The fantastic tale of an 18th century aristocrat, his talented henchmen and a little girl in their efforts to save a town from defeat by the Turks. Being swallowed by a giant sea-monster, a trip to the moon, a dance with Venus and an escape from the Grim Reaper are only some of the improbable adventures.
/ West Germany
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
. Starring: John Neville
, Eric Idle
, Sarah Polley
, Oliver Reed
, Charles McKeown
, Winston Dennis
, Jack Purvis
, Valentina Cortese
, Jonathan Pryce
, Bill Paterson
, Peter Jeffrey
, Uma Thurman
, Alison Steadman
. Music by: Michael Kamen
When this film came out in 1988 the criticism that followed was that while it had some great special effects, it was too long and too expensive, and did not make sense. But THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, while certainly very expensive, may be among the best film adaptations and adoptions of a well known fictional classic into a major motion picture.
The stories it is based on are Raspe's 1780 collection of tall tales of that great adventurer and lover Baron Hieronymous Von Munchausen. The best known tale is how the Baron travels hundreds of miles back and forth during a battle by riding on top of cannon balls (as he does in the film) and how he visits the King and Queen of the Moon. The book made Baron Von Munchausen's name a synonym for liar (albeit a colorful liar). It was glorified by one edition in the 19th Century with illustrations by the great Gustave Dore, that was used by Terry Gilliam for his inspiration in this film
I might add that this was not the first time the character popped up on film. There was a Czech film THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHASEN that was made in the 1950s by the same creators of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF JULES VERNE. And in the early 1930s an "all star" comedy was made in Hollywood called MEET THE BARON, based on a popular radio show of that time called BARON MUNCHAUSEN, with a comic named Jack Pearl as the Baron. Although it had the Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, and Edna Mae Oliver in it, it also had Pearl. A bit more bearable as a dialog comic and "zany" than the abominable Joe Penner, Pearl gave a catch line that gained national attention in that period. When his garrulous count was questioned by his suspicious trapped listener the Baron would say, "Was you dere Charley?", which would shut-up his questioner.
But Gilliam is probing the reason for tall tales. A town in middle Europe is under serious siege in the middle 18th Century by the Turks. It is under constant bombardment. There is only one open theater working, and they intend to put on a dramatization on the career of Baron Munchausen. But they are finding that this dramatization is only being begrudgingly allowed by the local authorities (led by Jonathan Pryce, as an obnoxious diplomat and civil servant). Pryce does not believe in fantasy, and feels that the people should see only reality. Of course, as the film progresses one sees that Pryce's idea of reality is bloody and deadly to most people, and will only glorify the "peacemakers" (a role he intends for himself).
As the play is put on by the father of the film's small heroine, Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), a man appears who denounces the story as false. He is Baron Von Munchausen (John Neville). He dismisses the actors (to the anger of the cast and the audience) but he manages to quell their anger by talking about why it was not a real version of his career. Soon he and Sally take a look at the deteriorating situation on the battlefield. They construct a balloon, and take off. And the film then follows their adventures around the world, and on the moon, and even with Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and his wife (Uma Thurmond). I refrain from going into detail but the part dealing with the King and Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) is very funny and exciting. In the end Munchausen finds his four old servants (Eric Idle, Charley McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis)and returns to the town to save it.
The film has a Chinese box type of construction. Surprise ending follows surprise ending building to the climax - a peaceful one but one that is shattering none the less. For after watching the destruction of the Turkis forces we learn that the Baron has been simply telling his tales to the audience, and they have been spellbound. Pryce shows up with a military bodyguard, berating the old windbag for wasting the audience's time with all this romantic claptrap. Munchausen points out the firing has stopped. Everyone notices (including an amazed and troubled Pryce - he has missed his chance of gaining fame by ending the war himself). The audience rushes to the gates, and finds the enemy has abandoned the siege. Romanticism, and it's calming effects - it's powers of giving our dreams and wishes wing to soar, has defeated the reality that Pryce offered. And the film ends.
I like it. It is saying that in this rotten world there is a seriously place for imagination to comfort and sustain our spirits. The film actually was one of the best philosophical lessons in movie history.
Being by Gilliam there are numerous Monty Python touches in it (including his pal Idle's appearances as the fastest man in the world - trying to outrun a bullet). Note too the "artistic" Turkish Sultan, who is composing an opera called "The Torturer's Apprentice", which includes a device torturing a half dozen prisoners to yell "Ow" and "Ooh" in time. The performances were good, including Pryce's priggish bureaucrat, but best of all was Neville. Aside from his appearance as Sherlock Holmes in the film A STUDY IN TERROR, and his John Churchill in the television series THE FIRST CHURCHILLS, Neville never had a major lead role (though plenty of good supporting parts: Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas to Robert Morley's Oscar Wilde in the film of that name, for example). He certainly made the most of this one, proving to be a wise old man, but having moments of serious doubt and personal sadness. In all it was a terrific performance in a remarkable film.
Review by theowinthrop from the Internet Movie Database.