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


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 from a large Turkish army outside the city gates, 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 rifleman 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 exuberantly enthusiastic questioning of Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), the young daughter of the theater company's leader, persuades 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 by the adventure of escaping to the moon, finds his old associate Berthold, but angers the King of the Moon (Robin Williams), who resents the Baron for his romantic past with the Queen of the Moon (Valentina Cortese).A bungled escape from the Moon brings the trio back to (and beneath) the Earth, where the Roman God Vulcan (Oliver Reed) hosts his guests with courtesy and Albrecht is found. The Baron and Vulcan's wife, the Goddess Venus (Uma Thurman), attempt a romantic interlude by waltzing in air, but this cuts short the hospitality and Vulcan expels the now-foursome from his 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 by blowing "a modicum of snuff" out into the sea creature's cavernous interior, 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. The Baron lectures them firmly but to no avail, and he storms off intending to surrender to the Turk and to Jackson; his cohorts rally to save both the Baron and the city.

During the city's celebratory parade, the Baron is shot dead by Jackson. An emotional public funeral takes place, but the denouement reveals that this is merely the final scene of yet another story the Baron is telling to the same theater-goers who were attending the theater in the beginning of 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."

An 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. As the Baron and Bucephalus are bathed in the light of the sun parting through the clouds, they apparently disappear, and the credits roll over a triumphant blast of music.



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

The stories were also made into films in 1911 (Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen), 1943 (Münchhausen, script by Erich Kästner) and 1961 (Baron Prášil). His most famous adventures feature in a 1979 movie Tot samyi Münchhausen by Russian director Mark Zakharov, which depicts Baron Münchhausen as a tragic character, struggling against the conformity and hypocrisy of the world around him. 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.


Just coming out of a major battle with Hollywood studios over his prior film Brazil, Gilliam later said that the productions's greatest weakness from the start was having German producer Thomas Schühly on the bill. Schühly convinced Gilliam that Baron Munchausen could be made for 40% of the costs in Italy's Cinecittàmarker compared to making it in London, but after arriving in Rome in September 1987 for principal photography, Gilliam's crew had to face the fact that Schühly hadn't properly organized material, money, and personnel, and thus the whole production seemed constantly undersupplied.

From October 1987, shooting was moved to the Spanish city of Belchitemarker near Zaragozamarker to shoot all scenes taking place in the besieged city. Meanwhile, the film's insurance company Film Finances became increasingly concerned about the budget, and took hold of the film's finances, setting a deadline for all photography of November 7; it was precisely on the afternoon of that day when Gilliam could finish shooting in Spain with a perfect shot of the Baron's hot air balloon floating across the city.

Back in Italy, Film Finances threatened to sue Gilliam for fraud (which the director found highly amusing, regarding the film's subject) as the film wasn't finished, and to replace him as director, allegedly approaching Michael Winner to do the job. However, they were in no position to do so, as the film's scheduled distributor Columbia Pictures had a contract on the film being directed by Terry Gilliam himself. On top of it all, it was then that unpaid bills amounting to five million dollars were found in Schühly's office.

Negotiations took place, after which shooting was resumed at Cinecittà on November 23, under the premise that several scenes had to be cut altogether or at least dramatically reduced. For instance, the scene on the moon originally was supposed to have thousands of extras and much more advanced sets. Gilliam decided to reduce the cast for the moon scene to Baron Munchausen, Sally, the King of the Moon, and his Queen, and for the Moon City simply cut out his original design drawings that were then moved back and forth and from side to side in front of the camera, with a bizarre yet effective surreal result. Sean Connery, who was to originally star as the King of the Moon, then decided to leave the boat altogether, and was replaced by Robin Williams who was credited as Ray D. Tutto, reportedly because his agents feared it would put a mark on his career should the film turn out a flop.

Coming in over budget (originally $23.5 million, but estimatedly finishing at $46.63 million), and with a US domestic box office revenue of approximately $8 Million, it put a black mark on Gilliam's career from the studio's point of view. In an interview for The Directors - The Films of Terry Gilliam (included on the bonus DVD of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Time Bandits), Gilliam challenged the public figure of "40 million dollars", and alleged that while the film had indeed gone over budget, its final costs had been nowhere near that high a figure.

