Release Date(s)1988 (January 3, 2023)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1166)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A+
It’s not surprising that a visionary fabulist like Terry Gilliam would have been attracted to the stories about the legendary figure of Baron Munchausen. The tales that were told by the real-life Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, and later greatly expanded by his unauthorized (and equally imaginative) biographer Rudolf Erich Raspe, are filled with fabulous visions that cry out for someone with the eye of a former animator to bring them to life. No, the real surprise is that a major Hollywood studio like Columbia would have been willing to give Gilliam the money to do so, especially after his notoriously out-of-control spending during the making of Brazil at Universal. At that point during the late Eighties, all of Hollywood was still smarting after the implosion of United Artists over the production of Heaven’s Gate, and Brazil had served as a good reminder that giving filmmakers nearly unlimited resources wasn’t necessarily a wise investment strategy. At that time, however, Columbia was under the leadership of producer David Puttnam, and while Puttnam was anything but a profligate spender, he was still supportive of the directors who worked under him. Under the terms of a complicated co-production deal, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was greenlit for a budget of $23.5 million, with a $2 million contingency fund to cover any overages.
After the behind-the-scenes travails during the making (and unmaking) of Brazil, surely Gilliam would have learned his lessons and history couldn’t possibly repeat itself, could it? Surely he didn’t, and surely it did. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a far more chaotic production than Brazil had been, and by the time that the dust had settled, the final costs had ballooned to nearly twice its original budget (although the actual figure has been disputed). Puttnam had been ousted by that point, and new CEO Dawn Steel wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the film or with anything else that had been greenlit under Puttnam’s regime. Baron Munchausen was dumped into a handful of theatres in 1989 with little more than a perfunctory marketing campaign to accompany it, and Columbia’s lack of effort was rewarded with minimal box office returns to the tune of $8.1 million. The legendary Baron was an equally legendary flop, and that could have been where things had ended if not for one minor detail: it’s an extraordinary film, one that captured the imaginations of the lucky few of us who saw it back in 1989. Word of mouth accomplished what advertising couldn’t, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen clawed its way out of the ashes of box office failure into the rarified air of cult movie success. In retrospect, it’s not difficult to understand why.
While the story of Baron Munchausen was unfamiliar to popular audiences during the Eighties (which understandably complicated Columbia’s marketing efforts), there’s an inherent appeal to the way that the power of his imagination was able to overcome any and all possible obstacles. Many storytellers end up painting themselves into narrative corners, but that wasn’t an issue for Munchausen (or for his chronicler Raspe, as the case may be). No situation was too perilous, no mountain was too high, no fish was too big, and no amount of opposition could ever prevent him from prevailing. As envisioned by Gilliam and his co-writer Charles McKeown, not even the angel of death could hold sway over the indomitable Baron. Crucially to their adaptation, however, it’s not just the Baron’s imagination that gives him strength, but also the attention that’s given to him by his audiences. No storyteller can exist in a vacuum; they need the vitality provided by their faithful listeners. In the case of Gilliam’s version of Munchausen, he really needs the faith provided by his single biggest fan: a young girl named Sally.
One of the challenges with adapting Raspe lies in finding some kind of a narrative structure to hold the loose collection of stories together. Gilliam and McKeown opted to create a framing device whereby an elderly Baron Munchausen relates his stories to a younger audience, with the lines gradually blurring between his tales and his present-day exploits. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is set in an unnamed European city during the Age of Reason (on a Wednesday, to be precise). The city has been besieged by Turkish forces under command of the Grand Sultan (Peter Jeffrey), and to keep up the morale of the townspeople, a troupe of actors led by Henry Salt (Bill Paterson) puts on a performance of Munchausen’s stories. When the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville) stumbles across the play, he’s outraged by the inaccuracies that they present, so he insists on telling the audience what really happened. Munchausen claims that he’s the one responsible for the Sultan’s wrath, and as he tells his own peculiar tale, Salt’s young daughter Sally (Sarah Polley) becomes enraptured with him. To save the town, she ends up accompanying the Baron on a search for his fabled companions Berthold (Eric Idle), Adolphus (McKeown), Gustavus (Jack Purvis), and Albrecht (Winston Dennis). Their journey will take them from the heights of the stars, dealing with the lunatic King of the Moon (an uncredited Robin Williams), to the depths of the earth for a run-in with the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and his wife Venus (Uma Thurman). While his new adventures seem to make the Baron young again, death is always hot on his heels, aided by the town’s autocratic leader, The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Yet not even the angel of death can hold sway over the faith of a little girl.
Since Gilliam has also been a teller of tall tales, it’s easy to see why the figure of Baron Munchausen appealed to him so much, and to read the character as being a proxy for Gilliam himself. Munchausen is something of a misunderstood artist, one who finds himself in opposition to authority structures that are always trying to limit his imagination. What may be less obvious at first glance is that Sally also functions as a stand-in for the director. Gilliam isn’t just a storyteller; he genuinely believes in the power of the imagination. The Baron may or may not be a liar, but Sally remains a true belier, and both characters end up representing the yin and the yang of Gilliam’s own personality. John Neville is superb as Munchausen, and he ended up playing an invaluable role in making the film work, but it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of Sarah Polley as Sally. Munchausen may have provided the mind that brought these stories to life, but Sally is their heart and soul. She’s as credulous as any child, accepting the fantasy as reality, but she’s also smart, resourceful, and brave. She always refuses to give up, even when the Baron’s own strength wavers. During his first encounter with the angel of death, she fearlessly pushes it away, deliberately knocking over an hourglass that’s nearby. She may not understand the reasons why, but she intuitively grasps that she needs to stop the sands of time from flowing to truly save his life—and his imagination as well.
As with any film that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen doesn’t necessarily make much narrative sense. The framing device does give the otherwise picaresque stories some sense of structure, but it also muddies the boundaries between what’s supposedly real and what isn’t. Yet in the end, any internal inconsistencies aren’t particularly important. The Baron doesn’t bother to play by his own rules, so there’s no reason for the film to do so, either. All that matters is the level of imagination that’s on display, and from that perspective, there’s never been anything else quite like it. Munchausen’s stories had been visualized before this, but never quite so flamboyantly. While it’s not quite accurate to say that every penny of the runaway budget is visible on screen, as there was an astonishing amount of wasteful spending going on behind-the-scenes, it still looks every bit like the $46 million extravaganza that it was. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen may not have been a paradigm of fiscal responsibility, but it’s an unforgettable tribute to the power of the imagination, and to the power of those who believe in that imagination as well. It’s a visionary film, made by a visionary filmmaker, for people who have faith in such vision. All others need not apply.
Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno shot The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35BL cameras with spherical Zeiss lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Rotunno shot spherical to protect for either a possible 1.66:1 framing or for blowups to 70 mm, but there’s no evidence that the film was ever exhibited in the latter format (more on that in a moment). For this 4K version, the original camera negative was wet-gate scanned at 4K resolution by Cineric, Inc. in New York, with restoration work performed by Prasad in Burbank. A new High Dynamic Range grade was also produced, with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 being available on this disc. The entire project was supervised by the inimitable Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures Entertainment, and approved by Terry Gilliam.
Unsurprisingly, the results are as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Everything is pristine and unblemished, with nary a speckle visible anywhere to mar the experience. The image is sharp and nicely detailed, with a light and natural sheen of grain throughout. While many of the effects sequences were captured in-camera using forced perspective and other such tricks, there are still some traveling mattes in the film, and the generational loss from the optical printing of the era does mean that those shots are a bit softer, with coarser grain. That’s simply how the film was produced, and short of recompositing the raw negative footage digitally (assuming that it even exists anymore), there’s nothing that can be done to improve them.
