Released in 1988, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen very nearly wasn’t released at all. Behind schedule, far over budget, more than a little bit off of the mainstream, it wasn’t exactly the darling of the studio’s eye — especially since the studio heads had recently undergone a shift in management, and the new heads weren’t keen on releasing anything by their predecessors. Reportedly, fewer than 50 prints were released to U.S. theatres, dooming the movie to relative obscurity and becoming a cult classic at best. But that would hardly be the first nor last time that would be true for a film directed by the Monty Python alumnus. Like most people, I didn’t see it when it was new, or even when it was first released on video. It’s probably just as well in my case; I would have been just a bit young at the time, and although I might have liked it, I probably wouldn’t have “gotten” it as much as an adult.
But since I became an adult and became aware of it, it’s been sitting on my “to see” list for some time. Tonight, I finally got to cross it off the list, and I’m glad. The movie is simply a delight, not just a fantasy movie, but a testament to the place that fantasy holds in culture.
The Age of Reason. Don’t mind the cannon fire.
The film opens in the late 18th century, in an unnamed European town under siege by a Turkish Sultan’s armies. The “Right Ordinary” Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) is trying to maintain control over his town by appealing to logic and reason in the form of conformity and tyranny, and hopes to negotiate a surrender with the Sultan (not his town’s surrender, the Sultan’s. They surrendered last time, it’s only fair.) To keep the townsfolk pacified, Jackson is sponsoring a theatre, with the Salt and Son acting troupe putting on plays about the fictitious Baron Munchausen and his outlandish adventures. Henry Salt (Bill Paterson) plays the title role, and his
son daughter Sally (Sarah Polley) keeps the barely-competent actors and technicians from completely lousing things up. Since young Sally has recently learned to read, she’s a little annoyed to discover the way the troupe has been billed, but her father says it’s “traditional”.
But the play is soon disrupted by a couple somethings more disruptive than a little question of gender. First, a man shows up, claiming to actually be Baron Munchausen (John Neville), and he’s more than a little irritated at the details the acting troupe is getting wrong. The arguments over how the story was supposed to go soon become secondary, however, as the Turkish cannon fire breaks through — and breaks down — the walls of the theatre. The city, under siege for some time, may not have much longer to stand. Sally, convinced of the Baron’s identity, convinces him to save the city. But in order to do that, he must find his four trusty servants: Berthold (Eric Idle), the fastest man alive, who must wear shackles on each foot simply to keep pace with normal people; Albrecht (Winston Dennis), the strongest man in the world; Adolphus (Charles McKeown), whose eyes are so keen he can hit a bullseye from halfway around the world; and Gustavus (Jack Purvis), who has both super hearing and the ability to blow gusts of winds from his lungs that can send a battalion flying. With Sally at his side, the Baron sets out to find his four friends, flying to the moon, going into a volcano, and traveling through the center of the Earth to find them. Reality, after all, is no obstacle to the Baron, and the fanciful events of his stories seem to be as true as they are impossible.
“Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”
But it’s not all easy for the Baron and Sally. His servants have aged, and their abilities are not what they once were. Berthold’s memory is faulty, and he doesn’t run any more. Adolphus has lost an eye, Gustavus needs a hearing horn. Albrecht has discovered he likes to feel “dainty”. And the Grim Reaper is shadowing the Baron’s every move. If Baron Munchausen wants his friends to save the city, he must first reinvigorate his friends; while his age seems to vary depending on his mood, theirs is firmly on the “elderly” side of the line.
All of the main cast play their parts very well. The Baron’s servants are all associates of Gilliam’s, either from roles in his earlier films, or in the case of Idle, from their days in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There is an obvious sense of ease and comfort in each others’ presence that helps both the comedic timing and the sense that these are old friends finally reunited. John Neville is as hammy as the Baron needs to be, which is to say, very; the character is meant to be larger than life, and Neville’s portrayal is so outlandish and yet so charming at the same time that you can’t help but believe what he’s saying. Sarah Polley is much more believable than many child actors, perhaps because her character is more believable; Sally is at turns petulant and determined, caught up in the magic and pushing the others to hurry up and get the job done. And Pryce’s role as Horatio Jackson is the picture of every slimy weaselly bureaucrat who thinks he can just number everything into its proper place.
There are some notable cameos as well. Sting makes an early appearance as a soldier beheaded for doing too well on the battlefield. Robin Williams is let loose as the King of the Moon (under the pseudonym Ray D. Tutti — “King of Everything”), and whether you enjoy that scene is essentially synonymous with whether you like Robin Williams. Oliver Reed plays the god Vulcan, convincingly raging, but with a degree of restraint when he first realizes he has guests. And as his wife, Venus, Uma Thurman makes her film debut, naked at first. There are certainly worse ways to make a first impression, and despite her having approximately three minutes of screen time and little dialogue, most DVD releases put her name on the front cover.
If it’s imitating classic art, it’s classy, right? Besides, shame is for people whose blogs already have good traffic from Google.
But I wouldn’t be praising this film if all it had to offer was Uma Thurman naked. This is a great fantasy-comedy film. It’s surreal and weird, but if you can roll with it, it’s well worth it. The Baron’s life is like an extended tall tale, and like the tall tales and fables of old, logic, reason, and restraint have no place in it. Of course you can fly to the moon, and lower yourself down again with a rope. There’s a heavy meta-textual sense to the story here, with the Baron’s outlandish nature opposing Jackson’s cold logic; Gilliam is reminding the audience how powerful imagination and fantasy can be, and how much fun they are. And The Adventures of Baron Munchausen succeeds at that, because it is certainly a fun film.