In The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen (included on the bonus DVD of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Munchausen), Schühly further shed light on the final cost issue and the whole budget troubles by saying that as part of an earlier deal with 20th Century Fox about the film before it ended up with Columbia, a budget plan had been set up of $35 million, "and it's strange, the [film's] final cost was 35 [millions]. [...] We always had a budget of 34 or 35 million, the problem was when I started to discuss it with Columbia, Columbia would not go beyond 25. [...] Everybody knew from the very beginning that this cutting out was just a fake. [...] The problem was that David Puttnam got fired, and all these deals were oral deals. [...] Columbia's new CEO, Dawn Steel, said 'Whatever David Puttnam [has] said before doesn't interest me'".

Regarding the new regime's apparent animosity towards all of Puttnam's projects and Munchausen, Gilliam added in the same documentary, "I was trying very hard to convince Dawn Steel that this was not a David Puttnam movie, it was a Terry Gilliam movie". Similarly Kent Houston, head of Peerless Camera doing the film's special effects said in Madness and Misadventures that they were promised a bonus if they would finish the effects in time, but when they approached the person again when they were done, he was met with the reply, "I'm not gonna pay you, because I don't want to seem to be doing anything that could benefit Terry Gilliam."


When the production finally came to a successful closure, several of the actors commented on the rushed tightness of the whole project. Said Eric Idle, "Up until Munchausen, I'd always been very smart about Terry Gilliam films. You don't ever be in them. Go and see them by all means - but to be in them, fucking madness!!!"

Young star Sarah Polley, who was nine years old at the time of filming, similarly described it as a traumatic experience for her. "[I]t definitely left me with a few scars ... It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it's dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe."

Cinematographer Ferretti afterwards compared Gilliam to his former director, saying, "Terry is very similar to Fellini in spirit. Fellini is a wilder liar, but that's the only difference! Terry isn't a director so much as a film author. He is open to every single idea and opportunity to make the end result work. Often the best ideas have come out of something not working properly and coming up with a new concept as a result. He is very elastic and that's one quality in a director that I admire the most."

Limited US release

When The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was finally completed, David Puttnam, who had originally gotten the film's distribution rights in the US for Columbia Pictures, had been replaced as CEO of Columbia; coupled with Gilliam's prior quarrels with major studios over Brazil, the film saw only very limited distribution in the US, earning $8 million in US box office.

In Madness and Misadventures, Robin Williams commented about the low number of copies released by Columbia:
"[Puttnam's] regime was leaving, the new one was going through this, and they said, 'This was their movies, now let's do our movies!' It was a bit like the new lion that comes in and kills all the cubs from the previous man."

In a 2000 interview with IGN, Gilliam said about the contemporary press perception of the film being a financial disaster how "It seemed actually appropriate that Munchausen – the greatest liar in the world – should be a victim of some of the greatest liars in the world"; he compared the film's budget problems to the even more serious of We're no angels that commonly go unmentioned, and he went on to declare its difficulties as a mixture of "trade press" still being upset about Gilliam's battle with Universal over Brazil, nepotism, and an intrigue on behalf of Ray Stark successfully trying to have David Putnam removed from Columbia, coupled with the fact the studio was being sold at the time:

The negative stories about the shoot that were turning up in the Hollywood press were coming, we found out later, from a source at Film Finances – which was the completion bond company on the film.
Their lawyer was a guy named Steve Ransohoff, whose father was Martin Ransohoff – who was Ray Stark's friend and partner.
[...] I thought it was quite extraordinary, because the stories were doing two things – they were making me and the whole project look like it was completely out of control and all my fault, and that Film Finance, the completion guarantors, were the only thing holding it together – the people trying to bring control to it... the fact was, they were absolutely useless.

The ultimate fact was that when the film was ultimately released, there were only 117 prints made for America – so it was never really released.
117 prints! art film gets 400.
We were ultimately the victim of Columbia Tri-Star being sold to Sony, because at that time all they were doing was trying to get the books looking as good as possible.
We weren't the only film that suffered, but we were the most visible one.
And what happened – to complete the story in a neat and tidy way – was that they were not spending any money on advertising to promote any of the movies started by the previous regime – by Putnam's regime.
They were burying films left right and center by spending no money on them – and the books looked really good at the end of that.

