The inexorable grating of world weary cynicism and the ponderous march of logical progress can erode even the most active imagination. Where once flights of fantasy were; now are empirical marvels, as concept cars and far off nebulas replace myth, fable and Max’s Midnight Kitchen as objects of awe and wonderment. With reality granting us this tainted escapism grounded in an oft envious view of the tangible world around, the purity of our youthful imagination and the ephemeral world within are consigned to the past. Gone are the days of slaying solipsistic dragons with slender twigs and speaking gibberish dialects that make little sense to none but ourselves, that is, unless you’re Terry Gilliam.
Surreal fancy has been a faithful partner of Gilliam throughout his cinematic adventures, from the impish Monty Python and early films such as Jabberwocky, to the drug addled visions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the aptly entitled Imaginarium of Dr Parnasus. In between these eclectic extremities however falls a lose trilogy that forms a Sphinxian riddle of film, with Time Bandits crawling on the four legs of a child’s imagination, Brazil: depicting the two-legged day dreams of middle-aged drudgery and The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen: lamenting past wonders in the face of science and logic, as an elderly and thrice-legged individual would remember days gone past in the twilight of their years.
This is the crux of The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen, evident from the start by the evocative opening titles that inform us it is the 1700s, The Age of Reason. Laws and logic hold sway over society as a bureaucratic legislature headed by the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Anthony Pryce) perpetuates a ritualistic border war with The Sultan’s armies. Taken to the nth degree, these rituals have a Gormenghastian feel in their overwhelming pointlessness, as a heroic solider (cameo from Sting) is executed for demoralising the ordinary man with an extraordinary act of valour and where a mortar crew refuse to return fire ˜because it’s Wednesday’.
It is within this ordered chaos that the film begins as Gilliam immediately takes a subversive tilt at cultural norms through the medium of little Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), post-editing her thespian father’s advertisements for ˜Henry Salt and Son’ to read ˜Henry Salt and Daughter’. Upon returning to the theatre Sally is berated for asking where is my brother, being told ˜and Sons’ is traditional and she has no brother. This smidgen of dialogue is easy to miss but is an elegant and vital foreshadowing for two reoccurring themes: a challenge to the ˜logic’ of order and tradition and the notion that what is absurd is purely subjective, as, and lets be fair, the tradition of naming a company ˜and Son’ when you only have a daughter is not only sexist, but frankly quite stupid.
With the preamble complete, the curtain is almost literally raised on Henry Salt and Son’s matinee performance of The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen. Sally’s father (Bill Paterson), resplendent with a comically hooked prosthetic nose, begins to tell the tall tales of the fictional Baron as, with the use of cogs and wheels, the stage comes alive to depict outlandish scenes from the Baron’s life. The mechanical nature of the play is a thing of wonderment, despite a few technical hitches as the stage-hands of Henry Salt and Son prove to be more a little than inept at their jobs. However, this wonderment, as with so much of Gilliam’s work, is multi-layered, and also serves a sad and ironic purpose. Indeed, while both we and the crowd admire the spectacle (albeit with some jeering at its mechanical shortcomings), there is an underlying melancholy to the scene, an ironic jibe at our dwindling imaginations; as Gilliam is all too aware of our reliance on technology to show us the scenes our atrophied imaginations have long lost the ability to depict.
This deficiency is put into perspective with the arrival of an obviously perturbed and overly flamboyant old man claiming to be the ˜real’ Baron Von Munchausen, who, after a scuffle and the proclamation: Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever, takes the stage to tell his version of the factual events that Henry Salt is depicting as fiction. Discarding the mechanical trappings of the thespians and armed only with his exceptional charisma and imagination he begins where the actors left off, spinning a yarn of such fancy we’re transported in person to the Sultan’s palace and the start of the war.
