When 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.