Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Adventures of Baron Munchausen

UK/West German movie (1989). Prominent/Laura Film/Columbia-TriStar. Pr Thomas Schühly. Exec pr Jack Eberts. Dir Terry Gilliam. Spfx Richard Conway. Screenplay Gilliam, Charles McKeown, published as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989 US) by Gilliam and McKeown. Based on the works of Rudolph Erich Raspe. Novelization The Adventures of Baron Munchausen * (1989 UK) by Gilliam and McKeown. Starring Valentina Cortese (Ariadne, Queen of the Moon), Winston Dennis (Albrecht), Eric Idle (Berthold), Peter Jeffrey (Sultan), McKeown (Adolphus), John Neville (Baron Munchausen), Sarah Polley (Sally), Jonathan Pryce (Horatio Jackson), Jack Purvis (Gustavus), Oliver Reed (Vulcan), Uma Thurman (Venus), Robin Williams (credited as Ray D Tutto; Roger, King of the Moon). 126 mins. Colour.

AOBM, a financial disaster, is generally regarded as a movie of parts whose sum makes not much of a whole. Repeated viewing reveals it as far better than that. Certainly it is episodic, its nested-story narrative (see Story Cycle) more a Picaresque than a fully developed plot, with each episode being of independent fantasy interest. It starts in a City besieged by the Turk in an unspecified past age; a bad performance of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is interrupted by the arrival of the Baron himself, who proceeds to tell the "truth". Thereafter there is constant manipulation of our Perceptions of what is going on, with characters from the "real world" (notably an actor's daughter, Sally) intruding into the Baron's stories, and vice versa, the two Realities merging. The adventures include a Fantastic Voyage to the Moon, whose King and Queen have heads existing independently of their bodies. Elsewhere the friends parlay with Vulcan and the Cyclopes, who, though human-sized, believe themselves Giants. Later the party is swallowed by a Sea Monster, inside which card-playing mariners argue as to whether they are in Heaven or Hell. By now it might be fair to feel that the tale is going out of control, but a secure sense of Fantasy is restored when the Valkyrie-like Death descends to seize Munchausen and Sally intervenes to say he cannot yet die, since the Story is unfinished. At the end of the recounted fables the Baron and his fantastic Companions (e.g., the Dwarf Gustavus, who can blow up a hurricane) rout the Turks from around the city.

The main focus – as in John Barth's analogous The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) – is indeed the power of Story: "I must inform you, my liege," remarks Munchausen acidly to the King of the Moon, "that without my adventures you wouldn't be here." Later, in mundane reality, Jackson spits at Munchausen: "There are certain rules as to the proper conduct of living. We cannot fly to the Moon. We cannot defy Death. We must face the facts, not the folly of fantasists like you, who do not live in the real world." But in this instance it is the fantasy that is driving the mundane reality, as is proven when the city's obscuring gates are opened and rationalism's blinkers removed from the eyes of all, for the Turk has indeed disappeared. [JG]

further reading: Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga (1993) by Andrew Yule.

see also: Munchhausen.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.