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Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say I have no grasp of it whatsoever!

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
(1988)

(SPOILERS) Wondrous. Gilliam’s colossal misfire is, in fact, his masterpiece. Although, it might be even more so in its unedited form; the director, in response to pressure from Columbia, under new management and loathing his David Puttnam-initiated project, attempted to hone it closer to their favoured two-hour duration. In doing so, he felt it lost something of its assured pacing; “an extra five minutes would make a big difference” (albeit, Gilliam is also on record as saying “our first cut ran three hours and I thought it was just perfect”). When interviewed by Ian Christie twenty years ago, he said he didn’t think he had the energy to put together a restored director’s cut. Besides which “Nobody’s going to give me the money for that, since the film didn’t make any money in the first place”. Even given that some directors since have shown an almost deranged zest for revisiting previous work to variable results (Coppola, Mann) I can only hope Gilliam may yet be persuaded to change his mind. Even if he doesn’t, though, the existing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is much more than his The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s straight up magnificent.

Title: The Age of Reason. Wednesday.

I wish I’d had a chance to see the picture in the cinema. It’s truly Gilliam’s zenith as a director of spectacle. Perhaps it even broke him somewhat; he moved on to a gun-for-hire (as much as he could be) project to prove himself reliable and even eschewed storyboards. He was never quite as unbridled in his flights again. Perhaps the fantasy had been knocked out of him, as the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) attempts to do to the Baron (John Neville). Or perhaps he’d said much of what he had to say. When his own instigated projects have eventually reappeared, they have tended to be partial repeats (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s whims, for all their being two decades in the making, turn out to pale next to those of Munchausen; The Defective Detective may be best left unmade, since it’s working on many similar themes to Brazil).

Baron Munchausen: Because, I’m tired of the world. And the world is evidently tired of me.

Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia based Munchausen on a real figure, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Munchausen (who gained a reputation as a witty after-dinner storyteller, telling tales of his military encounters in Russia). Gilliam – possibly a bit of a Munchausen claim – suggested it ranked second only to The Bible in book sales.

Raspe stories that didn’t make Gilliam’s version include Munchausen fighting a forty-foot crocodile, having his sleigh pulled by a wolf, and a laurel tree growing to fix his horse, severed in two. Although, the last of these was planned. Indeed, it was Gilliam’s prized, project-inspiring sequence, one he nobly cut when budget wrangles left the production stricken and in danger of collapse.

Vulcan: Coom and see the ballroom.

I won’t rehearse the much-told tales of production woes, but it’s worth noting some of the other changes in concept The Adventures of Baron Munchausen went through. Marlon Brando was initially sought for Vulcan, but the notoriously reticent actor unsurprisingly shied away when it came down to it. However, his replacement, Oliver Reed with a broad Northern accent, is priceless and one of the picture’s greatest highlights. Gilliam opined that the actor was rarely exploited for his comic potential, and it’s true (Gilliam in a fit of giggles on the commentary track at Reed attempting to dance is as funny as the actual scene). Everything about Reed’s performance, and his attempts at gentility in order to please his wife Venus (Uma Thurman) are perfect (“Myaye Whyfe”; “You stroompet!”) And as Gilliam says, Reed and Thurman make for a curiously perfectly matched couple; forget Tarantino, Uma’s Venus is one of her greatest roles (and earliest).

With Gilliam, there’s always a danger that his politicking will strike a banal chord – it’s as well there’s no actual sign of Thatcher in Jackson, whom he says he based him on – but the concept of a nuclear missile is rather perfectly encapsulated by Vulcan (“You just sit comfortably hundreds of miles away from the battlefield…”) And then there’s the sheer wonder of the ballroom sequence, as the Baron and Venus take to the air (in The Name of the Rose’s redressed library).

Baron Munchausen: I always feel rejuvenated by a touch of adventure.

Most famously, the King of the Moon sequence was envisaged as a huge, Cecil B De Mille extravaganza overseen by Sean Connery’s King (with Michael Palin as his Chamberlain). Gilliam readily admitted that necessity became the mother of invention; Connery rightly dropped out when the budget was shorn and the reason for his inclusion with it, but Gilliam still needed the sequence. So he sprang cardboard cut-outs and Cartesian dualism on the audience, in the form of replacement Robin Williams conducting a war between head and body.

Aside from the sheer beauty of this sequence – the eerie emptiness of the lunar surface really stands out, and shots such as the rippling sands are just exquisite – you’ve got what might be Williams’ best big screen comic performance. Too often, he was riffing at the expense of the material (Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society). And I have to say, I always felt he was limited in more serious roles, self-consciously pensive or offputtingly sentimental (exuding a “please, love me” emotional clinginess). Here, though, it’s all about the solid core material and that the king is a suitably cartoonish presence in a live-action cartoon (which didn’t quitework the previous time Williams tried it, in Popeye). I think the actor probably goes too far occasionally (“I’m your elephant of joy!”), but he leaves you wanting more, which is always a good thing.

Baron Munchausen: This is precisely the sort of thing that no one ever believes.

For the lead, Gilliam first pursued Peter O’Toole (ironically, the Sultan’s Tockaji sequence would have married nicely with the later, almost as marvellous Dean Spanley). He reportedly also considered Jon Pertwee and Michael Hordern (Pertwee certainly wouldn’t have needed a fake nose). Securing Neville, who previously played Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror and had predominately retired to the Canadian stage, rightly led to a screen career resurgence for the actor (including The Fifth Element and an recurring guest spot in The X-Files).