It is here we are introduced to the Baron’s entourage through the medium of a wager, as Munchausen stakes his head on the claim he can deliver to the Sultan a finer wine than any he has in his cellars, in only an hour. A note is scribbled to the Queen in Vienna and given to Berthold (Eric Idle) for delivery, a man so fast he wears leg irons as a matter of course to slow him down. Time passes as the headsman sharpens his axe and the Sultan performs his new musical ˜The Torturers Apprentice’, before Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a dwarf (ubiquitous in Gilliam’s films) with preternatural hearing and the ability to exhale with extraordinary force, hears Berthold snoring from a few hundred miles away. Adolphus (Charles McKeown) and his legendary vision spot Berthold and firing his blunderbuss beyond the curvature of the Earth, dislodges an apple upon the slumbering buffoon’s head, waking him. Berthold returns with the wine as the last grain bounces around the egg timer, delivering his cargo for tasting, to which the Sultan congenially submits, extended to the Baron his victory terms: as much gold from his treasury as his strongest man can carry. Sadly for the Sultan, his strongest man is Albrecht (Winston Dennis), a giant who manages to depart with the entirety of the Sultan’s gold.
Abruptly however, we are apparently roused from our waking dream by a fusillade from the besieging army, dislodging masonry from the theatre’s roof and causing The Baron’s here-to-fore enraptured audience to run for the hills. The Baron then takes matters into his own hands and wows the young Sally in his scouting of the Turkish army by riding on a mortar shell (catching a cannonball midway for the return home). While this convinces her of the veracity of the tall tales he tells, it does little to bring realism to The Baron’s claims in the audience’s eyes, as all witnesses bar the young girl die at the hands of a barrage soon after his extraordinary feat. This creates incredulity in the grounded viewer by offering justification for The Baron’s absurdity as simply: a young girl’s imagination.
Sally’s infectious belief in The Baron is enough to reinvigorate him and restore his faith in the world, an act symbolised by her rescuing him from the skeletal grasp of the Grim Reaper who is ever on his trail. This rebirth is accompanied by an irate rebuke from The Baron who states go away! I’m trying to die before poignantly explaining his nihilism, blaming the fact it’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me. Overcoming his malaise, Sally convinces him to fight not only against the Turks, but against the crushing monotony of logic and to this end he takes to the air in a hot air balloon made from the underwear of the town’s ladies who are all too eager to ˜go commando’ for the charismatic Munchausen. Despite the efforts of his Right Ordinary foil, The Baron takes to the air and the adventure truly begins.
First the hot air balloon is washed up on the shores of the moon, where The Baron and his swiftly discovered stowaway Sally are greeted by a two dimensional moving landscape of stage prop like buildings (budget constraints prevented the preferred imagining of a theatrical box bedecked banquet hall) and the disembodied head of the King of the Moon (Robin Williams). Being disembodied isn’t much of a hindrance however when your head is designed to be detached and is able to fly around on its own accord, musing philosophically about the mysteries of the universe. This indeed, his is what the King seems to spend his time doing until he is forcibly reattached by his body to become a lustrous and carnal iteration of himself wholly steeped in the physical gratification of feasting, fornicating and flatulating. In this form he also flies into a jealous rage at the improbable affair that occurred between The Baron and the Queen (Valentina Cortese) upon Munchausen’s last visit. Improbable it is as The Baron is only a fraction of the size of the royals’ heads alone, let alone entire their bodies.
Despite the physical constraints it is clear that the Queen has strong feelings for The Baron, as her head, escaping during a debauched dalliance with the King, rescues Munchausen from his incarceration. Carrying a key in her mouth she delivers it to The Baron, Sally and the newly discovered Berthold who is now reunited with his master after being imprisoned on the aforementioned prior visit for The Baron’s infidelity. Escaping the Moon they plummet to the Earth to be cushioned by the thermals of Mount Etna before landing in the volcanic crater in the court of the God Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and his wife Venus (a 17 year old Uma Thurman).
