looks as though he drowned during the escape, much to everyone’s despair…or did he?
Rejuvenated once more, the Baron joins them and they row their back to shore to find the town waiting for them miraculously still in one piece. Unfortunately, the Turks spot them and open fire. The Baron immediately calls for his men to retaliate but they’re just a bit out of practice (being trapped on the moon, underground and in a whale for twenty years before getting hauled right into the middle of a war doesn’t help either). Even Sally doesn’t think they have a chance, to which the Baron cries out “You can’t give up! Not you!”
As short as it is, that’s actually something of a heartwarming moment. All this time, Sally has been pushing the Baron to be the hero he says he is, even when – no, especially when he gets distracted or wants to give up. He may act annoyed when she does it, but deep down he knows what they both mean to each other. She needs someone to believe in when her father and other parental figures have failed her, he needs someone to believe in him to give him the strength to continue. For her to want to surrender after all they’ve been through means there’s really no hope left. Frustrated, the Baron decides to surrender himself to the Turks.
Inside the Sultan’s tent, we find that he and Horatio Jackson are discussing the war. Apparently the war Jackson has been waging is so logical and efficient that he and the enemy have been able to agree on how many people from each side die every day and who gets what spoils there are left (at the moment both sides are fresh out of virgins).
On seeing Jackson conspiring with the Sultan, the Baron immediately calls him out on his hypocrisy but asks the Sultan if he still wants his head regardless. Judging by how terrified the Sultan reacts when the Baron enters the tent, it’s safe to assume he really wants him gone before any more fantastical shenanigans ensue. Jackson rubs it in his face that all those who try to defy reason always end up losing their cranium sooner or later, and we see the executioner preparing him for the chopping block. And then we start backing up…
The Sultan asks the Baron if he has any famous last words (“Not yet!” “‘Not yet’…is that famous?”) and the executioner raises his axe…only to have it shot in two by the sniper guy. Yes, Sally and the gang have arrived to save the day (I guess they had their inspirational hand-in-the-middle speech offscreen). The Baron escapes on his horse, whips out his sword and what follows…
Since the invention of the action-packed climax, there have been five rated the most intense –
This one…comes pretty damn close to joining all those.
Remember how I said earlier that this was like an extended version of the “Crimson Permanent Assurance”? Well, here’s where the high-energy action of that short really kicks in. It doesn’t let up on the absurdity either and it’s just a ton of fun. They’ve been building up this battle for the whole movie, and it does not disappoint. Since this part of the review will mostly be “this guy does this and this guy does that”, which doesn’t fully capture the silliness and awesomeness of this scene, I’m gonna try to keep it short.
The Baron starts lopping off heads left and right and traps the Sultan and Jackson in their tent. The little guy blows down the entire camp with a single breath and blows it back to him when he accidentally breathes in too deep (tents, people, elephants and all), but before the soldiers can kill them, he sends them all flying away again and they all land on top of the Sultan and Jackson. As the Baron keeps more soldiers at bay…
…Gustavus and Adolphus, now I remember their names!
Adolphus points out that there’s another sniper aiming right for the Baron and since his gun is stalled, it’s now up to Berthold to save him. He runs straight into the fray and OH DEAR GOD!!
Yeah, there’s that good ol’ fashioned extreme close-up shot Gilliam is known for. Not unpleasant enough for you? Don’t worry, we get that same shot nearly FOUR TIMES IN A ROW. And this is the least cringeworthy frame I could pick because I don’t want to scare away any new readers (hope you’re enjoying the review so far…remember to vote for next month’s review…have you lost weight?…please don’t leave). So yeah, thanks a lot, Terry. We really needed to be reminded that fish-eye lens exist.
Well after….whatever the hell THAT was, Berthold catches up to the bullet and speeds along right next to it. When it’s literally too hot to handle with his bare hands, he manages to deflect it until it hits the guy who originally shot it. Not bad, Berthold. That almost manages to make up for enduring you running right into my face before your act of heroism. Almost.
Then the Baron sees a large group of men on horseback heading for him, With a joyful cheer he leads them on a chase until they’re going around and around with him spinning in the center. The music becomes a calliope version of one of the Sultan’s earlier songs “Step Up and Win the Game” (which is a nice, ironic, and even triumphant callback considering what’s happening now) and the way the Baron fights while everyone’s galloping in a circle makes it look like a carousel.
