Baron Munchausen: Flights of Fancy


A Dreams Retrospective by JD Lafrance

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam once remarked in an interview that “when times are bad, I can’t believe you can live without fantasy or imagination.” This statement seems particularly valid in contemporary society when you realize all of the horrible things that are occurring. One only has to look in the newspaper or watch the news on television to see how rapidly society seems to be collapsing. Gilliam’s statement becomes all the more true when you look at the success of a film like Forrest Gump (1994), which is beloved by many who see it as a hopeful reminder of better times. The problem with Gump is that it is too literal in its fantastic elements, leaving little to the imagination. This is the strength of Gilliam’s films — from his work with Monty Python to his own movies — which transport the viewer to another world altogether. But this does not mean his films leave behind all traces of reality, but rather, like any good fairy tale, they play with or manipulate reality.

To this end, watching a movie like Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) is akin to reading one of those great fairy tales of your childhood. His film is the cinematic equivalent of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with its ability to tell a good story, present colourful and unusual characters, and take us to places we can only dream about. And like these books, the film is set on an epic level, spanning all realms — from the legendary city of Constantinople, to the Moon, to the insides of a giant sea monster. Gilliam has subsequently enjoyed a certain level of success and notoriety with the exceptional film, The Fisher King (1991), but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is an often overlooked film that deserves to find an appreciative audience.

Our story begins in the 18th Century, during The Age of Reason where a small, beleaguered town, ruled by an evil, bureaucratic Governor (Jonathan Pryce), is under constant attack from an equally cruel Sultan and his large army of Turks. Caught in the middle is an inept theatrical company trying in vain to entertain the battle-weary soldiers and shell-shocked villagers of the town with the fantastic tales of Baron Munchausen. During a performance, an old soldier (John Neville) appears, claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen and aims to not only set the record straight about his outrageous exploits, but save the town from the Turks.

This sets in motion an epic adventure which has the Baron traveling the world and beyond for his former comrades — an eccentric group that includes Berthold (Eric Idle), a man who can run so fast that he must attach a ball and chain to both legs, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a sharpshooter capable of hitting “a bullseye half way around the world,” Albrecht (Winston Dennis), the strongest man in the world, and Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a small man who not only has unearthly hearing abilities, but can “blow over a whole forest with just one breath.” However, the Baron faces many obstacles from the outset of his adventure. He is old and feeble with the spectre of death literally and figuratively pursuing him in all sorts of guises, but most notably as a horrific, winged, skeletal demon. Only his love of adventure and the help of his youthful companion, a little girl named Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), keeps Death at bay and his quest on track.

The idea for Baron Munchausen had been running around inside Gilliam’s head for some time. He had always liked the 1962 Czechoslovakian film version and the various stories about the famed teller of tall tales. But it wasn’t until Gilliam had finished his previous film, Brazil (1984), did Baron Munchausen become a viable project. Gilliam had fought Universal studio to release his version of Brazil and not the one they wanted with a more upbeat “Hollywood” ending. Gilliam, exhausted and jaded, was anxious to put that horrible experience behind him. And so, he and producer Arnon Milchan approached 20th Century Fox, pitched the idea for the film, and got the go-ahead from the studio. But then disaster struck. “After Brazil,” Gilliam remembers, “Arnon and I went separate ways, and Fox ultimately turned it down because the people who had made the deal were no longer there. But I had nothing else happening, and momentum on Baron kept going.” The source of this momentum stemmed from Gilliam’s desire to finish what he saw as his “fantasist” trilogy: Time Bandits (1981) featured a young boy as-fantast, while Brazil presented an adult as fantast theme, and Baron Munchausen would complete the series with an old man as fantast.

Gilliam finally acquired financial support from Columbia and began writing the script for the film with his good friend and screenwriter, Charles McKeown. They used the book, Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia as their starting point. Written by Rudolph Erich Raspe and published in 1785, it was based on the inflated exploits of a real German cavalry officer. “The book is really just a series of tales that don’t have any narrative connection, so Charles McKeown and I invented a tale about a town under siege, the group of actors trapped in it, trying to perform The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when the real Baron turns up and starts doing all the things that only happen in fantasy.” There had already been two dozen screen versions of the Baron’s endeavors in Europe alone. In addition, George Melies had done a silent short and two films, a German one filmed in 1948 and the aforementioned Czech feature in 1962 were in circulation when Gilliam decided to create his own take on the man.

These were the least of his problems however. Gilliam had difficulty casting someone in the title role. But one person’s name kept popping up — John Neville. At the time, Neville, a veteran British stage actor, was the director of the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festivals doing 15 productions a season with no time for films. Luckily for Gilliam, a makeup lady working on the film knew Neville personally, called him up, and arranged a meeting. It turned out that the veteran stage actor was a big Monty Python fan and he agreed to do the film.