Reed puts in a bombastic performance as the emotionally volatile Roman god of the forge who exuberantly shows the newcomers around his workshop, pimping the wares of the unruly Cyclops’ Union (which among other things includes a thermonuclear warhead). Enthusiastically he pitches the weapon as able to kill the enemy to which The Baron curiously enquires what, all the enemy?. Aye says Vulcan all their wives, and all their children, and all their sheep, and all their cattle, and all their cats and dogs. All of them. All of them gone for good. That’s horrible explains Sally, as straight from the mouth of babes she points out the horror that the grown-ups seem oblivious too. Vulcan of course misses the point entirely, replying Ahh. Well, you see, the advantage is you don’t have to see one single one of them die. You just sit comfortably thousands of miles away from the battlefield and simply press the button. This beautiful little tÃªte Ã tÃªte encapsulates as only Gilliam can so many of the problems surrounding the nuclear debate. With only a handful of sentences he addresses States’ arrogant monopoly on wisdom through the adult and child dynamic, the idiocy and futility of nuclear war via the flowery description of Armageddon and the separation of actor and consequence that is the subject of much debate in relation to modern virtual warfare. This last point exemplifies yet further the distance that decision makers themselves take from their actions and how with just a simple button press, a ˜suit’ can render so much destruction from the safety of an office. Managing to operate on the extremes of the blatant and subtle almost simultaneously is a skill long mastered my Gilliam and before we know it the levity continues and any underlying message is left as that sort of distracting after image on a retina that veers away when you try to look at it, only this time in the eye of our mind.
Sitting down for a pot of tea, Munchausen is amazed to find his colossally strong henchmen Albrecht acting as Vulcan’s maid. Relishing his new role away from the brutishness of his past, the large man is more than happy to be dainty and sensitive and be known to the cyclops as midget. Any such aspirations however go swiftly awry, as The Baron, ever to form attracts the eye of Venus. It is only after little Sally Salt slyly sidles up to Vulcan and warns him that the Baron is dancing with your wife that the adventure can continue; the angry god summarily tossing the Baron and his entourage (including his ˜maid’) into a whirlpool.
To say that the heroes surface to find themselves bobbing around in the ocean only to be eaten by a giant-island-tortoise-fish-thing, must seem pretty mundane by now. Comparatively, the plethora of captives in its belly including Gustavus, Adolphus and a cameo from a rather hirsute and tone deaf Gilliam playing an accordion, still barely raises an eyebrow amid the surreal tour de force here-to travelled. However, that’s what happens! Bowed and broken, The Baron is seen to revert to his former self, the old man from the start of the film, not the reinvigorated and younger looking chap that was washed up on the shores of the moon at the start of his quest. Apathetic and tired of life he is reminiscent of The Baron that wanted to die, giving up on his quest at this final injustice; he begins to accept death, almost literally in this instance, as the form of the dark spectre that has pursued him looms on.
As before, it is Sally Salt that banishes the spectre and reinvigorates her companion as The Baron, harkening back to a scene from the stage play, mimics the foreshadowing to proclaim that a modicum of snuff can be most affectatious before using the powder to cause the giant-island-tortoise-fish-thing to sneeze the adventurers through its blowhole to fortuitously land on the shores of the town they are seeking to liberate!
This time it is up to The Baron to motivate his aged and weary companions, forcing their rather reluctant hands to do battle for the beleaguered town by handing himself in to the Sultan for beheading. Battle they do, as Adolphus shoots the descending headsman’s axe to save his master, allowing the Baron to mount his trusty steed Bucephalus (named after Alexander the Great’s mount) and karmically chop the heads off a number of the enemy. Meanwhile, Gustavus blows things; Albrecht hurls entire shipwrecks and Berthold saves The Baron from a sniper’s bullet, only to be told to get up by the oblivious Munchausen.
As the battle is won and the Sultan’s army is routed from the field, Munchausen and his cohort are greeted as saviours by the townsfolk and paraded before the adoring throng. Revelry ensues for the deeds of the heroes, but tragedy strikes with the assassination of The Baron at the barrel of The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson’s rifle. A memorial statue is built and tears are shed at a state funeral for the liberator of the city, however this is not the end, it’s “only one of the many occasions on which I met my death” The Baron’s voice is then heard telling the audience. Indeed, it was metaphorically ˜all a dream’ as promptly we’re whisked away from the mourning and back to the theatre from which The Baron first began his tale.
