When it came to going to the cinema when on holiday in the Lakes, Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside constantly disappointed. But I would always divide my week away between Ambleside and Keswick, and I didn’t even know there was a cinema in Keswick until the day I climbed Blueberry Fell and Walla Crag, walking out of the town down a street I’d never ventured so far along before, discovering a little but proud cinema. And by an ironic coincidence, what was it showing? Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Incidentally, though I didn’t learn this until this decade, I also walked down the street where Robert Neill had lived until his death in 1981.
I went that evening, an old-fashioned picture house with a big screen, ideal for the expansive nature of this film, of Terry Gilliam. I drank everything in with great enjoyment, and rolled back to my guesthouse in the quiet evening air, well satisfied.
That said, Munchausen is certainly the most problematic of Gilliam’s Trilogy of Imagination. It’s long, with a tendency to ramble a bit, it blurs the line between fantasy and reality and it tends to go for spectacle rather than structure. Of it’s two predecessors, Time Bandits is clearly the greater influence: both films are primarily episodic, and Gilliam repeats the trick of the first film, in which Kevin’s toys all appear, in mutated form, throughout the film, whereas in Munchausen, the members of a cast of players become most of the characters in the Baron’s story. And there are some memorable guest stars having some self-indulgent fun.
What Gilliam does is to put onto the screen (not for the first time) some of the incredible and unbelievable tales of the real-life Baron, a teller of tall tales, who remains popular on the continent even to this day. Gilliam puts this into the context of a siege by the Grand Turk, battering an unnamed coastal city whose ‘mayor’, Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), is a man of reason and rationality.
Gilliam signals where his loyalties lie by having Jackson demonstrate rationality to the absurd point of ordering an unusually heroic officer to be executed for demoralising the ordinary ones! To the extent that the film is an opposition between Imagination and Reality, one side’s clearly not going to get an even break.
In the midst of bombardment, a troupe of players under Henry Salt (Bill Patterson) are putting on a surprisingly lavish ‘Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ stageshow when it is denounced and interrupted by an elderly gentleman claiming to be the real Baron (John Neville), and the show being a pack of lies.
The Baron claims to be the cause of the Grand Turk’s attack and relates an absurd story of a bet with the Turk, his near-execution and his subsequent stripping of the entire Treasury – all perfectly legitimately but not taken well – leading to the present attack in an attempt to recapture him. The tale features the Baron’s legendary servants, Bertholt (a perpetually sarcastic Eric Idle), who can run at incredible speeds, Albrecht, of super-strength, Gustavus, of incredibly hearing and lungpower, and Adolphus, of incredible eyesight and accuracy.
Of course, everyone denounces it as rubbish, especially 9 year old Sally Salt, daughter of Henry (a wonderfully written and determined performance by 9 year old Sarah Polley). But when Sally loses her head at the latest attack, which has brought the Angel of Death to take Munchausen’s soul, she runs out to the ramparts, screaming at them to stop, only to witness the Baron fly towards the Turks riding on a mortar shell, and fly back riding on a cannonball!
No-one believes her, of course.
However, the Baron undertakes to lift the siege by leaving the city (in a hot air sailing ship whose balloon is constructed out of ladies’ silk knickers – thankfully, this is not set in the modern day or he’d need the entire city’s worth) to find and bring back his amazing servants. Unsurprisingly, Sally has stowed away.
It’s taken a long while to get here, and though it’s been fun to date, those who criticise Gilliam for a slow start are not without a point, because this is where the story really begins, and here is where Gilliam can gleefully abandon the fetters upon his imagination that a ‘real’ setting imposes. The only representative of rationality present is young Sally, who brings every bit of a 9 year old’s unimpressedness into trying to keep the Baron on point, and the object of the quest – saving everybody from being killed – as an objective. Never has the familiar line, ‘Can we go now?’ been so aptly repeated, and Polley brings everything to it.
