Ask any film fan what his favorite Terry Gilliam movie is, and you’re likely to get a series of startlingly dissimilar answers. Most will mention Brazil or his breakthrough film, Time Bandits. Others will cite the mainstream hits The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. You’ll get a few squirrelly responses – aficionados lodging votes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jabberwocky, or the recently released (and quite polarizing) Tideland. But you almost never hear the director’s devotees championing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Dismissed in a manner similar to his attempted blockbuster, 2005’s The Brothers Grimm, many find his work on said epic a confluence of excess and extremes that never fully comes together as a cohesive cinematic statement.
They would be wrong. Perhaps the most breathlessly original work the filmmaker would ever oversee, Gilliam’s attempted visualization of the famed Germanic folk hero and his infamous gift of exaggeration remains his masterpiece, a completely flawed and overpoweringly brilliant work of pure motion picture art. Yet because it has such a jaded history, many look on it as the Heaven’s Gate of its time. It was the kind of over publicized failure that gave its supporting studio (Columbia) a massive mainstream (and media) headache. It was poorly reviewed, misunderstood by a critical community waiting to pounce on the filmmaker for his noted outrageousness. Some could even argue that it was payback for the whole Brazil battle. After going to bat for his vision on that myopic bit of future shock, journalists perhaps grew tired of carrying the commercial mantle for the notoriously prickly ex-pat Python.
Whatever the case, what was blasted back in 1988 as overdone and dull becomes the fantasy film equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in light of a new, post-millennial mentality. While he can argue all he wants to about the inclusion of this film in his Ageism Trilogy (with Time Bandits representing youth and Brazil marking middle age), what Gilliam really accomplished here is the defining of the very boundaries of the cinematic craft. Recognizable spectacles wish they had this film’s scope. Carefully crafted works of high concept CGI long to be as inventive and imaginative. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with its sole reliance on physical effects, represents craftsmanship at a level superior to those being forged out of bitrates and motherboards. As a matter of fact, the vector-mapping individuals who call themselves artists should step aside and allow a true visionary to pass. Just as Kubrick did with his serious space opera, Gilliam gave the motion picture flight of fancy its brash, brazen benchmark.
But there is more to the movie than just gorgeous shots (Venus rising on the half shell, our characters falling into Vulcan’s volcanic lair) and remarkable ideas. Gilliam has always fancied himself a latter day Don Quixote, battling the worn out windmills of a film business based solely around reasonable returns and the bottom line. In Baron Munchausen, he finds a firm soul mate, the kind of blind-eyed dreamer whose age and appearance is literally affected by his amazing adventures (or lack thereof). In the character, a man at war with both the marauding Turkish army as well as the bumbling bureaucrats trying to moderate the maelstrom, the perfect parallel is drawn to the director. As he steps out onto the cinematic battlefield to confront the daily barrage of moviemaking issues, he must also take on the tightfisted moneymen who determine his entire aesthetic fate.
There is much more to the behind the scenes story of Munchausen‘s making (and eventual post-production unmaking) than can be covered in a single review. As a matter of fact, author Andrew Yule did a remarkable job of exposing the story with his fascinating behind the scenes book Losing the Light. What’s most important about everything that happened – the failed financial backing, the complicated shoot on the fabled backlot of Italy’s Cinniceta Studios, the numerous natural (and unnatural) disasters – is that, through all the stumbling and/or road blocks, Gilliam still managed to make the best movie of his career. Taking the Baron’s fairytale-type story, he was able to merge myth with mediocrity, age with artificiality, and the soulful with the scientific. The result is a film that constantly battles for symbolic substance while generating megatons of major thematic resonance.
The plot, which pits Munchausen against the stifling city fathers who want to negotiate a kind of impossible peace, is combined with an even more unlikely journey to discover our hero’s superhuman servants. One valet is the fastest man on the planet (when locating him, we go from the Turk’s heavenly harem to the King of the Moon’s own pleasure palace), another possesses all the strength in the world (he’s found at the center of the Earth). The other two amazing members of the team – a flawless sharpshooter and a dwarf with amazing hearing and lungpower – are located inside a series of shipwrecks, themselves located within a massive sea creature at the bottom of the ocean. From outer space to the belly of the beast, Gilliam makes sure to venture to each and every one of these remarkable locales. Using any and every thing at his disposal to realize his vision, we find ourselves sitting in eye-opening wonder, waiting for the next awe-inspiring moment to occur.
And occur they do. During the introductory material that opens the movie, Munchausen’s fleet-footed manservant (played by Gilliam’s Python pal Eric Idle) races halfway around the world for a bottle of Port. The narrative is brought to life with stunning detail and delight. When the Baron voyages to the moon in an air balloon made out of lady’s bloomers, the juxtaposition between stormy and still waters, and eventually sandy shores, is just overpowering. But the biggest surprise comes at the end when, hoping to save the city, an elderly Munchausen and his equally old friends wage war one last time, each one utilizing their special skill to defeat the Turk once and for all. From its completely unique storytelling structure (it’s kind of like a play within a fable within a film) to the last act twist that reframes the film’s many eclectic elements, Gilliam proves that there is more to his directorial prowess than pretty pictures and incontrovertible imagery.
With its pitch perfect cast (including an amazing John Neville as the title character) and a delightful denseness that allows for multiple viewings – and meanings – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stands as the moment when Terry Gilliam announced his importance as filmmaker to the rest of the world. Where Brazil can appear like an ego unleashed, and Fisher King can feel like a purposeful pulling back to sustain a successful career, this blithe and joyful journey into a world of unadulterated inventiveness is poised to stand the test of time. It may take a bit – even Kubrick was labeled a kook before his look at man’s place in the universe scored an eventual Best Ever rating. If greatness was determined on talent alone, all of Gilliam’s movies would be extraordinary. But there is something about this film that transcends an easy classification. And that’s a true sign of long term artistic excellence.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.