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Cinema as Sermons – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Theology, Metaphysics and Slapstick)

Updated: Jul 19

Alex celebrates Terry Gilliam's often overlooked and incredibly exuberant film adaptation of the Baron Munchausen tales. (This video is a critical review, and therefore the use of copyrighted materials is permitted under the Fair Use act.) From Cinemology 101 (15minutes)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Theology, Metaphysics and Slapstick)

A title appears on-screen: "18th Century -- The Age of Reason."

Then, a moment later, "Wednesday." So we begin as all Terry Gilliam movies with absurdity and confusion, a brilliantly inventive epic of fantasy, theology, satire, metaphysics, and slapstick.

The movie opens In an unnamed, besieged European city being destroyed by cannon blasts from the Turks, while in the city at the same time a stage production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (with delightful floating/ sliding backdrops) is being performed in a half-destroyed theater, when the real baron (John Neville) suddenly turns up, protesting about the way he’s being represented and announcing to the crowd, “Only I can end this war . . . because I began it.”

Promising to “reveal the true cause of the war,” he launches into an onstage monologue that begins a flashback sequence. Even more confusing is the fact his servants in the flashback — including Berthold (Eric Idle), who runs faster than a bullet, and Albrecht (Winston Dennis), who can carry all the sultan’s treasures on his back — are played by the same actors playing these characters in the stage production. The movie is a wild spectacle to say the least!

Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen is the basis for the film. Looking back at all of Gilliam’s many movies we always find metaphysical imagination mixed with small-scale slapstick. The story of the (fictional) Baron Munchausen stars John Neville as the titular character. John Neville was famous for his theater work in which He brought a grand theatrical flair to the role. Many of you might remember him for his excellent performances in the X-Files as the Well-Manicured Man, a member of the syndicate. The character began in the third season and ended with the first feature film. His performances earned him the praise of being called a “legendary TV character” by many critics. John Neville died on November 11, 2011 at the age of 86.

Baron Munchausen Movie Poster
Baron Munchausen Movie Poster

Actor John Neville
Actor John Neville

Child actress Sarah Polley as the pragmatic yet full of wonder Sally Salt, who both kept the Baron grounded in reality (such as it is) and inspired him to new heights of whimsy.

Jonathan Pryce, who gave an excellent performance turn in the Gilliam movie Brazil was cast as the villain “ the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson”, a man mindlessly dedicated to the cause of reason and normalcy, so much so, he orders the execution of a heroic soldier, because his improbable feats of bravery would be “demoralizing” to average citizens. That soldier was played by Sting in his cameo in Munchausen.

Robin Williams (not be credited by name), plays the King of the Moon which the credits say is played by “Ray D. Tutto” (“Rei di Tutto” in Italian means “King of Everything”) a direct reference to the characters delusions.

We see a noticeably young Uma Thurman as the goddess Venus, one of her earliest film roles. Her entrance recreates a hilariously faithful recreation of Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus, is one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Actor Oliver Reed’s gives a notable performance as her jealous husband Vulcan.

Rounding out the cast is Python alum Eric Idle, who plays Berthold, one of the Baron’s improbably gifted servants/traveling companions, along with Charles McKeown as eagle-eyed sharpshooter Adolphus, Jack Purvis as super-hearing/super-blowing, sidekick Gustavus, and Winston Dennis as super-strong Albrecht. McKeown is a longtime collaborative writing/acting partner of Gilliam’s, and shares writing credit with him on Munchausen. Gilliam, Jack Purvis, and Winston Dennis appeared in all three of Gilliam’s “trilogy” movies in one capacity or another.

An underlying theme of the film is the decline or death of imagination as well as our actual decline/aging and Death!

Angel of Death
Angel of Death

With that in mind The Angel of Death (Grim Reaper) is a major antagonist from the start of the story (movie).

The Angel of Death first appears as Baron Munchausen is lying on the ground while the theatre is being destroyed by the Ottoman Turks cannon fire. Death attempts to claim Munchausen's soul, but is driven away by Sally. He encounters The Angel of Death many times during the entity of the movie.

Video from Nim Rodd

Note the dialogue from the scene:

“Sally: Are you, all right?

Baron Munchausen: Am I dead?

Sally: No.

Baron Munchausen: Blast!

Sally: Who are you really?

[Baron Munchausen groans]

Sally: Baron Munchausen isn't real, he's only in stories.

Baron Munchausen: Go away! I'm trying to die!

Sally: Why?

Baron Munchausen: Because I'm tired of the world and the world is evidently tired of me.

Sally: But why? Why?

Baron Munchausen: Why, why, why! Because it's all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me.”

Do you see the relevance to our time in which imagination is not so relevant to life anymore? Imagination is Godly! Consider how God used and continue to use His imagination in creating the cosmos.

DVD Cover Art
DVD Cover Art

Tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymus (the real Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).

The film offers three separate views of hell — a war-torn European city, a red-hot (and anachronistically conceived) nuclear missile plant straight out of Hellzapoppin within the crater of Mount Etna, and the inside of the belly of a gigantic sea monster — but no single discernible thread allows us to link up all three.

Gilliam says it is the third part of a trilogy. The first film, "Time Bandits," was about childhood. His second, "Brazil," was about adulthood. "Baron Munchausen" is about old age. Perhaps the Baron’s most incredible feat is his continuing appeal. This comic literary figure is as recognizable as Falstaff or Don Quixote. His outrageous adventures are still in print going on 200 years, they have also been presented on stage, radio, film, and television.

I will close with a few lines from the movie:

Sultan: Have you any famous last words?

Baron Munchausen: Not yet.

Sultan: "Not yet"? Is that famous?


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