The Baron Munchausen was a real person, an 18th century nobleman who told tall tales about his exploits against the Ottoman Empire. Co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam, the 1988 movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” was a critical success that was a commercial failure. You can watch this idiosyncratic tale on Netflix.
In 1988, Robin Williams had already done “Popeye” (1980), “The World According to Garp” (1982), “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984) and “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Williams has a minor role as the King of the Moon. If you’ve seen the movie, you won’t easily forget this role. He was a surprise cameo because the credits list him as Ray D. Tutto.
Gilliam would direct Williams again in the 1991 “The Fisher King.”
The movie begins in an unnamed European city in the late 18th century. We learn from an opening caption, that this is the Age of Reason. The Turkish army is outside the city walls.
The Age of Reason is also known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was a time of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke , David Hume and Isaac Newton. So the movement of intellectual began in the late 17th century. Reason and individualism was emphasized over tradition and faith was under siege.
The Turks are on the edge of Europe and Asia. Even today we can’t quite decide if they are Asian or European. The Ottoman Empire began in Anatolia in 1299 with the Oghuz Turks. By 1453, Constantinople came under Turkish control and what had been a state became an empire. By the 17th century, the empire controlled parts of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, part of North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Vienna and Warsaw were outside of the empire. Budapest, Belgrade, Athens and Sofia were part of the empire as was Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem.
The empire would eventually be defeated and dissolved between 1908 and 1922 (World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918).
During the Age of Reason, the Ottoman Empire was still powerful enough to threaten Europeans and this is definitely from a European point of view. In the movie, the people inside the unnamed city are being entertained by a touring stage production about the Baron Munchhausen’s life and adventures.
This being the Age of Reason, the tide has risen against superhuman feats of courage. So much so that a city official (Jonathan Pryce) orders the execution of an extraordinarily brave soldier (Sting) because his bravery would demoralize the more ordinary fighting men. As the play goes on, an old man protests that the play is inaccurate, claiming to be the real Baron (John Neville). He begins to tell the true story, but is interrupted by gunfire and explosions. He still continues while being pursued by the Angel of Death, carefully watched by the daughter of the theater company’s leader (Bill Paterson), Sally Salt (Sarah Polley).
During the stories, the Baron is alternately old and young, he recalls his romance with both the Queen of the Moon (Valentina Cortese) and Venus (Uma Thurman), both times having to fend himself from their respective jealous husbands, King of the Moon (Williams) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed). During these adventures, the Baron searches for his trusty companions: the fleet-footed Berthold (Eric Idle), the eagle-eyed rifleman Adolphus (Charles McKeown), the man with extraordinary hearing and lung-power Gustavus (Jack Purvis) and the strongman Albrecht (Winston Dennis) as well as his trusty steed Bucephalus (the name of Alexander the Great’s favorite steed although Alexander lived between 355 to 326 BC).
Members of the theater company, play duel roles with the exception of Sally and her father.
Williams is subdued as one can be for someone who has a flying head and who makes love to his wife (discretely shown) beginning with her feet while her head has gone away to speak with her former love, the Baron.
The movie was nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. The atmosphere fills the screen with the feeling of ancient cities. There’s a feeling of history, oldness fighting with the new.
The movie doesn’t tax your brain, but invites you to journey into a fantastical world and imagine a time when people could believe that someone flew to the moon in a hot air balloon and could outwit the Angel of Death.
As a Gilliam movie, this is more focused than the 1985 “Brazil” and in the same vein as the 2009 “Doctor Parnassus.”
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is currently available to live stream on Netflix.