A Tale of Two Munchausens

The real Baron Munchausen (yes, there was one) never went to the moon. He did not Dore-munchausen-illustration.jpgride on a cannonball. And he certainly wasn’t swallowed by a giant fish. But the 18th-century aristocrat gained a reputation of telling outrageous tales of his military exploits. In 1785, when the Baron was still alive, Rudolf Erich Raspe wrote an episodic novel about a very fictionalized Munchausen and his fantastic adventures. In the 19th century, Gustave Doré’s illustrations filled out the image of the magical Baron.

The Munchausen stories are little known in America but have been popular in Europe for generations.

According to IMDB, there have been six feature-length, theatrical Munchausen movies – and a whole lot of shorts and TV episodes. I recently revisited two Munchausen movies, both of which I love dearly. Which one is the best? The one I saw most recently.

As I write this, that means my favorite is Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. I’ve also seen it spelled The Fabulous Baron Münchausen. According to IMDB, the English-language title is The Outrageous Baron Munchausen. It’s a Czech film, and its original title is Baron Prásil. The film was made in 1961.

Unless you’re familiar with Zeman’s other works, you’ve probably never seen a feature film that looks like this one. Zeman combines live action, limited animation, puppets, black and white photography enhanced by colored tints, and hand-drawn backgrounds inspired by Doré’s illustrations. The result puts you into a wild fantasy environment with a touch of steampunk. The story, narrated by the Baron, involves a 20th-century astronaut, a damsel in distress, a love triangle, broad slapstick, and several battles.

It’s not easy to turn a collection of short comic stories into a coherent whole. Zeman and his screenwriting collaborators did an excellent job, concentrating on freeing the damsel in distress.

I give it an A.

I first saw The Fabulous Baron Munchausen at Filmex in 1974. I loved it enough to overlook the English dubbing. I saw it again, a few years later, at the UC Theatre (of blessed memory). Once again, it was dubbed.

American Zoetrope archivist James Mockoski recently supervised a beautiful digital restoration. I caught that restoration recently at the Rafael. It’s mouthwateringly beautiful. And finally, I got to see it subtitled.

The Gilliam Version

I also love Terry Gilliam’s 1988 version, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and that will probably become my favorite version the next time I watch it.

This is the big, splashy, spectacular, big-budget movie. An escapist movie that celebrates the very idea of escapism, Adventures suggests there is little difference between an imagined victory and a real one—an absurd concept, but you buy it and cheer for it nonetheless.

Doré’s illustrations inspired this one, too, but this is colorful live action, and one of the last great analog special effects movies. Star cameos include Oliver Reed, Robin Williams (uncredited), Sting, and Gilliam’s Python partner Eric Idle. Also in the cast are yet-to-be-famous Sarah Polley and Uma Thurman.

Gilliam used the theme of reality vs. imagination in his previous film (and his masterpiece) Brazil. But this time, fantasy brings about a happy ending.

I also give this one an A.

This was one of those productions where everything went wrong. The budget blew up, and everyone fought with everyone else. Andrew Yule’s book, Losing the Light, tells the horrible story. But judging the film on its merits, rather than how it came to be, it’s a delightful entertainment with a coherent, funny, exciting, and completely impossible story.

That story, written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, centers around a town under siege. The Baron must escape the town, find his three servants (all of whom have super powers), return to the town and save it.

I first saw The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at the UC Theatre soon after it’s theatrical run…probably in 1979. I saw it there again once or twice. I rented the Criterion Laserdisc, bought the DVD, and recently replaced that DVD with a Blu-ray. I’d love to see it again theatrically someday.

I’ve seen another Munchausen movie, also called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This was a German film made in 1943. Yes, this is the Nazi version…or at least it was made at a Nazi-controlled studio. I saw it on DVD some 20 years ago. I don’t remember anything particularly offensive, but I don’t remember anything good about it, either.

You don’t have to dip into the Third Reich to enjoy the Munchausen stories…and their motion picture adaptions.