Adolphus gets his gun working and blows up the ammunition. In a bit straight out of a cartoon, Sally gets the idea to have Gustavus send a mouse in the general direction of the war elephants. Of course, they panic and stampede everywhere. Albrecht goes into the harbor, hauls the warships back to the shore like he’s freaking Gulliver, spins them around over his head and lets them fly. The Turks retreat, and our heroes cheer. Against all odds, they’ve won.
The day is saved and the town welcomes everyone in with open arms. A massive celebration ensues with a parade led by the Baron and Sally, Mr. and Mrs. Salt cheer for her from the sidelines, and the broken statue from the opening is fixed and revealed to be that of the Baron himself. This couldn’t possibly end on a happier note…
By some rotten luck, Jackson managed to escape the battle unharmed but very, very sore. He’s got a fever and the only prescription is less Baron. From his hidden base in the clocktower, he aims and fires at the Baron…and hits him.
He is spotted, but something distracts him before he can escape. The grim reaper statue begins to shake and crack open, and finally Death itself bursts out of the stone, shrieking and flapping like a skeletal harpy. Jackson can clearly see it, and that brief look of terror on his face is something I relish every time. He only remembers to make a run for it when his army tries to take him down.
Death vanishes as everyone turns their attention to the wounded Baron. Sally is pushed out of the way to spare her the sight but she fights her way back to him. A silent and stone-faced man the adults recognize as a doctor approaches, and they stand aside to let him inspect the Baron. Sally, however, is the only one who sees him for what he really is – Death in disguise. She does everything she can to fight him off, but her parents dismiss it as hysteria and hold her back, forcing her to watch helplessly as Death finally claims the Baron’s life by pretending to save it.
A large funeral procession is held. The entire town is dressed in black and in tears, especially poor Sally. The music becomes a mournful requiem chorus (again, Michael Kamen knocks it out of the park) and the Baron is laid into his tomb, which appropriately reads “Here Lies Baron Munchausen”. We hear his joyous laughter echoing over the scene. He narrates:
“And that is one of the many occasions in which I met my death, an experience which I don’t hesitate strongly to recommend. And so, with the help of my servants, I defeated the Turks and saved the day. And from that time forth, everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.”
And we see him say this to the audience from the very beginning of the film, with all the actors on stage listening in.
Yes. Everything that has happened in the movie, the whole events we have just witnessed, was a story the Baron was telling.
Now, before you get your torches and pitchforks out because you may feel cheated by this…recent revelation (because what else can you call it?), please allow me to continue with the review, because I have a theory pertaining to this and how the movie ends that manages to make it work.
As the Baron (now as elderly as he was when we first saw him) finishes his tale, everyone notices how quiet it is. There are no guns or cannons going off in the distance, no fires raging. Sunlight pours in from outside. To their amazement, they realize the battle has stopped. Horatio Jackson barges in demanding that the Baron be arrested for his lies. The Baron declares that the danger has now passed and leads everyone out of the theater to the gates to prove it.
Jackson, however, is one step ahead of them. He positions his entire army before the gates and threatens to shoot anyone who dares try to come near. Only the Baron and Sally hold their ground, and are quickly joined by Mr. Salt, who tries to give a rousing verbose speech before the Baron quickly shuts him down.
Hey, sometimes the shortest speeches make the best ones, and simply shouting “Open the gates!” can be more effective than going into a monologue. The crowd pushes forward. The cavalry falters. Jackson screams at them as they surge past before ultimately throwing up his hands in frustration. The gates slowly open and everyone’s eyes widen as they reveal…
…the ruins of the huge battle that happened previously.
Um…hello? Shymalan? That’s your cue again…
Darn it, Shymalan! Why do you have to be a one-and-done joke? Also why can’t I use your twist meme again?
So it appears as though the battle that was just fought has been won in the real world. The townsfolk are overjoyed and I’m sure you’re even more confused right now.
Look at it this way – much like in Big Fish, it’s not so much what really happened that’s important as much as the story that’s told. Stories have a special kind of power that can make us into something else, change us, bring us to somewhere new. Baron Munchausen is a famous liar, but he uses those lies to take us to new places, and in the end, reveal some truths about good and evil, beauty and adventure. Using the play as a framing device also supports this; you can apply this to any form of entertainment but having it be a play allows the actors and director to talk directly to the audience, both literally and figuratively. The Baron and Terry Gilliam himself are very much in line with Cocteau, “the liar that tells the truth”. Maybe in the end, it doesn’t matter how it really ends, but how much you enjoyed the lie being told for two hours.