Unfortunately, Gilliam’s headaches did not end there. The studio forced him to begin production before he was ready and as the filming progressed, the usual budget problems began to rear their ugly heads. This resulted in the studio threatening to replace Gilliam if he didn’t get back on track. It also didn’t help that they were filming in several foreign countries. “This film was terrifyingly difficult, even before those other pressures from the studio began. The fact that the film was falling apart at the seams was bad enough — the organization was terrible. It was a very foolhardy thing to go to a foreign country — in this case, Italy — that isn’t particularly equipped to do special FX films, mixing English and Italian crews. At one point, the crew was English, Italian, German and Spanish.” Somehow Gilliam prevailed and finished the film with the help of good friends like actor and fellow Python alumni Eric Idle providing support and a sense of humour. “At one point, we were out in Spain, and things were at their very, very worst. I was ready to quit. I knew there was no way we would get through the film. Eric really came in there, saying, ‘You’ve got to, if for no other reason, you must make this film to spite John Cleese!'”

With a budget estimated to be over $40 million, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen harkens back to Gilliam’s love of old epic “special effects movies” like The Sea Hawk (1940) and Thief of Baghdad (1940), which the filmmaker enjoyed as a child. As a result, Baron Munchausen is a stunning visual masterpiece on a grand scale that depicts all sorts of flights of fancy: characters ride cannonballs through the air, they get swallowed whole by monstrous whales, and fly to the moon in a hot air balloon. Everything is set on an absurd, mythical level that at times becomes wonderfully surreal. This is particularly evident in a remarkable sequence where the Baron and Sally travel to the moon. At first it seems that the Baron’s ship is adrift along a calm stretch of the ocean, but this gradually changes to the surface of the moon, a barren landscape where the constellations come alive, becoming what they are. One of the joys of Baron Munchausen is that every scene is filled with this kind of atmospheric, incredible attention to detail that sets it apart from any other feature you’re likely to see.

As in all of Gilliam’s films the large ensemble cast fill out their respective roles admirably. John Neville brings all of his knowledge and years of experience as an actor to the role of the Baron and makes what could have been a wacky caricature, a flesh and blood character. He has to perform the daunting task of portraying the Baron in three different stages of his life: young, middle-aged, and as an old man.

Sarah Polley (who has since gone on to do the Canadian TV show, Road to Avonlea and worked with the likes of Atom Egoyan and Hal Hartley) is the perfect foil for Neville’s Baron. When he becomes tired and fed up with the quest to save the town from the Turks, she is there to inject some youth and vitality into the struggle, renewing everyone’s energy without smugly mugging to the camera as so many child stars seem prone to do nowadays.

The rest of the supporting cast is also superb with Eric Idle and Uma Thurman (as Venus the Goddess of Love) creating memorable scenes with their characters. To top it all off there is even an unexpected (and uncredited) cameo by a delightfully unhinged Robin Williams as the King of the Moon who bounces from lunacy to lucidity with the frequency of a schizophrenic on speed and who is not adverse to lobbing giant asparagus spears at our heroes. He would subsequently star in Gilliam’s next effort, The Fisher King and expand on the trilogy with a fourth option: crazed man as fantast.

If there is a central theme to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it is the notion that fantasy and fun compliment science and reason. When the Baron first appears, he is an old man who feels pushed to the margins of a world that he can no longer relate to. “The world is evidently tired of me,” he says, “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.” The film not only becomes a battle against the Sultan and his army, but against the stifling sterility of science and reason as represented by the corrupt Governor of the town (an wonderfully campy performance by Jonathan Pryce, who goes all out with his role) who sees a world “fit for science and reason,” and not for the “folly of fantasists who do not live in the real world.”

And yet, Gilliam’s film shows that you cannot have one without the other. As he once said in an interview, “Fantasy and reality, or truth and reality — whatever form it takes — that which the world perceives as truth, and that which really is truth. I like the idea that a good lie is probably better than what appears to be the truth — and maybe even more truthful!” Baron Munchausen constantly plays with these notions of fantasy and reality, constantly manipulating them throughout the film to keep us guessing. Eventually, it no longer matters as both blend together to form a new reality where one is not sacrificed for the other, but rather both co-exist peacefully.

J.D. Lafrance is a freelance writer who hopes to one day get paid to watch and write about movies. He counts David Lynch, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, and, of course, Terry Gilliam as some of his favourite filmmakers.

More to explore

Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits