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 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
(1988) on IMDb

Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Remarkable. Unbelievable. Impossible. And true.

An account of Baron Munchausen’s supposed travels and fantastical experiences across late 18th-century Europe with his band of misfits.

Theatrical release poster by Lucinda Cowell, Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Theatrical release poster by Lucinda Cowell

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a 1988 film directed by Terry Gilliam, starring John Neville (as the Baron), Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams and a great many more.

Synopsis “Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.”

The film begins in an unnamed and war-torn European city in the late 18th century (dubbed “The Age of Reason” in an opening caption), where, amidst explosions and gunfire, a fanciful touring stage production of Baron Munchausen’s life and adventures is taking place. Backstage, city official “The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson” (Jonathan Pryce) reinforces the city’s commitment to reason (here meaning uniformity and unexceptionality) by ordering the execution of a soldier who had just accomplished a near-superhuman feat of bravery (Sting in a cameo), claiming that his bravery is demoralizing to other soldiers.

Not far into the play, an elderly man claiming to be the real Baron interrupts the show, protesting its many inaccuracies. Over the complaints of the audience, the theater company and Jackson, the “real” Baron gains the house’s attention and narrates through flashback an account of one of his adventures, of a life-or-death wager with the Grand Turk, where the younger Baron’s life is saved only by his amazing luck plus the assistance of his remarkable associates: Berthold (Eric Idle), the world’s fastest runner; Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a gunman with superhuman eyesight; Gustavus (Jack Purvis), who possesses extraordinary hearing, and sufficient lung power to knock down an army by exhaling; and Albrecht (Winston Dennis), a fantastically strong man.

When gunfire disrupts the elderly Baron’s story, the importance of saving the city eclipses the show. The Baron wanders backstage intending to die, until the exuberance of Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), the young daughter of the theater company’s leader, convinces him to remain living.

Insisting that he alone can save the city, the Baron escapes the city’s walls in a hot air balloon constructed of women’s underwear, accompanied by Sally as a stowaway. The balloon expedition proceeds to the Moon, where the Baron, rejuvenated to the appearance of a younger man by the preceding adventure, finds his old associate Berthold, but angers the King of the Moon (Robin Williams in an uncredited cameo; listed as Ray D. Tutto in the credits. Note that in Italian “Ray D. Tutto” sounds like “King of All”, as the King of the Moon claims to be in the film.), who resents the Baron for his romantic past with his Queen (Valentina Cortese).

A bungled escape from the Moon leads the trio back to (and beneath) the Earth, where the Roman God Vulcan (Oliver Reed) hosts his guests with courtesy and Albrecht is found. An unwelcome romantic incident between the Baron and Vulcan’s wife, the Goddess Venus (Uma Thurman), ends the hospitality and the now-foursome are expelled from Vulcan’s kingdom into the South Seas.

Swallowed by an enormous sea creature, the travelers locate Gustavus, Adolphus, and the Baron’s trusty horse Bucephalus. The Baron (who again appears elderly after being “expelled from a state of bliss,” in his words) struggles with the conflicting goals of heroism and a peaceful death, before deciding to escape with “a modicum of snuff,” which causes the sea creature to “sneeze” the heroes out through its whale-like blowhole.

Back ashore, the Turkish army is located but the Baron’s associates are now too elderly and tired to fight the Turk as in the old days. After a stern lecture from the Baron, who storms off intending to surrender, his cohorts rally to save both the Baron and the city in a fantastic extended battle scene.

During the city’s celebratory parade, the Baron is shot dead by Jackson. An emotional public funeral takes place, but then is revealed to be only the final scene of yet another story the Baron is telling to the same theater-goers from early in the film. The Baron calls the foregoing “only one of the many occasions on which I met my death” and closes his tale by saying “everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.”

A somewhat ambiguous finale reveals that the city has indeed been saved, even though the events of the battle apparently occurred in a story rather than the film’s reality. The Baron rides off on Bucephalus, and the credits roll over a triumphant blast of music.

