top of page

Criterion gives Terry Gilliam’s marvelous ‘Baron Munchausen’ it’s overdue due

Updated: Jan 23, 2023


Acclaimed for his performances on the British stage in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard II,” and “Othello,” John Neville embodies Baron Munchausen. He was in his 60s when Terry Gilliam approached him about the role.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 1988, PG war violence Best extra: “The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen,” a video essay by critic/filmmaker David Cairns

TRUE OR FALSE: Baron Munchausen was real. True. He was born in 1720 in Germany, fought with the Russians against the Turks, retired to his estates in 1760, and earned a reputation as a raconteur for his extraordinary tales about his life as a soldier, hunter, and sportsman. Those tales were collected in a 1785 book, but as critic/filmmaker David Cairns says in his new video essay, “The Astonishing (and Really True) History of Baron Munchausen,” the Baron was just getting started. “From the beginning, the character and stories were a gift to visual artists,” Cairns says.

In 1795 in London, the curtain went up on the first stage production. The Baron made his film debut in a 1909 British short in which he captures the North Pole, was a hit on U.S. radio in 1932, and flopped the next year in “Meet the Baron,” a movie starring Jimmy Durante and The Three Stooges. Over the years, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen (“Mighty Joe Young”) and Carl Banks, who gave the world Donald Duck, tinkered with projects.

(1) A statue of the Baron has lost its head thanks to the Turks’ cannons. (2&3) Despite the siege, the show, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, goes on inside the town’s bombed-out theater. (4&5) Fed up with the way he’s been portrayed, the elderly Baron interrupts the performance to set the record straight. (6) Determined to maintain the status quo, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) orders the arrest of the Baron.

But Karel Zeman, the Czech silver-screen magician, set the bar in 1962 with “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen,” a flight of fancy that blends live action with stop-motion, cut-out collage, puppetry, painted backdrops, and antique tinting. His sway can be seen on the resumes of Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and, it goes without saying, Terry Gilliam. (Footnote: “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” is included in the Criterion Collection’s 2020 box set, “Three Fabulous Journeys by Karel Zeman.” The other titles, all restored in 4K, are “Journey to the Beginning of Time,” 1955, and “Invention for Destruction,” 1958. By all means, put it on your list.) Now, back to our scheduled programming: Gilliam’s film, Cairns says, “is a summation of all the others.” That’s because it’s right in his wheelhouse. After all, his credits include “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Brazil,” The Fisher King” (due from Criterion in 4K in April) and “12 Monkeys.” Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, an Oscar nominee for “All That Jazz,” gets big props here, too. It’s the late-18th century – The Age of Reason – and the Turks are laying siege to an unnamed European town. Despite that, a rag-tag troupe is putting on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” in a bombed-out theater when the real, elderly Baron (John Neville, “The Fifth Element”) barges in. Fed up with being portrayed as a looney, he spins the “real” story.

(1) The Baron’s adventure begins in the palace of the Sultan, where he’s surrounded by virgins. (2&3) The Angel of Death lays claim to Munchausen, but young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), the daughter of the troupe’s lead actor, believes him and convinces him to live.

He alone is responsible for the unpleasantries with the Turks – he had a bet with the Sultan (Peter Jeffrey, “Midnight Express”) that ended with the Baron and his servants, the fleet-footed Berthold (Monty Python alum Eric Idle), the eagle-eyed marksman Adolphus (co-writer Charles McKeown, “Brazil”), the incredibly strong Albrecht (Winston Dennis, “Time Bandits”), and Gustavus (Jack Purvis, “Time Bandits”), whose sharp hearing is rivaled only by his lung power, making off with the sovereign’s treasure. He also says he can put an end to said unpleasantries and, with young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley, “The Sweet Hereafter”) stowing away, flies off in a hot-air balloon made of ladies’ knickers to round up the now very old gang. Except that the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce, “Brazil”), the bureaucrat in charge, wants none of that. When we meet him, he orders the execution of a Heroic Officer (Sting) who singlehandedly destroyed six cannons and rescued 10 men. Why? Because his “sort of behavior is demoralizing for the ordinary soldiers and citizens who are trying to lead normal, simple, unexceptional lives.” There’s another reason: Jackson is in cahoots with the Sultan. Anyway, the Baron and Sally get away and match wits with the King of the Moon (Robin Williams), plummet into a volcano where they meet the Roman God Vulcan (Oliver Reed, “Gladiator”) and his wife, the Goddess Venus (a teenage Uma Thurman, “Pulp Fiction”), and wind up in the belly of a sea beast. All’s well that ends well, though. Having saved the day, the Baron rides off on his trusty white steed Bucephalus and, bathed in sunlight filtering through the parting clouds, disappears.

