With his righteous battle against Universal Pictures over the U.S. edit of Brazil ending in victory and two surprise Academy Award nominations, Terry Gilliam was about to have another Hollywood moment, and given his penchant for independence, that would only spell doom for his next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The story surrounding the film’s problematic production, the financial malfeasance of Gilliam’s producing partner, Arnon Milchan and the change in executive leadership at Columbia Pictures that sabotaged the film’s distribution could be a movie in its own right and has spawned one book and lengthy entries in Gilliam’s autobiography and Ian Christie’s Gilliam on Gilliam. The trauma was so deep that in a moment chronicled in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha where the production of Gilliam’s Don Quixote epic is crumbling, the frantic director states: “It’s Munchausen all over again.”

Despite the harrowing nature of its creation, Munchausen is one of Gilliam’s finest films and a worthy successor to Time Bandits and Brazil. Based on stories by 18th century German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe about a nobleman/general with a talent for spinning tall tales about his exploits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a movie about telling stories. It is an exhortation of the limitlessness of possibility when a narrative is allowed to form with few restrictions. Alternately, it is an excoriation of small-mindedness and the unimaginativeness of authority. Read in this way, the film seems thematically autobiographical with the charming, uncontainable fabulist Munchausen (John Neville) representing Gilliam and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) the embodiment of studio executives like Sid Sheinberg who were always at loggerheads with Gilliam. In Munchausen, the grand battle is for control of the narrative and the definition of reality.

The movie begins in the late 18th century. “The Age of Reason” is superimposed over the image of a walled yet peaceful looking town, followed by the word “Wednesday.” Fearsome cannons made with the faces of dragons fire on the town, devastating its monuments and the German people behind the walls. The army outside belongs to the Sultan. He is attacking despite having a treaty with Horatio Jackson to not wage war on Wednesdays. The Germans do not retaliate, their head bureaucrat opting to uphold the treaty. Standing in defiance of the destruction of the town square is Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), correcting the fliers for her father’s theater company glued to the base of the statue. Sally is scratching out the “and Sons” after her father’s name and scrawling “and Daughter” in pencil.

Sally is a child of seven or eight who has been surrounded by stories all her life. Her father, Henry (Bill Paterson) is one of repertory theater’s great hams, and he runs things on a shoestring. Sally knows the machinations of the stories her father tells because she has to work in all departments like everyone else in the company. At the time of the siege, Salt is putting on a production of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” He plays the Baron in heavy makeup like a grand cartoon. His sets are lavish and scenes simplistic, but they must be for he is putting on his performance under the watchful eye of Horatio Jackson. Jackson wants an inoffensive show for a general audience. Any deviation would be a life or death decision. Like the studio executive, Jackson holds sway over the creative and wants stories tightly defined. It is not until the real Baron Munchausen arrives in a lather about the lies being told in his name that the struggle for control of the story begins.

Munchausen is an old man when introduced, withering away. No one believes his claims of identity, but he can weave a yarn so convincingly that the stage of Salt’s theater fades away, replaced by the Baron’s fantastical settings. He tells the story of the wager that caused the war the town is losing. It was more of a con perpetrated with the aid of his extraordinary servants Berthold (Eric Idle), the world’s fastest man, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a marksman, Albrecht (Winston Dennis), the world’s strongest man and Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a dwarf with amazing hearing and powerful lungs. By the end of the Baron’s recounting, he and his men had been scattered by the Sultan and his army. Reuniting with them and saving the town becomes Munchausen’s new cause, one that he is held to by Sally.

Sally represents a needed stricture upon the Baron. If he is all imagination and bluster, making up reality as he goes along, then she is the audience demanding that he finish the story he started. In her company, the old baron grows younger because he is an old story refreshed by his own retelling. He has the ability to go anywhere and does: the moon, the underworld of the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and the belly of a whale. Sally grounds the Baron, keeping him on narrative when he begins to stray too far. She is his witness and the vessel that will carry his stories after his final exit. Death looms over Munchausen throughout the movie, but because of Sally and the townspeople he affects, he can never truly die.

When Munchausen is assassinated by Horatio Jackson after the defeat of the Turks, there is the expectation that Gilliam is extracting the price of the fairy tale. He has done so before in Time Bandits and Brazil. Instead he pivots to something more hopeful. The Baron, old again, is standing onstage and narrating the story of his own death, an experience he’s had many times, only to rise again. Reason may wither an anarchical story, but it can’t destroy it. Munchausen ends with the Baron’s audience forcing the gates of the city open so they can see if the story they just heard was true. Looking at the empty battlefield, Sally says to the Baron: “It wasn’t just a story, was it?” Munchausen looks at her incredulously. He is Gilliam again, giving us a gentle reprimand for seeking an easy answer at the end of the journey.

Gilliam is a demanding storyteller and Munchausen is his greatest act of defiance in a genre defined by Steven Spielberg and his Amblin acolytes at the time of its release. Left for dead in a March release in 1989, the film went largely unseen despite its pedigree, making it the kind of failure that could end a career. Before Hollywood started authorizing budgets in the hundreds of millions for failed franchises like Green Lantern and John Carter, Munchausen lived on the lists of all-time most expensive flops with Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. That’s an unfair distinction. While The Adventures of Baron Munchausen failed to achieve the critical and financial success of its predecessors, it is undeniably Gilliam’s flawed masterpiece, a film that deserved a better fate and more affection.

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