…But if you’re still not satisfied, here’s two possible explanations:
A) Everything that we saw in the movie actually happened. The only problem is that it doesn’t quite explain how we got to this point unless there’s some sort of time warp we’re unaware of.
B) Horatio Jackson was faking the war this whole time to feed off the people and keep his position, punishing anyone who threatened to expose his ruse. All it took was one man to brave enough to exclaim the emperor’s wearing no clothes to get everyone to realize they were being duped. My problem with this is that while this would be the most reasonable and logical explanation, if you haven’t noticed by now, this movie is all about giving the middle finger to logic and reason. Not to mention that would mean the story the Baron was telling was an elaborate tale and nothing more, and I don’t want to believe that any more than I’m sure you do.
Here’s my theory – ever read The Neverending Story? (or see the movie, but the book is better.)
Spoiler Alert: The story in the book that Bastian is reading, also titled The Neverending Story, is actually happening while he is reading it. Atreyu and the Childlike Empress address him though the pages and the book itself describes him and his reactions, until finally, Bastian himself becomes part of the book and helps shape the story.
If you haven’t noticed, the Baron is pretty skilled at doing some damn near impossible things, and here’s just another one of them – the story did happen while he was telling it.
The Baron is a very persuasive guy, enough to get anyone willing to listen to him based on his manners and charm. If he can charm his followers, nearly all members of the opposite sex and the goddess of love herself, then he sure as hell can charm reality into somehow causing whatever is happening to play out while he tells a captive audience. The actors he thought were the friends and lovers he had became those people with their thoughts and memories, and new ones appeared when he called for them (note how we see the ladies who play the Moon Queen and Venus but not the men who play their husbands, not to mention the Baron’s uniform now resembles the one he wore throughout most of the film rather than the one he came in wearing). Saying he died and finishing the story was his way of bringing everyone back into our reality, hence why everyone who was with him when he died is standing right next to him on stage wearing almost the same clothes they were then and not their costumes from before, and why, when we see them again, they go from mourning while they’re onstage to acting as though they’re waking up.
Call me a loon, and yes, I am writing this part of the review at 4:00 in the morning, but I stand by it and challenge anyone else to come up with something as credible.
The Baron gets on his horse and passes out a few more flowers to the ladies as he bids them farewell, but stops when he sees Sally. She looks up and asks “It wasn’t just a story, was it?” He smiles and gives the last flower to her before riding away into the morning sun amid the cheers of the townsfolk.
Now this last little gesture has a lot more significance than you might think. Throughout this entire movie we’ve seen the Baron sharing everything he knows and values to Sally through his adventures. “Time Bandits”, the first in the Imagination Trilogy, is about the young. “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, the last in the Imagination Trilogy, is about the old. In the end, with that symbolic gesture, the old passes on everything to the young to cherish and create. This isn’t Terry Gilliam’s Imagination Trilogy anymore. It’s Terry Gilliam’s Imagination Cycle.
And there you have it. Fantastic story, fantastic characters, fantastic action, fantastic film. For all the fiascoes going on behind the scenes you could never tell from how well it’s put together. I know Terry Gilliam looks back on this film with less fondness than his previous ones because of the hell he was put through (and I can understand where he’s coming from; I’ve made things in the past that I thought weren’t good but people I showed it to liked), but if you can’t already tell, I adore this film, regardless of its past or flaws. Frankly I could go on and on about some of the details in the design and other little lines and moments I haven’t mentioned because there’s so much I love, but the review is long enough as it is. This movie is a fairy tale, a perfect blend of humor, escapism, and pure imagination. All the characters have such enthusiasm for every situation they’re in that it’s hard to not get excited and invested in their adventures. Is it strange and silly as all get out? You’d better believe it, but that’s what also makes it stand out, and even gives it some of its charm. I hope this review has convinced some of you to check it out for yourself because I can’t recommend it enough. And if it ends up not being your thing, well, blame it on the whims of Robin William’s omnipotent floating head…now there’s another thing I didn’t think I’d be typing today.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
Also remember to check out NBC’s new hit sitcom “Merv & Monstro”, Friday nights this Fall!
(And yes, sorry the review is a day late, I just started work again. I’ll post the results for what September’s review is tomorrow.)