(1&2) Troupe members Violet (Valentina Cortese, left) and Rose (Uma Thurman) bid farewell as the Baron and Sally fly off in a hot-air balloon made from ladies’ knickers. (3) The Baron and Sally come face-to-face with the King of the Moon (Robin Williams). (4&5) In a dual role, Thurman also plays the goddess Venus, who soon enchants Munchausen.

VIDEO/AUDIO Remastered in 4K from the 35 mm original camera negative, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1.85:1 aspect ratio) looks fantastic. You can see why it received Oscar nods for Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Makeup, and Best Effects, Visual Effects. Thanks to the HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning, colors are off the charts – check out the red-hued interior of the volcano and the blue-tinted beast’s belly – and detail all around is exceptional. And, the HDR10 maximum light level peaks at 1000 nits and averages at 746 nits. The immersive 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a treat, too. Dialogue and ambient effects are cleanly delineated and leave loads of room for the elegant, rousing score courtesy of Michael Kamen (“X-Men”).

EXTRAS In a hilarious, take-no-prisoners 2008 commentary with McKeown, Gilliam, who introduces the track as “The Misadventures of Baron Munchausen,” says it was “important to me to find someone who was brilliant but forgotten” to play the Baron. He found him in Neville, who had “chosen to disappear” and was artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Festival. A member of London’s Old Vic Company, acclaimed for his leading classical roles in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard II,” and “Othello,” it’s hard to imagine anyone but Neville, who was in his 60s when Gilliam courted him, as the Baron. Touching on the film’s fabled production troubles and his clashes with the studio, Gilliam also recalls that making it was “very much like the story itself: this disaster, this nightmare situation, this old lunatic driving everything through.” Other extras include behind-the-scenes footage of “Munchausen’s” special effects and deleted scenes, both with commentary by Gilliam, and storyboards for scenes that were never filmed, narrated by Gilliam and McKeown. You also get Gilliam’s 1974 short “Miracle of Flight” and a 1991 episode of “The South Bank Show” about guess-who. Then there’s “Marketing Munchausen.” It’s an absolute riot. Reading from audience response cards from previews in New Jersey and New York, Gilliam, being Gilliam, says they were submitted by “people who frequent shopping malls and decide what studio release and don’t release.” One, from a 15-year-old girl, is outrageously profane and some are positive – one participant liked it because it was “a combination of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘The Princess Bride,’ ‘Brazil,’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen.’ ” And there’s the guy who said his favorite scene was the end “because it was over.” Gilliam also runs down some the proposed advertising taglines, like, “If you can’t believe the impossible dream, lie the impossible lie.” Huh? They were all for naught anyway, he says. Nothing was done to promote the movie. Critic/author Michael Koresky sums up “Munchausen’s” irresistible appeal in his essay, “A Reason to Believe.” Forget the production travails and runaway costs, he writes. “After all, wars between studio heads, like the battles of small-minded royal tyrants, are the province of silly adults; giving yourself over to fantasy is much more gratifying. “Logic be damned.” Craig Shapiro

(1&2) The Baron and Sally wind up in the belly of a sea beast, where they’re serenaded by one of the residents (Gilliam). (3) Having escaped the beast with a pinch of snuff, Munchausen and his servants consider their next move. (4-7) Ever the optimist, the Baron rallies the troops and his head is soon restored to its rightful place. (8) The Baron is felled by a gunshot from Jackson, but only temporarily. (9) Munchausen addresses the cast.


bottom of page