Brilliant Failures #4: Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Brilliant Failures#4: The Adventures of Baron Münchausen

Theatrical release poster

Theatrical release poster

Terry Gilliam’s new film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opened on Friday to a flurry of stories about its ‘troubled production’ (Heath Ledger’s tragic death during its making; the death of one of its producers, William Vince, two days after completion. Cue hoary anecdotes about the ‘the curse of Gilliam’. The ex-Python’s doomed attempt to bring his Don Quixote to the big screen, as immortalised in the heart-breaking documentary, Fulton and Pepe’s 2002 Lost in La Mancha, has encoded Gilliam’s legend as the Quixotic director who is forever tilting at windmills. In that catalogue of woe the lead actor, Jean Rochefort, died during filming, the Spanish air force took target practice nearby and the whole set was washed away in a flash flood. And still referred to in disparaging terms in the movie world is the ‘debacle over The Adventures of Baron Münchausen, Gilliam’s 1988 film that has become a byword for over-budget production disasters – and yet behind this myth, like many of the illusions in the director’s films (who, let us not forget, has turned in modern classics like Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King), is something far more down-to-earth and to scale – and a film that does what it intends to, tell a rattling good yarn.

Once Upon a Time

Baron Münchausen is a semi-folkloric character from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchausen by the fabulously-named Rudolf Erich Raspe — a collection of German wonder tales published in 1785, based on the real-life German adventurer Karl Friedrich von Münchhause, who was prone to exaggeration it seems – and has subsequently given his name to the psychiatric disorder Münchausen Syndrome. Münchausen’s story has been made into films four times previously, in 1911 (Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen), 1943 (the notorious Nazi Münchhausen, script by Erich Kästner), 1961 (Baron Prášil) and the Russian Tot samyi Münchhausen in 1979. The Baron seemed a perfect choice for Gilliam, a match made in heaven that had to go through hell.

Production Purgatory

The original producer, David Puttnam, was fired and with the subsequent regime change as one studio (20th Century Fox) was taken over by another (Columbia Pictures), the film was ‘buried’, a victim of Hollywood politics. The studios were still embittered about how Gilliam took them on over his previous film, the dystopian Brazil, famously taking out a full page ad in Variety, asking ‘why won’t you release my film?’ In the US only 117 prints were released of Münchausen (even arthouse movies get a standard 400). Despite this  apparent sabotaging from the studio, the film opened well in the few cities it was being screened in – but not surprisingly, the box office was dismal ($8 million – a figure pounced on by critics to prove its failure) yet in Europe, with better distribution, it faired better and gained a healthy afterlife in VHS and DVD sales as its cult status grew.

A Stellar Cast

Gilliam has a knack of attracting a great ensemble cast to his films. Previously he has worked with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys); Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges (The Fisher King); Connery and Cleese (Time Bandits); and subsequently, Ledger and Matt Damon (Brothers Grimm). Münchausen is no exception: it has an ‘unknown’ Uma Thurman as Venus: Oliver Reed, doing an hilarious stint as Vulcan; fellow Python Eric Idle; an uncredited Robin Williams as the King of the Moon; cameos by Sting, Alison Steadman, Don Paterson, and Jonathan Pryce, previously the lead man, Sam, in Brazil, hamming it up as the ultimate killjoy city official ‘The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson’ – defender of ‘reason’. Jonathan Pryce’s character becomes a symbol of the studio financiers, always trying to shut Gilliam/Münchausen down – blue meanies of the imagination.

A Solid Structure

On one level Münchausen, scripted by McKeown and Gilliam (Parnassus sees them reunited) is a riff on Scheherazade (the female fabulist of One Thousand and One Nights) – the storyteller indefinitely postponing death with her tale-spinning. In the framing narrative, set in a ‘beseiged city’, Münchausen interrupts a poor rendition of his life with a ‘real tale’ of how he narrowly escaped losing his head in a wager with the King of the Turks over a bottle of Tokay. With the help of his four super-powered allies (Berthold, the world’s fastest man; Albrecht, the world’s strongest; Gustavus, with the keenest hearing; and Adolphus, with the keenest eyesight) he wins the day and the admiration of the ‘lovely ladies’ of the harem. When the ‘seige’ interrupts his fabulation, the crestfallen Münchausen decides to die, but is forced to act to save the city (for the sake of a little girl, Sally Salt, who is won over by his tales).  The Baron, escaping the city on a cannon-ball, seeks out his former companions and in doing so goes on a quest for wholeness. Each of his companions seem to represent a different element (air, fire, earth, water) – only when all four are brought together can wholeness be achieved –a kind of Jungian individuation. In Parnassus – five is the magic number (the number of souls Parnassus must win, to save his daughter, Valentina, played by Lily Cole, from the devil, Mr Nick, played by Tom Waits) although it is four different versions of the initially suicidal Tony who save the day, played – after Ledger’s death, by 3 fellow A-list actors and friends, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel and Jude Law (who donated their fees to Ledger’s daughter).

Smoke and Mirrors

As in many of Gilliam’s films, there is a metanarrative that revels in the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of cinema. In Münchausen, and now in Parnassus, we see ‘real fakirs’, illusions that prove true and received wisdoms that are revealed to be false, unmasked like so many wizards of Oz. Münchausen’s framing narrative is quite chilling. The ‘enemy’ is not at the gates – the ‘fear of the other’ is just a myth created by those in power to control us… This proved prophetic when the Berlin Wall toppled the year following its release, ending the Cold War – and seems just as relevant to today – when we have bogus WMD, a never-ending ‘War on Terror’ and an erstwhile enemy.


Despite its lambasting in the popular press, Münchausen received 4 Oscar nominations and a gaggle of others for its design, special FX, and other technical skill. The film gained some positive reviews (85% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). US film critic Roger Ebert concluded that, despite its faults, “the wit and the spectacle of Baron Münchausen are considerable achievements”.

Cult Classic

Perhaps due to all of this, as much as from its neglected delights, Münchausen has attained cult status – enshrined at last in Movie Valhalla in the hearts of film fans. When you look at the GNP of small nations spent on films like Titanic, Spiderman 3 and Avatar, the budget for Münchausen seems miniscule now, even compared to most modern Hollywood movies – Münchausen is cited as having a budget of $23.5 million, and came in at $46.6m, although this has been disputed. The film’s original producer, Schuly, says the film’s original budget was closer to $35m, but Columbia, when they took it over, reduced this to $25m. It seems Gilliam’s bad press was a stitch up, a rumour mill fuelled by the Completion Bond Company and those with bad feeling towards Gilliam from Brazil. The maverick director had challenged the powers of the studios and was paying the price.

A Vaulting Ambition

Münchausen – like Quixote, like Parnassus – seems to be an alter-ego for Gilliam himself, a chronic fabulist, one who refuses to let reality win. The latest news is Gilliam’s Don Quixote project is back on, albeit without Depp, who is booked up for the next ten years. Gilliam has said he cannot wait that long, joking that he may die before he gets a chance to make his dream project. The director narrowly avoided the Reaper as Parnassus was in post-production, after being knocked over by a people carrier. As the Baron himself would put it: ‘only one of the many occasions on which I met my death’.

‘Everyone Who Had a Talent for it Lived Happily Ever After’

Imaginarium is the first film Gilliam has story-boarded himself since Münchausen and early reviews hail its visionary verve – the Gilliam trademark. There is no greater living screen fantasist. May the Reaper not catch up with Gilliam for many years yet.

©Kevan Manwaring 2009

View previous Brilliant Failures articles by Kevan Manwaring on The Big Picture website:

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