Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The (1988)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), directed by Terry Gilliam.


"The eunuch's life is hard. And nothing else". -- from The Torturer's Apprentice

Originally this seemed like a chaotic kaleidoscope without much order stitching it together. Rewatching it on Blu-ray I now see it more as a triumph of mad genius.

The Baron is a Baroque legend from a time when a good Tale was as good as any other type of reality. He reappears in the cruel and skeptical Age of Reason, which it now occurs to me has simply substituted new Tales for the old.

So we have a clash of World Ages, of the very foundations of reality. The "now" and the Baron's story become intermixed, with the same characters and incidents crossing between and existing in both worlds simultaneously. The Baron's vision is so powerful that he can win a war in the outer reality and survive his own death.

Who did they think would be the audience for this? As you might expect, there weren't enough of them.

It is outrageously imaginative and often hilarious, though sometimes venturing into Monty Pythonesque silliness. Like a lot of Gilliam's work it is episodic, as if he were remaking Time Bandits (1981) with a bigger budget. The cast and crew overlap with Time Bandits (1981) is 13, with Brazil (1985) we have 32 in common.

John Neville was chosen as the lead because we was a great actor who had vanished from public view, like Munchausen himself. Why did he take the job? Gilliam: "He had the misfortune of being a Python fan".

Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter (1997)) is 8 here and already had 9 IMDB credits, including her own TV series. She is the heart of the whole story, showing comic talent beyond her years. Gilliam says he hired her because of her missing teeth, typical of that young age. Directors say they want children to stop "acting" in film and just be natural, but of course they mean be natural in just the right way. She's got it.

Polley says she was exhausted and terrified the whole time, with explosions and things flying through the air every day. I recall a news story from years later about the scene of a horse in a boat, losing control and plunging into the water, when she thought she was going to die. She blamed Gilliam and said he should have taken better care of her. His response at the time: "I didn't know. She seemed fine", but in the commentary track he remembers that incident and admits it was a very bad situation.

In the "making-of" extra she seems to hold no grudges, so maybe the news story was overblown. She says the cast and crew were very good to her, specifically mentioning Uma Thurman and Bill Patterson spending a lot of time playing with her.

I remembered Thurman as Venus but had forgotten she was also in the acting troupe in the "real" world. She was 17. The day of her modest nude scene she was on the phone with her mother in the US who wanted her to come home and finish high school.

Available on Blu-ray. The commentary track is a funny conversation between Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown, who also plays Adolphus the sharp-eyed marksman. I don't know whether to believe all their quips and stories.

Judging by his own account, Gilliam seems to thrive in the chaos of a production lurching from disaster to disaster. Last minute adaptations and inspired improvisations every day. Miraculously, running out of time and money and having to do "reduced" version of planned scenes gives better results than the original conception. I suspect that wouldn't work for everyone but he can do it.

I only sampled the "making of" feature, quickly becoming lost in the who-did-what-to-who production conflicts.