The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 May

Baron Münchhausen born, 1720

On this day in 1720, Hieronymous Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen was born, in Bodenwerder, Hanover. An aristocrat by birth, Münchhausen was employed by Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a member of the Habsburg dynasty, and followed him to Russia during the Russo-Turkish War (his employer being married to a Romanov). Münchhausen rose through the ranks, becoming a cornet, lieutenant and finally a captain, before retiring to his estate with his wife.

There he would entertain guests with fabulously embroidered tales, particularly of his time fighting the Turks. Münchhausen knew his tales were fantastical, and so did his listeners, and they were told with a twinkle, to surprise and delight the listener. He would doubtless be horrified to discover that his name has become associated with compulsive lying, and with a pathological condition in which sufferers of the Münchhausen syndrome feign illness to draw attention to themselves. As for Münchhausen syndrome by proxy – the pathological desire to suggest that someone else, usually a child, needs medical attention – he’d probably sue.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, dir: Terry Gilliam)

Some liberties have been taken with the spelling of the name Münchhausen, and some, too, have been taken with the facts of the life of Baron Munchausen (as he’s called here), director/co-writer Terry Gilliam preferring to embellish the fantastical stories Munchausen told rather than give us a dry run-through of the Baron’s life fighting Turks in a foreign land.

If you’ve never read any of the stories, Gilliam is true to the spirit rather than the letter – there is no horse tethered in a snowstorm to a “twig” that turns out, after the thaw, to be the top of a steeple; nor do we get the story of the wolf that ate its way into Munchhausen’s galloping horse, until the wolf had got so far in that he became the locomotive force inside the now-dead beast, Munchausen horrified but marvelling that he could continue his journey.

Instead Gilliam shows us the Baron (John Neville) growing younger as he tells us his fabulous stories, accompanied by a sidekick (Eric Idle) who is the fastest runner in the world, another who has superhuman hearing, another with great strength, and so on. Let’s not forget an eight/nine-year-old Sarah Polley either.

Betraying that he comes from the Monty Python stable, perhaps, Gilliam goes episodic on us, so that the stories – the trip to Turkey, to the Moon by hot-air balloon, into a volcano, into the belly of a sea beast, riding a cannonball – all have a stand-alone quality. And again betraying the comic-troupe background, perhaps, the film has these fantastic punchline moments – a naked 18-year-old Uma Thurman rising on a shell as Venus, Goddess of Beauty and Love, is a once-seen-never-forgotten moment of cinema. Oliver Reed as Vulcan, the volcano king, is also a standout.

Gilliam’s sense of the fantastic is to the fore. His subtext – is it even “sub” given how blatantly he’s peddling it? – is that the practical world must give some ground to the world of the imagination. It’s a theme he’d return to again and again. But rarely with the budget he’s got here. Tales of Gilliam’s excess are legendary, and the making of Munchausen and its budgetary overruns soured his relationships with studios (practical men) ever since.

It cannot be denied that Gilliam’s film is slow to get going, and could do with a trim here and there – that is pretty much always the case. But John Neville is a delightful Baron and the more yarns he spins, the more you want the charming Baron to continue.

Why Watch?

  • Dante Ferretti’s exquisite production design
  • Giuseppe Rotuno’s cinematography
  • Robin Williams’s uncredited cameo as the Man in the Moon
  • A huge budget, all up there on the screen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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