The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

October 22, 2019

baronmunchausenWhen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was released a few years ago, I interviewed the filmmaker in the back of a limousine speeding down the freeway to Sea-Tac Airport. I remember only two things from his freewheeling conversation. One was that he said he lived in London because he was “less unhappy” there than anywhere else.

The other was a detailed description of a fantastic effect he hoped to achieve in his next film. He had written a scene in which a horse is cleaved in half – back and front – while its rider remains undisturbed. The two halves of the horse would prance around on their own until some happy conclusion could be reached. Gilliam’s only worry was that there was, as yet, no technical means to achieve this effect.

The concept is a typical Gilliam creation. Gilliam, who started his peculiar career as the sole American member of the Monty Python troupe (he did the bizarre animation on the show) and went on to direct Time Bandits and Brazil, is a man with a strange and unique vision. Weird things pop out of his brain, just as in those cut-out cartoons of men with flip-top heads he used to make for Python.

Gilliam’s latest vision has arrived, in the form of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His seething visual imagination is quite intact, even if that cleaved horse didn’t make it into the film. Not quite intact is the bankroll of Columbia Pictures, which ponied up the majority of the film’s budget (conservative estimates hover around $40 million).

What Columbia has paid for is a teeming, wild spectacle, not quite coherent and a bit obvious about its aims. A lot of it is eye-popping and a lot of it is stagnant. It’s a failure, finally, but with more good stuff in it than almost any film around.

Gilliam’s film is draped around the shoulders of Baron Munchausen (John Neville), an 18th-century nobleman who became famous as one of history’s great tellers of tall tales. The movie has him appearing in a town besieged by angry Turks, where he interrupts a bogus stage production purporting to portray his exploits. He takes over the stage and begins to tell his own stories, the true ones, of course.

These carry the good Baron from his encounter with a sheik who wants to cut off his bead (the movie’s best sequence, a self-contained dazzler), to the surface of the moon (where the King of the Moon rants endlessly, a tour-de-force cameo by Robin Williams), to the belly of a whale, where the Baron and his companions rest glumly until they realize that a pinch of snuff sometimes comes in handy.

There are incredible visions in the film. Deep inside Mount Etna, where a barbaric god (Oliver Reed) struggles to keep his band of exploited cyclops from going on strike, Venus (Uma Thurman) emerges, Botticelli-like, from a half-shell. The Baron, hoping to get a glimpse behind the Turkish battle lines, grabs hold of a cannonball and rides it casually over the fields.

Amazing stuff. But Gilliam is not the storyteller the Baron is. His film is off rhythm; it lurches in and out of motion. And as witty as much of the film is, Gilliam’s satire is sometimes as subtle as a club. It seems one end of this horse doesn’t really know what the other end is doing. But it’s always interesting to watch.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

In the years since this movie I had forgotten that the bisected horse did not make it into the film; my memory of Gilliam’s story must be so vivid that I thought I’d actually seen the image in the movie. Obviously, there are sentences in this review that apply just as well to Gilliam’s latest (as I write), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I suppose they constitute the conventional wisdom about Gilliam at this point, which makes me think I must be missing something. Anyway, his shtick in Don Quixote was at least refreshing for how out-of-step it is compared to the cinema of today, so maybe there’s something to be said for sticking to your own flawed process.



March 24, 2011

Brazil is not set in Brazil, has no spoken reference to Brazil, has nothing to do with the South American country. Every now and then, a character in the film will whistle a snatch of the old Xavier Cugat tune, and that’s enough to give the film its title.

It’s an ironic touch, because the happy world of that snappy song is in direct contrast to the world we find in Brazil. An opening title tells us we are “Somewhere in the 20th century,” and the exact time seems to be the 1984 envisioned by George Orwell—a totalitarian state in which bureaucracy is the overriding, choking reality.

Brazil is the vivid creation of director Terry Gilliam, a member of the Monty Python troupe (the only American Python) and director of Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. Gilliam, who used to do the wild cartoons for the Pythons, has brilliantly created a world of bureaucratic overload. Everywhere, there are pipes and tubes carrying human needs and wastes. The technology of this world seems to be stuck somewhere in the late 1940s—decaying machines, tied together by an advanced computer system, operated by the dour, defeated citizens.

If you can picture England run by Stalin’s iron fist, you’ll get an idea of the society Brazil describes. (When decrying a terrorist bombing, a minister with proper British decorum tut-tuts the attack as “bad sportsmanship.”) The film is full of Orwellian posters with slogans such as, “Suspicion Breeds Confidence” and “Don’t Suspect a Friend—Report Him.” The single most terrifying image in the movie may be the huge billboard, rising above the dingy city streets, that shows a pathologically cheerful family above the slogan, “Happiness—we’re all in it together.”

Through this eye-popping world, Gilliam (who wrote the script with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) spins the story of a petty bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce) who lives a good portion of his life in his fantasies—in which he sports wings and armor, and saves his dream girl from outrageous evildoers. Other than that, he just wants to get through reality with as little bother as possible.

He becomes radicalized, more or less, when he spots this dream girl (Kim Griest) in the flesh, and gets himself promoted to better pursue her. In his new position, he sees the horrors of the police state more clearly and finally feels moved to do something about it.

Pryce is superb at portraying this sort of passive protagonist, and the film is full of terrific performers in supporting roles. Michael Palin, a Python cohort, is chilling as a surgeon-torturer; Katherine Helmond is suitably demented as Pryce’s mother, who undergoes grueling facelifts; Robert De Niro is a heating engineer and guerilla hero of the resistance; and Ian Holm, who may go through his career without giving a bad or uninteresting performance (most recently as Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild) is wonderful as Pryce’s highly nervous boss.

Part of Gilliam’s point in all this, of course, is to show that the world of Brazil is already here, and many of the terrifying attitudes and policies are recognizable. He does this with horror, humor, and sometimes obviousness; but always with vigor.

It’s a relief that Gilliam’s version of the film, which almost didn’t make it out intact in the United States, is the one we’re seeing. Brazil has its own rhythms and rules, and the version we see is true to those rules—and to the mad inner workings of Terry Gilliam’s mind.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Gilliam came to Seattle when Brazil came out and I interviewed him during his limo ride to the airport as he left town, an interesting setting that only added to the fun of the interview. I remember two things well: he said that he lived in London because it was the city where he was “less unhappy” than he was anywhere else, and he talked about the technical process he’d been working on for making a horse split into two parts, which I guess was preparation for Baron Munchausen. I’ve never been convinced Brazil is a great movie, although I like it. Gilliam is a filmmaker who makes great pieces of movies, and perhaps this is the closest he came to sustaining an entire picture at a pretty high level.