One of my favourite movies is the 1988 Terry Gilliam film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (or ABM for short). It features wonderful work from Eric Idle, an uncredited appearance by Robin Williams (“Ray de Tutto” which makes sense considering he was playing the King of Everything), Oliver Reed, and my first unforgettable glimpse of Uma Thurman. Jonathan Pryce—so wonderfully sweet and vulnerable in Brazil —made the mistake of showing us the dark shadow that underlies that sweetness, and as a result has been largely typecast in that dark place ever since. Sarah Polley may have had a huge career since that time, but for me she will always be Sally, the provocative child coaxing and badgering the Baron through so much of this film.
As far as anything you’ll ever read about ABM, I feel inclined to say “and now for something completely different.”
I can’t pretend that I really know John Neville’s work, given that I was aware of his theatre work in Canada long before this film. That’s just it. I’d heard about him for so long, that I didn’t expect him to live up to the hype. English actors are always expected to be good, right? But he far surpassed it, at least on this occasion.
One of the curious things about the film is how it addresses multiple roles & guises. Just at the most elementary level, early in the film we encounter a play-within-the-film that tells the story of the Baron using a different actor. On several occasions in the film, the Baron meets a woman whom he romances using his standard line: that she reminds him of Catherine the Great, whose hand in marriage he refused. At one point he says this to three different women in his presence.
But how, he is asked, could they all remind him?
They do, he assures us, in different ways. And what a wonderful thing it is that he is inspired this way: a Don Juan who believes his own pickup lines.
This is a movie about story-telling, about the imagination of children and their (or I really should say “our”) ability as listeners to dream and imagine.
Sometimes the Baron looks old, especially when he is on the verge of complete defeat, as Sally observes. At such moments he is a cousin of Tinkerbell (in her live theatre incarnations), who relies on the faith of the audience to survive. At other times he is rejuvenated. At one point Sally looks troubled and says “You look different, …younger” to which the Baron retorts “I always feel rejuvenated by a touch of adventure.”
Yes Neville is aided and abetted by makeup and camera work, showing us a Baron in several different forms. But Neville’s greatest ally is the composer, Michael Kamen. I wonder if Kamen deliberately emulates Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Til Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks. In Strauss’s work we meet a trickster whose theme is put through a series of variations, corresponding to the disguises employed in his various pranks; Kamen takes the Baron’s music and puts it thought a similar series of variations. Just as Kamen helped supply some of Gilliam’s magic in Brazil, he was every bit as effective in ABM, an expensive film that sadly hurt Gilliam’s reputation even though in my opinion it is one of the greatest films ever made. I hope it isn’t a radical idea to ignore box office receipts. Otherwise Titanic would be considered a better film than Citizen Kane.
Many of the most memorable moments in ABM are the result of Kamen’s work:
- The Baron’s meeting with Venus and subsequent waltz, a moment of such surpassing beauty that I think Gilliam tried to replicate it (or was told to replicate it by his colleagues) in several later films, such as The Fisher King (the moment in the train station which is visually and dramatically compelling while falling down musically) and 12 Monkeys (using Bernard Herrmann, a brilliant idea that didn’t quite work)
- The opera within the film (not to be confused with the instances of plays-within-the-film; man oh man this is a complex film come to think of it), called The Torturer’s Apprentice, lyrics by Eric Idle, including the chorus of eunuchs “Cut off in my prime”
- The music Kamen creates for the Angel of Death, who is lurking in wait for the Baron throughout the film, finally unleashed by his jealous rival Jackson (played by Pryce).
- The brief excerpt from a Requiem Mass for the Baron, sounding like an echo of Mozart’s Requiem, including a heart-wrenching paroxysm in the music when Sally reacts to his face
Here’s the cue –minus visuals—allowing you to hear Kamen’s contribution undistracted by anything else. The Baron’s life-force is finally snatched by the Angel of death just before the 2nd minute, seguing into the Requiem. [alas the cue no longer exists on youtube]
And just as his body is going into the ground we hear Neville unexpectedly uttering one of my favourite lines, using one of his more crusty incarnations (there were several voices to go with the different versions Neville gave us visually): “And that was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death, an experience which I don’t hesitate strongly to recommend.”
The line takes on a special poignant magic with his passing November 19th at the age of 86. Kamen, in sharp contrast to Neville, passed far too early at the age of 55, and by coincidence passed November 18th 2003. I remember both dates as I recall both of these wonderful generous men.
I have to think they’re comparing notes somewhere. They should be proud.