Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash. And I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.-The Baron
It is not surprising that Terry Gilliam’s film career went up in flames—not just once but on multiple occasions, and not just in flames but in great roaring bonfires that consumed reams of industry trade gossip, millions of dollars, and years of people’s lives. As Monty Python’s animator of lewdly monstrous grotesqueries and generally non-verbal performer, Gilliam was hardly the troupe’s chief troublemaker (that would be Graham Chapman, busier hellraising ala Keith Moon than trying to make films). But Gillian did have an easily detectable rebel streak that signaled poor receptiveness to fussy things like schedules and budgets.
“I’m not good with money … I’m aware of money,” he acknowledged in one of the documentaries accompanying the spectacular new two-disc Blu-ray Criterion edition of his last great film, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Despite the warning signs, somebody bet tens of millions of dollars on a controversial scamp like Gilliam making a profitable film out of an 18th-century picaresque novel Americans had never read at a time when the big film releases were John Cornell’s Crocodile Dundee II and Roger Donaldson’s Cocktail.
Gilliam’s early work in the late- and post-Python years hardly marked him for mainstream success. Jabberwocky (1977) was a splatterpunk medievalist goof built for the midnight circuit. Time Bandits proved a sleeper hit, but its deadpan humor and anarchic Gnosticism made it suspect in a decade that prized family-friendly franchises. The gloomy satire of Brazil (1985) would have doomed it on release even if it had not been hobbled by studio interference. That is why the least interesting thing about The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is its poor reception and lengthy production woes, though a good deal of the Criterion edition extras and far too much discussion around the film centers on that.
A great big galumph of a spectacle that suggests the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad by way of 1979’s Life of Brian, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen knocks around from one epic and ornate Dante Ferretti-designed sequence to another, tied together by a thin filament of romanticism. Gilliam and Charles McKeown’s script takes some of the better-known adventures ascribed to the titular baron, a hero of European tall tales since his first appearance in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s fantastical 1785 novel, and weaponizes them in a broadside against the forces of rationality.
Set in the late 18th century in some generic European city besieged by a massive Turkish army, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen imagines a ragged theater company presenting a play about the Baron. The performance is interrupted first by shellfire and then by the (perhaps) the real Baron (John Neville), who shouts, “stop this travesty” and insists on telling the stories himself. Declaring he can stop Sultan’s army from conquering the city, the Baron takes off on an airship held aloft by a balloon made of women’s undergarments to get his old sidekicks together. That hunt takes him and Sally (Sarah Polley), a spunky young stowaway, from the belly of a monstrous fish to the fiery furnace of the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) to the moon itself, where the King (Robin Williams) has a habit of letting his head fly away from his body. After cheating a screeching winged Angel of Death multiple times, the Baron returns to save the city.
Gilliam follows the Russian nesting doll approach he and Tom Stoppard used for Brazil, with concentric framing devices that make it difficult to tell what is “real”, what are the Baron’s fantasies, and whether there is any separation. This not only allows maximum flexibility in terms of what can fit within the film’s expansive parameters but gives the filmmaker license to tee off on the nattering nabobs of logic. It is not precisely a cogent critique. Screen titles at the beginning announce that we are in the “Age of Reason”. Despite everything viewers know about the centuries of theocratic feudalism that preceded this time, Gilliam would prefer them to see reason as an annoying hindrance for dreamers like himself. Thus The Adventures of Baron Munchausen presents its weakest character, an insufferably rules-bound bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce, doing his best) who keeps going on about “weason” and “wationality”, as a two-dimensional villain.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is on firmer ground when Gilliam lets himself play. The images range from symphonic beauty—the chamber of fountains in which the Baron dances with the goddess Venus (Uma Thurman) dozens of feet in the air—to some that rival the early Surrealists, like the sequence where the Baron’s ship appears to be sailing across a star-mirrored dark sea only to be really crossing grey sandy lunar dunes studded with eerie half-buried statues.
Because there is not much story to advance, Gilliam’s sense of comedy feels freer than in his later films, where the laughs are often strained. The Baron’s crackpot superhero team not only has a balanced skill set—Adolphus (McKeown) is a crack shot, Berthold (Eric Idle) runs like the wind, Albrecht (Winston Dennis) is the strong man, and Gustavus (Jack Purvis) can blow with hurricane force—but are as superb a vaudeville backup crew as the band of thieves in Time Bandits.
Williams is given an egregiously loose leash in the Moon scenes, but as the price of the film needing an A-list star somewhere (Neville’s Shakespearean credits not being enough to bring the punters in), it is survivable. The climactic battle scene where the dashing Baron seemingly defeats an entire army is circus-like, buoyant, and oddly dreamy: the heads he chops with his sword seem to pop off their necks like corks without a drop of blood.
After The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though, Gilliam would never again hit the same heights. Given the anemic box office—which was at least partially due to a new studio regime wanting to bury it out of spite in the usual mature Hollywood fashion—and Heaven’s Gate-like critiques, he could easily have never directed another feature. Yet such was the legend of Gilliam that, like his fellow iconoclast David Lynch, he could still get work.
The problem with Gilliam’s post-The Adventures of Baron Munchausen output was not that it was uniformly bad. Some of his more popular work from the ’90s, like the mawkish The Fisher King (1991) and the trying-too-hard Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has not aged well. But 1995’s 12 Monkeys remains a taut and eerie apocalyptic thriller that still stands well above many films and shows that copped its tone. The problem, if that is what you can call it, is that none of those films pack the bravura drive of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, and Time Bandits.
It is possible Gilliam did not have much left to say. Those early films each conjured up strange new worlds that still today look like nothing else that has ever been on screen. None could have been made by anybody but Gilliam. But later, confused-seeming fantasies like The Brothers Grimm (2005) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) have a flailing quality, as though conjured by an artist trying to recapture the old magic by copying himself, only poorly. By the time Gilliam finished his epically-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018), it was hard to see what all the effort had been for.
As for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, some have reason to wonder whether it was worth the effort. Only the people who took part in the making of the film can truly opine on that calculation. Polley has talked about the trauma and terror she suffered as an eight-year-old on a chaotic and wildly unsafe set, making the scenes of her running through a war-torn set with shells exploding everywhere hard to take. In one of the Criterion extras, Gilliam’s fellow Monty Python, Eric Idle, jokes mordantly about his rules of life: “You must never be in a Stanley Kubrick film, and you must never be in a Terry Gilliam film.”
Still, Idle did compare Gillian to Kubrick, and not for entirely negative reasons. After all, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) does not diminish the achievement of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) any more than, say, The Zero Theorem (2013) can diminish the glorious adventure that is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.