The joke is, if you look back, we got the best reviews and we were doing the best business in the opening weeks of any film they had released since Last Emperor.
We actually opened well in the big cities – we opened really well.
A friend who had bought the video rights said he had never seen anything so weird – Columbia was spending their whole time looking at exit polls to prove the film would not work in the suburbs, and so it would be pointless to make any more prints.
He said, "I've never seen anything like this."
There it was.
Then it becomes this kind of legend – which it deserves to be... even if it's the wrong legend.

European release

The film fared substantially better in Europe, where distributors such as Germany's Neue Constantin Film were able to give it a more appropriate release, and subsequently on home video, actually in 1999 becoming the very first feature DVD issued by Columbia.

Critical reception

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen features an 85% positive review status, even 100% by professional film critics, on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic counts 69 favorable reviews out of 100 (out of 15 reviews on display, 11 give it a favorable 70-100% rating).

Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars and found that it was "told with a cheerfulness and a light touch that never betray the time and money it took to create them", appreciating "the sly wit and satire that sneaks in here and there from director Terry Gilliam and his collaborators, who were mostly forged in the mill of Monty Python". While considering the film's special effects as "astonishing", Ebert also contended "the movie is slow to get off the ground" and "sometimes the movie fails on the basic level of making itself clear. We're not always sure who is who, how they are related, or why we should care". But "allowing for the unsuccessful passages there is a lot here to treasure", and Ebert concluded overall, "this is a vast and commodious work", "the wit and the spectacle of Baron Munchausen are considerable achievements". Additionally, Ebert considered John Neville's title role performance as appearing "sensible and matter-of-fact, as anyone would if they had spent a lifetime growing accustomed to the incredible".

The Washington Post called the film a "wondrous feat of imagination", though "except for Williams, the actors are never more than a detail in Gilliam's compositions."

Richard Corliss wrote:
Everything about Munchausen deserves exclamation points, and not just to clear the air of the odor of corporate flop sweat.
So here it is!
A lavish fairy tale for bright children of all ages!
Proof that eccentric films can survive in today's off-the-rack Hollywood!
The most inventive fantasy since, well, Brazil!
You may not believe it, ladies and gentlemen, but it's all true.

Vincent Canby called the film "consistently imaginative " and a "spectacle [that] is indeed spectacular and worth the admission price and patches of boredom"; he said the "major credit must go to Giuseppi Rotunno, the cameraman; Dante Ferretti, the production designer; Richard Conway, who did the special effects, and Peerless Camera Company Ltd., responsible for the optical effects. Without them, Baron Munchausen would have looked about as big and as interesting as a 25-cent postage stamp.


The film was nominated for four British Academy Film Awards, winning three:
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Make Up Artist
  • Best Production Design
and losing Best Special Effects to Back to the Future Part II.

In 1990, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was nominated for four Oscars:

In 1991, the film was further nominated for four Saturn Awards:

It won the 1990 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon in three categories:

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Production Design

It was nominated in 1990 for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (losing to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); actress Sarah Polley was nominated for two Young Artist Awards in the categories Best Musical or Fantasy and Best Young Actress.

Home video releases

A laserdisc of the film was released with features such as a commentary track by Gilliam and deleted scenes. The first DVD edition of the film, issued on April 27, 1999, did not include any of these or any other extras.

A 20th anniversary edition was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on 8 April, 2008. It includes a new commentary with Director Terry Gilliam & co-Writer/Actor Charles McKeown, a three-part documentary on the making of the film, Storyboard sequences and deleted scenes.


  1. Hal Leonard Online.
  2. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) from Box Office Mojo.
  3. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen > Overview from Allmovie.
  5. Capone Sits Down With The Lovely Sarah Polley To Talk About Her Directorial Debut, BARON MUNCHAUSEN, DAWN OF THE DEAD & More! from Ain't It Cool News.
  10. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) - Laserdisc details from the Internet Movie Database.
  11. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) - DVD details from the Internet Movie Database.
  12. Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The 20th Anniversary Edition from the Sony Pictures website.

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