Despite being one of the most innovative and original voices in cinema for the last four decades, Terry Gilliam never seems to get a fair shake. His films have been met with all manner of disaster from facing endless production delays (virtually every film he’s made) to being blocked by a studio from release (Brazil) to the untimely death of one of his actors mid-shoot (Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Even The Onion had a bit of fun with Gilliam’s reputation a few years back.
But one thing remains true, when his films do see the light of day, they are almost always fantastical visions of a world you simply cannot see anywhere else. One of his most under-seen, under-appreciated films is his 1989 fantasy film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
The film is incredibly difficult to distill into a summary, but it essentially tells the story of a legendary adventurer, Baron Munchausen (John Neville, best known as The Well-Manicured Man from The X-Files). His tales are so far-fetched that they’ve become the thing of legend and are being turned into a stage play when the film opens.
The real Baron appears to set the record straight, and prove that, not only are they getting every detail of his life wrong, every one of his tales is true. The only person willing to believe the Baron at first is a young girl named Sally Salt (Sarah Polley, in her film debut), and she believes that he may be their only hope for stopping an onslaught from The Turkish Army.
The Baron is also shocked to find his friends working at the theatre, seeming to be willing participants in the sullying of his legacy. They all claim to be men who work at the theatre, but The Baron knows better. At first it’s unclear if he’s crazy, or if everyone else is lying to cover for him, and as the film goes on, it’s even harder to discern, but they are part of the tails nevertheless.
The tales that The Baron recounts involve a a battle with the King of the Moon (Robin Williams), outwitting a Turkish Sultan, and stealing Venus (Uma Thurman) away from her husband, the fiery Vulcan (Oliver Reed). Things begin getting strange when the tales begin crossing over with real life, and The Baron is forced to outrun Death incarnate. It all sounds ridiculous and crazy, and it is, but it works so well.
The first thing that sticks out about this film is the fact that everything is done practically. The sets, costumes, visual effects—everything is real. Granted this was made in the pre-CGI days, but the opulence of everything is incredible. The film crosses in and out of fantasies set in far away worlds or fantastical realms, back into the “real world” of a war ravaged 18th century town, and it’s ridiculously seamless.
The film is pretty much Terry Gilliam in a nutshell. It’s got a gigantic scope, but a pretty narrow focus. It’s about a group of eccentrics, trapped in the real world, but more suited to a fantasy world, and that’s a lot of what makes Gilliam’s films so unique. Modern directors like Wes Anderson focus on similarly eccentric people, but create a world that’s as off-kilter with reality as his characters are. Gilliam loves showing characters forced to live in a world that’s far more bizarre than their own eccentricities could create. It’s a fascinating dichotomy and one that never works better than it does when this film is at its best.
John Neville’s Baron is a truly unique creation, but his influence can be felt in some of the more eccentric performances of the last few years, not the least of which would be Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. They’re both men given to bombastic hyperbole and are treated as delusional by the world around them, but are never more than a few moments away from total vindication. Fans of The Pirates of the Caribbean films should consider this essential viewing.
The film was a notorious flop when it was released in the Spring of 1989. I remember seeing it in a fairly empty theater the weekend it opened, but my ten-year-old mind was as captivated by it as my adult mind is now. It’s a film for children of all ages (except perhaps the very young) and anyone willing to put themselves in that mindset. Columbia buried the film upon its release due to a regime change at the studio, but several years ago they lavished it with a gorgeous Blu-ray release that I highly recommend as the best way to watch the film.
I hate that I live in a world where filmmakers like Terry Gilliam are treated as outcasts, but I don’t know that I want every movie to be like one of his. They are truly diamonds in the rough and incredibly rewarding to those who will give themselves over to the adventure. Seek this film out. I promise you won’t regret it.
Next week’s film will be 1994’s The Shadow with Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Peter Boyle & Ian McKellen.
[Photos via JonathanRosenbaum.com]