The new HDR grade is the real jewel in Sony’s crown, however, as the improvements in overall dynamic range allows for much more detail at both extremes of the spectrum. The blacks are deep and pure, without crushing any detail, and no information is lost in any of the highlights, either—even during challenging material like the scenes set in Vulcan’s domain. The wildly inventive color scheme of Baron Munchausen really comes to life in HDR thanks to Wide Color Gamut, with everything from the costuming to the sets showing greater color detail as well. While the bitrate doesn’t necessarily run as high as it could have, there still aren’t any noteworthy flaws in the encoding by Pixelogic Media. This is a reference-quality transfer for a catalogue title like this, especially one that was produced under such challenging circumstances. It’s difficult to imagine it ever looking any better than it does here.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was released theatrically in four-channel matrixed Dolby SR on 35 mm prints, although some sources (including the master list from Dolby Laboratories) do claim that there was a 70 mm 6-track mix. Again, there’s no evidence that the film was ever exhibited that way. While it’s possible that a 6-track mix was produced but never utilized, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The restoration notes in the Criterion booklet describe the 5.1 track as having been upmixed back in 2004, so presumably that was done from the original 4-track Dolby master, as a 6-track mix wouldn’t really have required any upmixing. In any event, it’s an adequate mix, and it sounds as clean as the video looks. Surround engagement is relatively limited, with mostly ambient effects and the occasional directionalized effect as well. Deep bass is lacking, and even when the boom track does kick in during moments like cannon fire and explosions, it still doesn’t dig very deep. The wry score from Michael Kamen is the real driving force in the mix, and it sounds excellent here despite the limited low end. (It’s hard to believe that he’s been gone for twenty years now.)
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a three-disc set that includes two Blu-rays, one with a 1080p copy of the film, and the other with the bulk of the extras. The insert features new artwork by Abigail Giuseppe, and there’s also a 10-page fold-out booklet featuring an essay bey Michael Koresky, as well as restoration notes. The extras mix existing material with a few new additions:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
DISC THREE: BD
- The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen
- Flights of Fancy (HD – 29:46)
- Caught in the Act (HD – 16:50)
- The Final Curtain (HD – 25:41)
- Special Effects (HD – 16:10)
- Deleted Scenes
- Gull and Turkey Leg/Alternate Opening (HD – 1:09)
- Mutiny Onstage (HD – :57)
- The Rules of Warfare (HD – :51)
- Extended Fish Sequence (HD – :56)
- Storyboards for Unfilmed Scenes
- Introduction: As We Once Dreamed It (HD – :42)
- The Baron Saves Sally (HD – 2:53)
- A Voyage to the Moon (HD – 21:14)
- The Baron and Bucephalus Charge the Turkish Gates (HD – 4:46)
- Marketing Munchausen
- Preview Cards (HD – 11:50)
- Taglines (HD – 3:51)
- Meet Baron Munchausen (Upscaled SD – 4:16)
- Production Featurette (Upscaled SD – 7:59)
- Trailer (HD – 1:52)
- The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen (HD – 17:20)
- The South Bank Show (Upscaled SD – 47:09)
- The Miracle of Flight (HD – 5:24)
The commentary with Gilliam and McKeown was originally recorded for the 2008 20th Anniversary Blu-ray release from Sony. It demonstrates why they were able to work together repeatedly despite all of the chaos, as the two of them have a natural, easygoing chemistry with each other, and their senses of humor are certainly simpatico. While the always voluble Gilliam tends to dominate the proceedings, McKeown chimes in when appropriate. They do manage to strike a decent balance between self-deprecation and self-justification, even if Gilliam still doesn’t quite take full responsibility for everything that happened. (He’s never quite owned up to Sarah Polley’s criticisms about how she felt endangered on the set, and he’s pretty defensive about it here.) It’s a fairly entertaining track, even if it’s a bit too random to provide a coherent overview of the production. For that, you’re better off with the next extra.
The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen is a making-of documentary that was also created for the 2008 Sony Blu-ray. Produced by Constantin Nasr, it mixes behind-the-scenes footage with interviews with a truly impressive number of participants from the original production, including actors John Neville, Sarah Polley, Bill Paterson, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, and even the late Robin Williams, as well as a dozen members of the crew including producer Thomas Schühly, production designer Dante Ferretti, and editor Peter Hollywood. Of course, Gilliam is front and center, in more ways than one. Despite the fact that it was produced under the aegis of a major studio, Madness and Misadventures is relatively unfiltered in its approach to the material, with Gilliam and Schühly telling contrasting stories about each other—they were never on the same page in 1988, and they still weren’t when they sat down for their interviews twenty years later. That said, Gilliam does display some more self-deprecation, admitting that he’s not good with money, and acknowledging that trust and laziness go hand-in-hand with him. Eric Idle is a bit more blunt, saying that it was a truly horrible experience for him, and while he thinks that Gilliam was one of the most visionary artists of the 20th century, visionary artists shouldn’t necessarily be allowed to helm a feature film. Nasr did an excellent job here of providing an overview of the production while giving a taste of the madness, so this is definitely the best place to start with all of the extras.
