Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen, or Baron Munchausen, began his life as a series of urban legends and tall tales that were collected by author Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785 as The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (or Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia). Since then, these stories were further exaggerated and finally made into a series of movies, including the Georges Méliès-directed Baron Munchausen’s Dream, Münchhausen, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and The Very Same Munchhausen.
The third entry in Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination”, preceded by Time Bandits and Brazil, this is a film that was made during a battle between Columbia CEO Dawn Steel and Gilliam. As the film’s budget blew up, so did the war.
Gilliam blamed the whole thing on the simple fact that the new regime didn’t want anything to do with the old regime’s films. Except they released the movie to just 117 theaters, which is literally nothing. He would later say, “The joke is, if you look back, we got the best reviews and we were doing the best business in the opening weeks of any film they had released since Last Emperor. We actually opened well in the big cities — we opened really well. A friend who had bought the video rights said he had never seen anything so weird — Columbia was spending their whole time looking at exit polls to prove the film would not work in the suburbs, and so it would be pointless to make any more prints. He said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” There it was. Then it becomes this kind of legend–which it deserves to be… even if it’s the wrong legend.”
Yet what emerges on the screen — the legend of Baron Munchausen (John Neville) — does not seem impacted at all by the trauma of making the movie. Even the movie itself goes against the structure of storytelling, with the real Baron interrupting the play that starts the movie and taking the viewer on a journey through his life. Whether the story he’s telling is true or polished to be even better than the truth is up to you.
Yet the Angel of Death — which looks directly out of Cemetery Man which makes complete sense when you see Michele Soavi’s name in the credits as second unit director — is true and it’s been hunting the Baron, who is saved by young Sarah Salt (Sarah Polley) and together they escape in a hot air balloon to find the Baron’s old friends, the super-fast Berthold (Eric Idle), master rifleman Adolphus (Charles McKeown), Gustavus (Jack Purvis) who has remarkable hearing and breathing abilities and the strongest man in the world, Albrecht (Winston Dennis).
I’m struck by the fact that the Baron is actually an idea — a man who may or may not exist yet one who rallies for ideas and creativity — and ideas can’t die, as even when the Angel of Death finally claims him, he’s just telling a story and says that this was “only one of the many occasions on which I met my death.”
With cameos by Oliver Reed as Vulcan, Uma Thurman as Venus, Robin Williams as the king of the moon, Sting as a soldier sacrificed because bravery is demoralizing to other soldiers and citizens, and so many more events, this is a movie made by an imaginative artist seeking to give you that same joy and ability.