The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

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Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ is a flawed masterpiece, I’m told. One day I hope to verify this with my own eyes. Until then:

As a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe in the 1960s, it was felt that Terry Gilliam was too uncomely and too American for British audiences. Typically, Gilliam would be sent into a darkened back room to make childish cartoons, which the other members occasionally included in the show, largely in order to humour him. But since then Gilliam has overcome his natural shortcomings and taught a generation of cinema-goers how to dream again. He is a warlock. A powerful master of all that is imaginable. A dark archimago on a bulging-eyed steed, stalking a fat, complacent public, ever-ready to strike them down with his phantasmagorical tales of wonder.

‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ was made while Gilliam’s directorial career was still in its early, uncouth phase. He had not yet teamed up with his delicate, dreamsome muse, Johnny Depp, who was at that time still stuck in a rut of playing preening flibbertigibbets. Similarly trapped in an interminable prelude to his proper career, Gilliam had to make do with Geoffrey Rush as his brave, silly Baron. Despite not being Johnny Depp, Rush nevertheless made a valiant attempt to act the part in a satisfactory manner. Rush has always been a chafing bag of tics, struggling for every second that he is on screen not to look into the camera and make faces at the people watching him. ‘Elizabeth’ was unwatchable for this very reason. But, in this film, Rush’s naïve, savant style seems almost appropriate.

Like Baron Samedi and Baron Harkonnen, Baron Munchausen was an actual historical personage. A sort of cross between the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Aquinas and Jeffrey Archer, Munchausen lied, laid and lickspittled his way through the eighteenth century, throwing out insightful adages as if they were buttons or grains of rice. This film cleverly pretends that all of the preposterous flim-flam that left his rubbery, oleaginous lips was in fact 100% truth. So at one point we see Munchausen having a picnic on the moon with John the Baptist; elsewhere we see him flaying Jean-Jacques Rousseau, climbing inside the removed skin-suit, and starting the French Revolution. Like all simpletons, I enjoy magic and wizardry, but these sequences strayed just that bit too far onto the wrong side of unrealistic for my palate. The film might perhaps have rung truer had Gilliam reigned in this sort of thing more often.

Gilliam also omits aspects of Munchausen’s life that I would have greatly liked to have seen: his noisy, miraculous birth; his deep love of butter; his tender, loving relationship with his manservant, Gruntweed. Of course, the biopic is a tightrope of a genre, bestrewn with minefields and treacherous waters. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. But even so, I can’t help but feel that if Gilliam had tried harder to please viewers such as myself, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ would have been a much better film.

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2 Responses to “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”

  1. Joe Says:

    There was that other famous baron as well. Baron Greenback. Is he in this film? And there’s a Baron Landscape in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Think he might be the guy in the hockey mask.

  2. johnlebaptiste Says:

    I imagine that they are both in this film, though not necessarily in the technical sense of the word ‘in’.

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