THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, 1988
Terry Gilliam satirizes the imaginative legend of Baron Karl Friedrich von Munchhausen and his extraordinary assistants.
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If there is a movie that resembles a storybook any better, I would like to know. And that is probably the best thing Terry Gilliam has ever heard about his “Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”
High off his success from “Brazil” but still frustrated over his public war with Universal Studios, the director/writer returns with a fantastic cinematic vision of the 1785 literary satire, “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” by Rudolf Erich Raspe.
Actually, it is hard to attribute Gilliam’s commanding sense of art and storytelling to any one adaptation of the Baron’s incredible life. In the mid 1700’s, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchhausen served as a German baron in the Russian military before retiring to his homeland in Bodenwerder. From his own personal history of battles against the Ottoman Turks, the Baron entertained crowds with wild stories about his adventures including many fabricated indulgences. These tall-tales were first collected anonymously in 1781, before they were adapted from Raspe in London. Five years later, the stories were translated back to German.
With each passing translation and reproduction of the Baron’s fable, the fantastic material grew even stranger and wilder. It is no surprise, then, that Mr. Gilliam’s 1988-movie version breaches epic wonder with its depictions of gods, kings, and seafood.
The story begins in late eighteenth-century Europe. The Turks are devastating a Germanic city with explosions and gunfire. In the midst of all this chaos, a modest theatrical troupe is channeling the legacy of Baron Munchausen on an embattled and war-torn stage. In many ways, the scene resembles Gilliam’s own “Time Bandits” sequence when the time-traveling midgets impress the bored Napoleon with their rendition of “Me and My Shadow.” But here, as the play onstage unfolds, an elderly, big-nosed and well-dressed stranger claiming to be the actual Munchausen interrupts the production and gives the audience his hard-won history, beginning with his instigation of the Turk Wars.
In order to stop the war, the newly revived Munchausen (John Neville) realizes he must find his talented assistants, each of whom possess extraordinary powers: Berthold (Eric Idle) is the fastest man on the planet; Albrecht (Winston Dennis) is the strongest; Gustavus (the late Jack Purvis) has incredible hearing, while Adolphus (co-screenwriter Charles McKeown) has superhuman vision.
The movie was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Costume Design (Gabrella Pescucci) and Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo). It was also nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Make-Up.
“Everything about ‘Munchausen” is a lie, you gotta understand,” Gilliam says in a typically friendly confession. “There are so many lies told about ‘Munchausen,’ which I hesitate to correct because they’re always more interesting.”
In making his third-solo directed feature film, Gilliam encountered even more problems than he did with “Brazil.” Thinking Italian investors would be better receptors of his cinematic visions than the production executives at Universal Pictures, Gilliam, who wrote the screenplay for “Munchausen” with McKeown, responded to the advice of German producer Thomas Schuhly and began shooting his new satire in Cinecitta, Italy. But plagued with typical production problems, Gilliam reorganized his crew and relocated to the Spanish city of Belchite. This was when the film’s insurance company, Film Finances, began to get nervous and decided to sue their director fearing that he could not finish the final product.
“[Baron Munchausen] is the one experience I find hardest to talk about because it was so painful,” says Gilliam. “I was the one person who knew we couldn’t finish the film. This was my secret that I had to carry every day knowing there was no way the film could ever be finished.”
Confronted with challenges ranging from animal viruses to post-production lockout, Gilliam became the very embodiment of Baron Munchausen himself, a lone historical soldier seeking an audience and willing to indulge the improbable in order to overcome the incalculable.
“Dogs that we had developed a sickness,” continues Mr. Gilliam. “There was an outbreak of some kind of horse fever in Spain, so the horse we had trained for several months to do the tricks couldn’t be brought to Spain. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in that film. It was like reality trying to prove to me that dreamers don’t win. That a fantasy is a lie.”
But the fantasy that accompanies this narrative is given great guidance, thanks not only to Mr. Gilliam, but also to Mr. Ferretti and Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who captured the exuberant spirit of the Baron’s picturesque adventures. As mentioned earlier, this film resembles an art-house storybook like none ever I have seen before or since. It is like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” with popcorn.
It is a shame therefore that Columbia Pictures failed to embrace this art-house picture with better marketing. Operating on the whims of rumor like so many other production executives, Columbia caught wind of the surmounting production costs and severely downplayed its distribution in the US market.
After all of the production hysteria involving weather, animals, and principal actors (Sean Connery abandoned the role of King of the Moon and left it open to Robin Williams, who played it unbilled in case the movie was a turkey) was unloaded to the media, Gilliam was faced with an even more problematic aggravation in the distribution phase.
At Columbia, David Puttnam, who had originally received the film’s distribution rights, had been fired and replaced by former Columbia Pictures President Dawn Steel. Even after her death, Mr. Gilliam blames the Baron’s failure at the box office on her.
Citing Gilliam’s prior quarrels with Universal over “Brazil”, “Munchausen” only received a limited release in the US market, earning an embarrassing $8 million at the box office.“We were ultimately the victim of Columbia Tri-Star being sold to Sony,” Gilliam has said. “Because at that time, all they were doing was trying to get the books looking as good as possible. We weren’t the only film that suffered, but we were the most visible one.
“They were burying films left, right, and center by spending no money on them,” continues Mr. Gilliam. “And the books looked really good at the end of that.”
Given that the Hollywood powers defiantly screwed Mr. Gilliam out of his well-deserved public release, a question must be answered: Are the “Adventures of Baron Munchausen” worth all of this analysis?
My answer is an apologetic “not really.” The acting is splendid (except you will need to tolerate the annoying tendencies of young Sarah Polley, so lovely as a young woman in “Dawn of the Dead”, so aggravating as a small child here). The props and costumes are the definition of Gilliam’s tireless and imaginative authorship. The stories are unpredictable, zany, and positively ridiculous.
But, like a Monty Python sketch that runs longer than six minutes, the effects become overwhelming and the audience begins to wonder if Mr. Gilliam fired his entire board of editors. A fan of fantasy as well as inane comedy, I find Gilliam’s movies a wonderful amalgamation of cinematic wonder and well-scripted enjoyment. However, I can also say the man should pay closer attention to post-production cutting. Yes, it is a magnificent shot to see Baron Munchausen dancing in the sky with a near-naked, barely legal Uma Thurman, but one begins to feel like Sarah Polley’s young and intrusive Sally Salt, when she pokes at the Baron’s sleeve: “Can we please go now?”
In terms of the kind of man who could make “Munchausen” succeed, it is necessary to consider a quote from the film’s production designer Ferretti:
“Terry is very similar to Fellini in spirit. Fellini is a wilder liar, but that’s the only difference. Terry isn’t a director so much as a film author. He is open to every single idea and opportunity to make the end result work. Often the best ideas have come out of something not working properly and coming up with a new concept as a result. He is very elastic and that’s one quality in a director that I admire the most.”