Special Effects is a reel demonstrating how some of the effects sequences were put together, narrated by Gilliam. It shows the various layers including raw blue screen footage, the holdout mattes, and even the early CGI effects that were used to created the orrery and constellations in the background of the trip to the moon. Robin Williams fan will appreciate that it includes outtakes of some of his ad-libs that weren’t included in the final cut. The Deleted Scenes include four total trims and/or scene extensions. As Gilliam explains in Madness and Misadventures, Dawn Steel asked him to cut the film down to two hours in exchange for her support, and when he complied, she didn’t keep her end of the bargain. These scenes can all be played with or without an optional commentary by Gilliam. The Storyboards include three different sequences as they were originally planned, plus introductions by Gilliam and McKeown. There’s also an optional introduction to the introductions. These storyboards are accompanied by readings from the screenplay. The centerpiece, of course, is A Voyage to the Moon, which presents the radically different version of the Baron and Sally’s encounter with the King of the Moon as originally scripted. There was no way on earth (no pun intended) that this was ever going to see the light of day as designed, so it’s another glimpse at the madness that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The Marketing Materials include Terry Gilliam providing his own dramatic readings from some of the Preview Cards that were left by baffled preview audiences, as well as equally dramatic readings of some of the unused Taglines that Columbia’s marketing department developed. Meet Baron Munchausen is a vintage pitch reel that was used (unsuccessfully) to sell the film to exhibitors. It’s hosted by Gilliam, who gives it his all, but it’s pretty clear that even he knew that it was a lost cause. The Production Featurette is original EPK featurette that was used to try to sell the film to the press, which obviously wasn’t necessarily buying it either. Finally, the original theatrical Trailer represents Columbia’s valiant attempt to sell the film to the public at large. While it’s likely to be as much of a matter of taste as anything else to do with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it’s actually surprisingly good.
The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen is a video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns that manages to squeeze a comprehensive history of the Baron into just 17 minutes. He provides a brief background of the real Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, as well as of roguish author Rudolf Erich Raspe, whose unauthorized book Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia resulted in the real Baron threatening a lawsuit. (Raspe dodged legal action by refusing to acknowledge authorship of the book.) From there, Cairns goes on to chronicle the various adaptations of the material from radio to film. Gilliam provides some background readings from Raspe’s book. The South Bank Show is a 1991 episode from the long-running British television show, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. It’s a relaxed portrait of Gilliam, mixing interviews with footage of him at home and at work. He shows off some interesting artifacts from his films, including the puppet of Jonathan Pryce in his wingsuit from Brazil. Last, but certainly not least, The Miracle of Flight is a brief animated film that Gilliam released in 1974, although it was originally produced in 1971 for The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine television show. It’s essentially an extended version of the kind of animation that he created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, minus any meddlesome interruptions from the other members of the troupe (save for a brief vocal cameo from Terry Jones).
That’s all of the extras from the 2008 Sony Blu-ray plus plenty more, but oddly enough for a Criterion Collection release, it’s still missing some of their own material from their 1992 CAV LaserDisc boxed set. That included a solo commentary from Gilliam that’s never seen the light of day elsewhere, as well some interviews and location footage, plus extensive still-frame supplements that included production photographs, sketches, costume tests, models, script analyses, excerpts from the Raspe tales with Gustave Doré’s illustrations, and much more. It’s a shame that Criterion didn’t revisit some of that material for this set, but that’s hardly a knock against the fantastic package of extras that they did include here. A gorgeous 4K master from Sony, with hours of quality bonus features, provides a pretty conclusive answer to the question “What will become of the Baron?” For fans of Terry Gilliam and of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, surely this time there will be no escape until they’ve savored every last bit of goodness in the set.
- Stephen Bjork