The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
Only a handful of movies have earned the title of “disaster.” To qualify, it’s not enough just to suck (The Phantom Menace) or even to suck and bomb at the box office (Battlefield Earth)— the quality of the film in question is almost beside the point. A disaster has to have great minds at the helm, high production values, and a sterling cast of A-list stars. Disasters are expensive, ambitious super-productions that fly too close to the sun and end up hurtling back to earth in a fiery blaze. Many are household names: Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate, The Postman. Far more people know about these movies than have seen them, and while in some cases that may be for the best, for every Ishtar, there is a Baron Munchausen.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was to be Terry Gilliam’s follow-up to the dystopian epic Brazil, another costly failure, the subject of great battles between studio and director, and one of the finest movies of the ‘80s. Though Brazil flopped, it was critically adored, and Gilliam emerged from the struggle victorious. For his efforts, he was rewarded with $23 million from Columbia Pictures for his next project, an adaptation of the tall tales told by the real-life Karl Friedrich von Munchausen, an 18th Century German famous for embellishing his already-extraordinary life story with fanciful accounts of trips to the moon and hand-to-hand combat with bears. The studio-bound Brazil had barely contained Gilliam’s extraordinary visual imagination, and Munchausen, with its massive special effects budget, cast of thousands, and exotic locale, was to be the first project where he finally had the resources with which to realize his most ambitious ideas. Instead, it became his own Magnificent Ambersons, ruining his reputation in Hollywood, and robbing him of his creative independence once and for all.
Filming on the Mediterranean was subject to repeated delays due to weather. Massive sets were destroyed and rebuilt. And as the film flew over-budget, Gilliam was forced to reconvene with co-writer Charles McKeown to slash several expensive sequences from the script. Tension built between the director and his backers, and as the production dragged on (and on), rumors swirled that he’d be replaced by someone more malleable. By the time shooting was complete, the budget stood at over $46 million. In the editing room, nervous executives pressured Gilliam to cut the film down from two-and-a-half hours to two. The director acquiesced, afraid the studio would cut down the marketing campaign, and doom the film. But despite his concessions, when Baron Munchausen was finally released in 1989, it was dumped into a mere fourteen theaters. Its final box office tally: $8 million, less than a fifth of its budget.
Fairly or unfairly, Gilliam took the blame, and ever since, he’s been a director for hire, trying to earn the clout with which to film cherished projects like The Defective Detective and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. At this point, his reputation as a stubborn, unwieldy prima donna is probably beyond redemption; his very public feud with the Weinsteins over The Brothers Grimm didn’t help matters, nor did the unfairly reviled Tideland, for which reviewers dug deep into their Rogets in search of new synonyms for “self-indulgence.” But at least where Baron Munchausen is concerned, a reevaluation is in order, for despite its troubled birth, Munchausen is not only an artistic success, but one of the finest fantasy films ever made.
Munchausen opens in an unnamed European city besieged by the Turks, announcing its setting as “The Age of Reason.” A troupe of actors perform a stage adaptation of the Baron’s tales for an audience of war-weary citizens, while bombs rain down around them. The performance is interrupted by an old man (British stage veteran John Neville) waving a sword, who claims to be the real Baron Munchausen. Before being arrested by the logic-loving city magistrate (a hammy Jonathan Pryce) for spreading lies and rumor, Munchausen escapes by balloon, accompanied by an eight-year old stowaway (a young Sarah Polley), and flies off to find his gang of super-powered companions, who can fight off the Turks and save the city. Sally, the stowaway, and the elderly Baron travel to the moon, through the center of the earth, down the mouth of an active volcano, and into the belly of a monstrous whale.
They meet the king of the moon (Robin Williams), the Greek gods Vulcan and Venus (Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman), and narrowly escape the scythe of a winged grim reaper. Despite the fantastic nature of his surroundings, and his frequent scrapes with death, the Baron remains unflappable, never losing his smirk or dirtying his coat, never losing faith in his own stories, never doubting that he’ll overcome the odds. Late in the film, hopelessly outnumbered by an army of Turks, the Baron tells his half-dozen allies, “They're inviting us to defeat them! We must oblige them!”
Like Brazil, the film’s rambling narrative is really just an excuse for Gilliam to create one wondrous world after another. Gilliam’s first gig was as animator and occasional actor for the Monty Python troupe (that’s him as Patsy, knocking coconut halves together, in Holy Grail), and those marvelously surreal linking cartoons provide the blueprint for his style since: unexpected juxtapositions of high art and scatological humor, cumbersome technology, dark satire, sweeping cityscapes, rococo clouds and powder-blue skies. He makes movies for adults that are best viewed by children. He’s interested in huge themes, not least a distrust of bureaucracy and capitalism, but also of “reason” itself, of the logic that creates nuclear weapons, endless paperwork, and rules of engagement during war. Gilliam is devoted to fantasy and science fiction, but he refuses to accept the candy-colored dream-worlds of Hollywood, with its insistence on happy endings and unthreatening ideas. His fantasy worlds are filled with ugliness and bad teeth, with handmade special effects and a Felliniesque blend of the beautiful and the grotesque.
Boasting, as it does, one of the highest budgets of its era, it’s no surprise that the movie is epic in scope. What’s surprising is that its scope never feels epic—its overreaching ambition never seems to overreach. While Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate collapse under the weight of their own ponderous aspirations, Munchausen feels light, airy, even weightless. Again and again scenes move in unexpected directions—a tea party turns into a Botticelli painting, a thrilling chase climaxes with a sneeze, a bet over a bottle of wine ends in a battle. The sly, comic tone is charming—and whenever the film seems incapable of topping itself, the location changes, and Gilliam reveals a whole new set of wonders.
But beyond spectacle, the true greatness of Baron Munchausen lies in its ability to tie Gilliam’s grand visions to meaningful themes without ever ceasing to entertain. More than just a rollicking good time, this is a grand satire on the Western traditions of science and philosophy, a humanist epic that posits that if you dream something, it exists. Terry Gilliam believes in the power of imagination. Because of this, his work can sometimes feel naïve, even childlike; contrast his tender belief in wonder with the cynical world of Hollywood—or the logical world of the “Age of Reason”—and its easy to see why Munchausen failed so spectacularly. Not only does it refuse to come to all the accepted conclusions, it says that all those conclusions are false.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-02-13