Gilliam added poignancy to the dedicated fabulist by positioning his tall tales against the suffocating grip of clinical bureaucrats in the form of Jackson; Pryce had put himself forward for Munchausen, but Gilliam saw him as a wrong fit (correctly). He also thinks he let Pryce go too over the top, with the result that there’s no danger to Jackson. In that sense, he’s correct, and I agree Pryce has an unfortunate tendency towards maximum ham to material’s ultimate detriment (Tomorrow Never Dies). I do like this performance, though, which is apparently an imitation of Tom Stoppard.

Jackson: He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy.

The ongoing conflict Gilliam rehearses between fantasy and reality is at its most explicit and verbalised in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; Jackson is the Ahrimanic, materialist influence, Munchausen Luciferian fantasy personified. The latter wins through, but perhaps not in terms of Gilliam’s career, since the former will increasingly box him in and side-line him. Where’s the unbounded fantasist in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote? He’s played by a former Ahriman, now a tired, wizened facsimile going through the motions.

Baron Munchausen: Bucephalus, my Bucephalus.

Gilliam commented of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, “I was trying to do a Disney cartoon in live action”. Of course, it’s much more than that (and in some ways, with all due respect to Joe Dante, closer to a Warner Bros Looney Tune in sense of humour). But true enough, you have the Pinocchio whale. As Gilliam admitted there’s also the forced marriage of the cartoonish with the sophisticated in the costumes). The latter may not have been the intent, but it is undoubtedly a positive; Dick Tracy shows what can happen when you become too literal in primary rendering. Gilliam’s other observation regarding The Adventures of Baron Munchausen being “a sophisticated fairy tale” offers more of a flavour of what is really going on here.

But I was – and still am – blown away by the manner in which Gilliam managed to bring that cartoon sensibility to the screen. Probably the only person who has come close since is Stephen Chow (whose Kung Fu Hustle Gilliam cites as a favourite). The live-action approach to effects work is sublime, extraordinary and lunatic: the Baron riding a cannonball; the rope trick; the monster fish; the Baron and Venus dancing in the air; Berthold (Eric Idle) running and asleep under the tree near Belgrade; the Baron’s glinting smile; the steam out of Vulcan’s ears. The Sultan’s palace is sheer perfection (particularly Peter Jeffrey, but the comedy violence too). For me, it’s exactly the kind of visual palate I can relish and revel in, and it’s a rare director who is able to achieve that, the natural extension of his Python cartoons. Gilliam is spot on about how CGI would have diminished everything in this; you only have to look at The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (another Charles McKeown collaboration) for confirmation.

Baron Munchausen: How many people have perished in your logical little war?

Gilliam wonders if the framing device of the city under siege is sustained, and it probably isn’t. But I don’t think that’s in any way a deal-breaker. Like Brazil, there’s also a long intro here, and not all of the build-up perhaps pays off (he regrets that most of Alison Steadman, doubtless also intended to have a dual role, ended up either unshot or on the cutting room floor). Various complaints have been made about thin characterisation, but the central relationship between the Baron and Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) is beautifully drawn and performed. Also deserving note on the acting front are Valentina Cortese, Bill Paterson hamming it up a scream but entirely legitimately, Idle (who persuaded Gilliam to forego Berhold’s balding hair strands, so shortening his makeup time each day), Winston Dennis (“He’s gone funny”) and Jack Purvis.

Pauline Kael: Gilliam isn’t a poet… Gilliam isn’t a lyrical director.

If you look at the Wiki page, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen boasts a 92% RT score. For a flop, it garnered some perhaps surprising awards recognition (four Oscar nods, matching BAFTA ones, of which it won three). There were dissenters, of course. Pauline Kael, never a Gilliam lover, voiced predictable complaints (“You’re not sure what the picture is about… For a few seconds here and there, you feel you’re in a Piranesi dream world… but the entrancement never lasts long”; a “perfunctory” script amounting to “an assortment of bits”; complaints about comic timing and dramatic shape and emotional shading). At least some of which, Gilliam would doubtless fess up to. And she’s right, to be honest, that “This movie isn’t for kids”. In that respect, perhaps appropriately, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen falls somewhere between Time Bandits and Brazil. In classic Kael fashion, any compliment is backhanded: “The picture is too dry and busy to be considered merely mediocre”. Raymond Durgnat in The Film Yearbook Volume 8 (one of its Disappointments of the Year) called it a “see-it-on-acid cult show, like 2001” but “its centre has a hollow sound”.

Gilliam: I think it is too much. We got carried away. If I were to criticise it, we were excessive on every level.

I love the film’s unruly structure, though, its infuriating indifference to reality and fiction to the extent of gleefully blurring the two (“…an inept cheat, lacking even the logic of a dream” moaned Kael). Yes, you can argue it’s sometimes too much, too rich, although I think this is probably composer Michael Kamen’s finest work. Certainly his most distinctive, next to Hudson Hawk. I like too, that the Baron finds himself under arrest for undermining the official narrative, and that the big fear outside the city gates becomes yet another lie to cow the populace at the behest of those who call the shots (“Open the gates!”) “It wasn’t just a story, was it?” asks Sally, inviting us to choose the better narrative, rather than the one that does for us all.

Baron Munchausen: And from that time forth, everyone who had a talent for it, lived happily ever after.

For a sprinkling of critical balance, Geoff Andrew in Time Out called The Adventures of Baron Munchausenan engaging and dottily fantastic spectacular”. He suggested “More of its budget should have been spent on the script… but it’s good, intelligent fun, and occasionally truly inspiring”. More still, I have the British quad poster on my wall, which proudly quotes The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm: “A unique triumph… one of cinema’s great fantasy films…” I’d say that’s spot on.


 

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