Today, I review one of the lesser known classics in fantasy filmmaking: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. While its overarching plot is a successful battle against the Ottoman Empire, the detail and delight in this film are both astronomical, and in one scene, quite literally. You’d be hard pressed to find another film as fantastically rendered as the Baron.
Beyond fighting the Ottoman empire, the more-focused plot is a feverish jump between past and present, both of which become as ambiguously mingled as fact and fiction. The Baron, who is believed to be a mythical character, is being portrayed in a play within the movie. Said play is being acted by down-and-out, bit players who are doing all they can to entertain an audience constantly distracted by artillery attacks from the Turks beyond the city walls. When an old man appears, claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen, everyone scoffs. That is, until the set is transformed into a Turkish pavilion, a pipe-organ plays an opera called “The Torturer’s Apprentice,” and an entire fortune in gold is won in a bet over a bottle of port. And believe you me, this is just the beginning.
From there, we go to the moon to meet a king with a detachable head, played by a strangely uncredited Robin Williams. Using a rope to climb off the point of the crescent moon, the Baron, accompanied by an angelic yet street-wise Sarah Polley and Monty Python alum Eric Idle, falls from space—wait, a word about space in this movie. This is what I love about films. I saw this movie in 1988. My grandmother took my brother and me to a tiny, independent movie house called The Rialto in South Pasadena. She said that if it was too scary we could leave. As an eight year-old, sitting in that red velvet chair between my little brother and my elegant grandmother, by the time the Baron and his merry band of misfits are climbing down a rope attached to the moon, the gears of the universe moving around them, the signs of the horoscope literally swimming past them, I knew we weren’t leaving. To see space expressed with such imagination, such fantasy—that’s what I loved and still love about the possibility of film. Sorry, I digress.
From the moon, we fall to the center of the earth where we encounter Venus, played by Uma Thurman herself in one of her first roles. Her on-screen husband, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, smashes coal into diamonds for her. When the Baron begins to make eyes at Venus—and after they literally waltz on air in a ballroom made of fountains and clouds—Vulcan becomes angry and they’re thrown into a whirlpool which drops them in the middle of the ocean where they’re promptly eaten by a giant fish. I won’t tell you what happens next because I’m not really sure what happens next.
A box office failure, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen never got its due rewards. Many blame the ending, which to be honest is the most vague, strangely written endings I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen this movie easily 50 times, and I’m still unclear as to what happens. Terry Gilliam—the film’s long-suffering, tormented genius director—famously said that five more minutes could have saved the movie. I don’t need five more minutes. It’s brilliant as it is. I wish it’d been a commercial success because I would have loved to have seen more movies like this, more films that take one’s imagination on a true journey. There are no metaphors here. That actually is space. That isn’t a painting of the Venus; that is Venus.
As far as themes go, Baron is yet again pretty special. The theme isn’t something as boring as love. It’s not about heroes or faith or anything as banal as good vs. evil. The ultimate theme is deeper than these. As the Baron tells his adventure stories to the citizens of a city under siege, he becomes younger. His wrinkles fade and he stands taller, newly filled with life. His storytelling, real or not, keeps the literal manifestation of death at bay. Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen tells us that stories keep us young. As long as we can tell our stories, as long as there’s a chance that the Baron’s adventures could be real, death will remain in the shadows and the war will stay on the other side of the wall.
A classic in my family, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has given my brother and me lines to confuse people with since we first saw it at The Rialto: “Open the gates!”;”Beautiful ladies,” and the sing-songy, “What will become of the Barrrrroooonn?” among them. With an uncredited role by Sting, an uncredited role by Terry Gilliam himself, and a starring role by the stunning John Neville, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has never gotten the kind of respect it deserves. While a commercial failure, critically it was received well by almost anyone who has ever seen it, myself included. So snatch a rose, grab your snuff box, and use your knickers and petticoats to fly away into the angelically clouded skies of your imagination.