The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.