But was it a dream? For as the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson attempts to arrest The Baron, post yarn-spinning, Munchausen proclaims ˜open the gates and amid a crowd of townsfolk triumphantly marches to city wall. Upon opening the gates, the gathering is greeted with a desolate battlefield for the Sultan’s army is nowhere to be seen and with a glinting smile to Sally, The Baron and Bucephalus depart in search of adventure.
This ending leaves us with a peculiar question: if it was all a story, then how were the army defeated? However, the absurdity of the tale doesn’t leave this hanging as an issue of suspect continuity, but instead it is another marvel to challenge our incredulity, another triumph of imagination over logic and final twist to the twist that makes the ˜all a dream’ scenario suddenly less trite and actually quite engaging. A surreal end to a surreal epic, a last moment of insanity in what we’re lead to believe is a stable world outside of story and myth. Gilliam revels in this final trick, after all, who can forget Time Bandits? Don’t touch that, its evil!
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a troubled film, plagued with studio politics, budgeting issues and logistical nightmares it was seen as a flop on its release due to its high production cost and poor initial distribution. History however has been kind to it, for while its once astounding visual effects have not dated too well, appreciation of the film has blossomed to make it something of a cult classic. Much of this fondness springs from the film’s message, as age can only build ones appreciation for a tale that focuses on retaining a youthful imagination. Like a fine wine maturing; the passing years remind the viewer of the importance of moderating their escalating responsibilities and routine with whimsy and wonder, further validating the message as opposed to watching it fade into outdated obscurity.
This appeal is ever-so apt considering age is a central feature of the narrative, at times taking on a literal role in the story and others a metaphorical one. Literally we sees physical shifts in the character of The Baron, from an elderly man weary when crushed under the boot heel of the mundane world, to his younger more dashing self that embarks on his fanciful and wondrous journeys. Alternating through the film, this metamorphosis is always accompanied by a shift in character, with the old Baron being a morose curmudgeon waiting for the grave and the young Baron being a death defying dreamer who makes his fancy reality through force of imagination. In this sense, old is synonymous with tradition and maintenance of the status-quo, waiting for external influences to take their toll instead of influencing the exterior. Conversely, young is dynamic and influences the world around, inspiring, creating, inventing and driving progress and change, forging its own destiny instead of allowing fate to dictate its actions.
This can be seen as something of a social metaphor, for as Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. With the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson evidently taking on the role of the villain it is clear he is a traditional stalwart, he is the oppressor, whom, for lack of an inspired and unfettered objector will condemn those he governs to misery. In this role he depicts the political status-quo, a paradigm that perpetuates an inbred, self-reinforcing regime of clones that give little choice beyond broadness of smile and the colour of tie and hair. Kept in power by traditional laws only he can change (and therefore won’t) it is left for the inspired and free thinking among us to challenge this authority. While not necessarily picking a political side, it does take on a perspective, rise up against injustice; show action over apathy.
Another example of the depiction of age is the role of Sally Salt. The only child in the piece she stands as a counter point to the world around her, not yet chained down by the system she is free from responsibility and able to dream. While at first even she is sceptical of Munchausen’s tales (it is the Age of Reason after all), she quickly becomes The Baron’s anchor in the sea of imagination, holding him firm every time he threatens to drift into a malaise. Likewise she stands as a voice of reason against many of the adults in the film, acting as a court jester in challenging their established customs: Salt and Daughter and the nuclear bomb are but a couple of occasions where she shows reason and understanding beyond the adults who seem to ignore her due to her youth, instead preferring traditional perspectives that are ˜right’ because, well, they’ve always been right¦ right?
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen may not be remembered among the greatest films of the silver screen, but to the right person it can certainly find an important place in their heart. With an evocative message that is beautifully reinforced; it cannot fail but please any dreamer who chances by it while at the same time inspiring and reminding the cynical among us that there is an alternative to our monotony. When taken in the context of Time Bandits and Brazil, this films stands is an epic of imaginative film making and a worthy end to that loose fitting trilogy.