We go by the Moon, via the King and Queen of the Moon – the King is Robin Williams, credited as ‘Ray D. Tutto’ (King of Everything) – and their entirely separable Heads and Bodies. Williams hams it up something rotten, Valentina Cortese does the same with a greater degree of subtlety, and there’s this hilarious gag where, the Queen’s head having come to save the Baron and his party whilst her body is in bed with the King. Sally is deeply puzzled by the Queen’s gasps, and sighs and ‘ooh’s until the Baron delicately explains that the King is tickling her feet. We nod to ourselves, wisely, and then there’s a cut to the bedchamber where the King is tickling her feet…
Then it’s off to Hell, and my favourite part of the film. Hell is the realm of Vulcan, who’s being played by Oliver Reed in a manner that I can only describe as delicately and subtly completely OTT! Reed’s roaring, for which he employs a well-good Lancashire accent is tempered by his massively overplayed attempts to be a good host and the whole thing just has me rolling on the floor every time. And this is coupled with Uma Thurman as Venus, Vulcan’s wife, first appearing on the half-shell, immediately smitten with the Baron, and taking him into the ballroom for a dance. Through the air.
The romance of the scene is busted by Reed’s hysterically funny jealousy, all accusations of ‘Strumpet!’ and ‘Floozy’ and similar epithets. Of course, the Baron gets thrown out, with Sally, Berthold and Albrecht, into the South Seas, where they’re swallowed by a massive sea-monster.
No guest roles here, just Gustavus, Adolphus and another grab by the Angel of Death, beaten off by Sally’s one-track-mindedness, and once the Monster is forced to sneeze them out, courtesy of a modicum of snuff, we’re back at the Town and the siege.
The Baron’s full of plans of attack but Sally, despairing at last, points out that his servants are all old, and can’t do it any more. Very well, the Baron insists, I said I’d relieve the siege and I will, and he marches off to the Grand Turk to offer himself up for beheading. Jackson’s there, efficiently and scientifically negotiating the date on which the Turks will surrender (we surrendered last time, it’s your turn).
For the first time in the film, something doesn’t ring true, and there will be another such moment along soon, but for now let us relish that the Baron’s willingness to sacrifice himself galvanises everyone into showing off their strengths, resulting in the complete routing of the Turk and the saving of the town.
Everyone pours out and celebrates the Baron as their saviour. Everyone except Jackson, of course, who lurks with a sniper’s rifle in a high tower, determined to have his way, and shooting the Baron through the back. The Baron dies, amidst much mourning, and is buried in state.
At which point, we’re back on stage, the Baron’s concluding his story by explaining that’s just one of the many times he’s died, and how refreshing it can be. It’s all been a story (of course it has, but whose?) Jackson confronts him, arresting him for spreading fantasies when everyone’s in such danger, but Munchausen claims the Turks are gone. His confidence inspires the crowd to open the gates, against every attempt by Jackson to enforce reality, and true enough, the besiegers are gone and all is the devastation of the Baron’s story.
So, was it all true after all? Sally, the junior representative of reality has come over to the Baron’s side, and the audience is willing to go along for the ride, having had a great deal of fun, but we really do have to put our feet down here and admit that Gilliam has, in the end, let the film get away from him. I’m all for Imagination and Reality being thoroughly mixed together, without a point-by-point explanation as to which bit is supposed to be which, and Time Bandits‘s ending is a superb example of that.
But Gilliam in the end lets his visceral loathing for order and restriction overrule his sense of decent storytelling. Let’s go back to those three moments I’ve picked out with Jackson (Pryce is, of course, absolutely brilliant in the role). Having the heroic officer executed is a great black joke, and the fact that it’s Sting makes it delicious for the non-Police fans among us. But it’s a logical idea, albeit a twist version of logic.
But Gilliam loses it with Jackson at the end. If the man is supposed to be emblematic of Reason, then to have him negotiating not just the continuation of battle, and the ensuing death, destruction and mayhem, as a properly scientific approach to war is breaching your own internal logic. It isn’t twisted, it’s beyond logic. It’s hating your ‘opponent’ and putting words in his mouth to make him even more despicable.
And the same goes for the assassination bit. By now, Gilliam isn’t working to any kind of logic at all. He’s obsessed, fanatically stamping his feet like any baby demanding his way, and it comes close to blowing the film completely because it shows he’s lost control.
Which is a shame because in every other respect, I love this film, and it’s tremendous fun to watch, but it is flawed, and whilst the flaws are minor, they go to the heart of Gilliam’s themes in not just this movie, but also its two predecessors.
That’s now four fantasy films in four weeks, and next Sunday marks the halfway point of this project. Time for something a little more serious, I think, to celebrate.