The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Uma Thurman as Venus in Baron Munchausen


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 May


Baron Münchhausen born, 1720

On this day in 1720, Hieronymous Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen was born, in Bodenwerder, Hanover. An aristocrat by birth, Münchhausen was employed by Anthony Ulrich II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a member of the Habsburg dynasty, and followed him to Russia during the Russo-Turkish War (his employer being married to a Romanov). Münchhausen rose through the ranks, becoming a cornet, lieutenant and finally a captain, before retiring to his estate with his wife. There he would entertain guests with fabulously embroidered tales, particularly of his time fighting the Turks. Münchhausen knew his tales were fantastical, and so did his listeners, and they were told with a twinkle, to surprise and delight the listener. He would doubtless be horrified to discover that his name has become associated with compulsive lying, and with a pathological condition in which sufferers of the Münchhausen syndrome feign illness to draw attention to themselves. As for Münchhausen syndrome by proxy – the pathological desire to suggest that someone else, usually a child, needs medical attention – he’d probably sue.




The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, dir: Terry Gilliam)

Some liberties have been taken with the spelling of the name Münchhausen, and some, too, have been taken with the facts of the life of Baron Munchausen (as he’s called here), director/co-writer Terry Gilliam preferring to embellish the fantastical stories Munchausen told rather than give us a dry run-through of the Baron’s life fighting Turks in a foreign land. If you’ve never read any of the stories, Gilliam is true to the spirit rather than the letter – there is no horse tethered in a snowstorm to a “twig” that turns out, after the thaw, to be the top of a steeple; nor do we get the story of the wolf that ate its way into Munchhausen’s galloping horse, until the wolf had got so far in that he became the locomotive force inside the now-dead beast, Munchausen horrified but marvelling that he could continue his journey. Instead Gilliam shows us the Baron (John Neville) growing younger as he tells us his fabulous stories, accompanied by a sidekick (Eric Idle) who is the fastest runner in the world, another who has superhuman hearing, another with great strength, and so on. Let’s not forget an eight/nine-year-old Sarah Polley either. Betraying that he comes from the Monty Python stable, perhaps, Gilliam goes episodic on us, so that the stories – the trip to Turkey, to the Moon by hot-air balloon, into a volcano, into the belly of a sea beast, riding a cannonball – all have a stand-alone quality. And again betraying the comic-troupe background, perhaps, the film has these fantastic punchline moments – a naked 18-year-old Uma Thurman rising on a shell as Venus, Goddess of Beauty and Love, is a once-seen-never-forgotten moment of cinema. Oliver Reed as Vulcan, the volcano king, is also a standout. Gilliam’s sense of the fantastic is to the fore. His subtext – is it even “sub” given how blatantly he’s peddling it? – is that the practical world must give some ground to the world of the imagination. It’s a theme he’d return to again and again. But rarely with the budget he’s got here. Tales of Gilliam’s excess are legendary, and the making of Munchausen and its budgetary overruns soured his relationships with studios (practical men) ever since. It cannot be denied that Gilliam’s film is slow to get going, and could do with a trim here and there – that is pretty much always the case. But John Neville is a delightful Baron and the more yarns he spins, the more you want the charming Baron to continue.



Why Watch?


  • Dante Ferretti’s exquisite production design
  • Giuseppe Rotuno’s cinematography
  • Robin Williams’s uncredited cameo as the Man in the Moon
  • A huge budget, all up there on the screen


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – watch it now at Amazon





4 thoughts on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”

  1. Wasn’t feeling the very best today, but had to get on with it anyway, as you do, you know, and, when I finally got a chance to sit down in my own living room this afternoon who should come bursting thru the door but my 6 year old son and about 7 of his friends… JUST as this movie, which I’ve always adored, came on one of The SKY movie channels. I closed the living room curtains for cinematic effect and we all sat down and watched it. They were all entranced by it, even tho’ some of them had seen it already.