Background

Baron Munchausen is a character from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (or Baron M├╝nchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels) by Rudolf Erich Raspe ┬Ś a collection of tall stories published in 1785, based on the German adventurer Karl Friedrich von M├╝nchhausen, but with many debts to earlier works. The tales were adapted and re-published in German by Gottfried August B├╝rger in 1786 as Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande, Feldz├╝ge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyherrn von M├╝nchhausen and became much more popular in this edition.

The stories were also made into films in 1911 (Les Aventures de baron de M├╝nchhausen), 1943 (M├╝nchhausen, script by Erich K├Ąstner), 1961 (Baron Pr├ísil) and 1979 (Tot samyi M├╝nchhausen by Russian director Mark Zakharov). Gilliam’s film has many visual similarities to the 1943 version and the production company was legally obliged to add a disclaimer to the film’s posters and closing titles to the effect that Gilliam’s Munchausen was an original movie unconnected to the earlier version.

The Real Man

Portrait of young Baron M├╝nchhausen
The real-life M├╝nchhausen circa 1740, as a Cuirassier in Riga, by G. Bruckner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M├╝nchhausen (11 May 1720 – 22 February 1797) was a German baron who in his youth was sent to serve as page to Anthony Ulrich II, Duke of Brunswick-L├╝neburg and later joined the Russian military. He served until 1750, in particular taking part in two campaigns against the Turks. Returning home, M├╝nchhausen supposedly told a number of outrageous tall tales about his adventures. The Baron was born in Bodenwerder and died there as well.

According to the stories, as retold by others, the Baron’s astounding feats included riding cannonballs, travelling to the Moon, and escaping from a swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair.

Life

M├╝nchhausen was page to Anthony Ulrich II, Duke of Brunswick-L├╝neburg, and moved with his employer to Russia. He was named a cornet in the Russian cavalry when Anthony Ulrich became Russian generalissimo in 1739. In 1740, he was promoted to lieutenant. He was stationed in Riga, but participated in two campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in 1740 and 1741. When Anthony Ulrich was imprisoned in 1741, M├╝nchhausen remained in the service of the Russian military. In 1750, he was named a cavalry captain.

In 1744, he had married Jacobine von Dunten in Perniel near Duntes Mui┬×a in Livonia. After his retirement, he lived with his wife at his manor in Bodenwerder until her death in 1790. Here, he acquired a reputation for his witty and exaggerated tales; at the same time, he was considered an honest man in business affairs. M├╝nchhausen remarried in 1794; the marriage ended in a contested, ruinous divorce. M├╝nchhausen died childless in 1797.

The Medical Condition

Named after Baron von Munchausen, Munchausen syndrome is a type of factitious disorder, or mental illness, in which a person repeatedly acts as if he or she has a physical or mental disorder when, in truth, they have caused the symptoms.

Background

Gustave Dor├ę's portrait of Baron Munchausen
Gustave Dor├ę’s portrait of Baron Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is a character from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (or Baron M├╝nchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels) by Rudolf Erich Raspe ┬Ś a collection of tall stories published in 1785, based on the German adventurer Karl Friedrich von M├╝nchhausen, but with many debts to earlier works. The tales were adapted and re-published in German by Gottfried August B├╝rger in 1786 as Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und zu Lande, Feldz├╝ge und lustige Abenteuer des Freyherrn von M├╝nchhausen and became much more popular in this edition.

The stories were also made into films in 1911 (Les Aventures de baron de M├╝nchhausen), 1943 (M├╝nchhausen, script by Erich K├Ąstner), 1961 (Baron Pr├ísil) and 1979 (Tot samyi M├╝nchhausen by Russian director Mark Zakharov). Gilliam’s film has many visual similarities to the 1943 version and the production company was legally obliged to add a disclaimer to the film’s posters and closing titles to the effect that Gilliam’s Munchausen was an original movie unconnected to the earlier version.

Quite unusual for a Terry Gilliam film, the movie ends on an upbeat note, without Gilliam’s usual trademark “final dark plot twist.”

Film

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