    I’ve seen "The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen" myself many times and it never fails to fascinate me. It goes a very long way to explain many things that are omnipresent in life (war, sex romance, childhood innocence, adult disillusionment) by illustrating, and somehow making real, well-known classical myths and fairy tales. Oliver Reed deserved some sort of award for his portrayal of the god Vulcan. I read that Sean Connery was slated for the part of King of The Moon but it HAD to be Robin Williams. Mork calling Orson indeed….

    This is my first review in this forum and, therefore, I will not go on at great length except to say that viewing this movie again made me determined to state that my favourite movies are movies like "The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen", "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Yellow Submarine". May you all develop a talent for living happily ever after!

  2. This is NOT a movie for everyone. This is not a movie for people who want a fantasy plot… according to the rules of fantasy movies. This is a movie which has one great ambition and has ABSOLUTELY, TOTALLY, UTTERLY, FULLY, UNQUESTIONABLY fulfilled: to present the story of Baron Munchausen as the real one would have seen it. This is a great piece of visualization of the culture of 18th-century Enlightenment (did you notice that the bad guys all wore uniforms from the Napoleonic age – as a sign of when this great period of human cultural achievement finished?). It is a movie in which the sets and costumes are THE ESSENCE – the mechanical giant fish, Venus getting out of the pearl, the small amours with the pink garlands, the pinkish clouds, the two-dimensional buildings on the Moon, the separation of the head from the body, the exoticising of the "Grand Turk" – these are all correct reproductions of both the imagery from, and the topics relevant for, the Baroque period. IT IS success.

  3. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of those films that you either love or hate. You may hate it because the inner child in you has not been released. You may love it because the inner child in you have full reign and want a wonderful fairy tale. This film has all the elements, flying ships (A balloon made of ladies knickers), monsters (A gigantic whale that looks like an island), and a little girl observing all the fantastical adventures. A city is under siege and a theater troupe is trying to perform a play during all of this. In comes an elderly man (The wonderful John Neville)who claims that the troupe has it all wrong and that he, himself, is the real Baron and wants to tell the story straight. From there, his adventure really takes off. He and Sally (The cute as a button Sarah Polley)go off in search of his friends to help save the city: Berthold (Clever Eric Idle), the fastest man around; Albrecht, the strongest man in the world; Adolphus, the man with the sharpest sight around and Gustavus, the man with the keen hearing and breath that can blow elephants off their feet. The gangs adventures bring them to the Moon, where the King (Wild as ever Robin Williams)has trouble holding on to his head, to the Underworld, where Venus (Beautiful Uma Thurman)drives her hubby Vulcan (The wonderful Oliver Reed) insane with jealousy. The story and the visuals (Especially the Moon) are beautiful and the ending is interesting. You get so caught up in the story that the viewer gets lost in what is real and what is not. Great for teens and up. Kids may get scared at some of the scenes.

  4. A young Sarah Polly is swept on a grand storybook adventure when her father's theater is visited by the source of its drama; the real Baron himself (perfectly played by John Neville). The town is under siege by the Turks and only Munchausen and his band of curious adventurers can save it, so long as Death or a doctor doesn't catch him.

    Terry Gilliam, having hit his stride with the 1984-and-a-half classic Brazil, went on to fulfill his ultimate fantasy film with a great cast of actors (Jonathan Price included), beautifully detailed sets and costumes, and a very strange yarn of a tale indeed. Bit parts are filled out by Robin Williams, the late Oliver Reed (seen most recently as Proximo in Gladiator) serving up a fiery Vulcan – husband to a young (not to mention stunning) Uma Thurman as Venus.

    A great deal of the magic that sparkled in Brazil seems to have been rekindled here, and while it may have been panned at the time of its release, time has treated it well. The effects have that pre-cg feeling that makes me warm and fuzzy inside, and while its a little slow to get started, it surprises around every turn.

    Fans of Gilliam's work (and those who still possess that curious inner child) will find much to enjoy here – even if it is nothing more than wonderful nonsense.

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