It has come to this. In the thrilling conclusion to his “Trilogy of Imagination,” Terry Gilliam tackles anti-authoritarian dreaming as an old man. Where Time Bandits was set in the present, and Brazil was set in the very near future, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is set some time in a fantastical Romanesque past listed only as “The Age of Reason.” In this past, the town is in a state of perpetual war with the Turks, led by a micromanaging politician who assassinates any soldier who shows any sign of bravery or leadership of his own.
Gilliam’s final round of anti-authoritarian dreaming takes on no less than the Gods and Death itself. When you’re young, your parents are your Gods. They’re all you understand of the world, and everything is limited by who can best take care of you. When you’re an adult, your bosses can take on a Godlike quality, presenting mythic (and financial) obstacles on your path to happiness and freedom. When you’re old, the only people you have to answer to is Death and God. Only they control your future, and you can thumb your nose at them if you like.
Setting The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in The Age of Reason is its own historical double snark. Back in the 18th century, Thomas Paine wrote The Age of Reason to take on the corrupt Christian church and its involvement in the government. Here, Gilliam presents a defiantly non-Christian society with Moon Gods and other deistic representations while presenting them in a blatantly unreasonable fashion. Baron Munchausen is not just a outlier in society, he’s an outlier to the world.
The history of the stories and adaptations of Baron Munchausen historically followed a strange pattern. They’re based in the tall tales of a real Baron who spent dinner parties spinning yarns about his days fighting for Russia in the Russian Turkish wars. These stories were collected by a chap named Raspe and printed in various versions. The stories have been adapted in many forms, most notably by George Méliès. There was also a Nazi propaganda adaptation funded in 1943 by Josef Goebbels to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Ufa Studios. This would eventually be censored by the Ministry of Propaganda.
Gilliam’s version is blatantly anti-tradition. Right from the beginning, we’re already cycling back to a youth rebellion against silly authoritarian tradition in the form of Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) already crossing off the word “Son” in her father’s theater troupe advertisements and scrawling in Daughter. She demands to know why the signs don’t say “daughter” and her father tells her “Son” is traditional. As she protests, and as the audience figures out, Tradition is no reason to keep doing something wrong.
Salt’s play-within-a-movie production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a high budget production of a fantastic story meant to keep the town distracted as a perpetual war with the Turks rages around them (sound familiar?). Nobody knows why this war is occurring until the real Baron Munchausen stops the production, mounts the stage and tells the audience that he’s the real reason for the war. He had won a bet with the Turkish king and stolen his entire fortune, and the king is now after the Baron for his unjustly won money.
Baron Munchausen’s story cycles round and round, with the Baron coming face to face with the Angel of Death no fewer than 4 times throughout the movie. The heart of the second act is a god-defying “puttin the band back together” road movie following the Baron as he collects his old gang from their various locations and brings them back to reality to do battle with the Turks and save the town. Once the Baron starts spinning his web, the line between fiction and reality blurs into a metafiction.
Compared to Time Bandits and Brazil, the Baron is also the most proactive of Gilliam’s protagonists. Time Bandits‘ youth Kevin is mostly a passive boy dragged along for the ride, though he learns to be a bit proactive by the end. Brazil‘s adult Sam is a reactive character trying to drive the narrative only after being pushed by forces outside himself; in the end, he loses his sense of reality. Baron‘s old man Baron is, arguably, a proactive character who drives his own narrative and tells his own stories, but what happens to him?
In one of his last stories, he faces Death a fourth time, who succeeds in killing him finally. After the Baron’s funeral, we return to the theater to find that the Baron has been telling the entire fantastical story including the story of his own death. Did the Baron defy death? Did he actually die and the point is that his stories will live on? However you interpret the final scene, Baron Munchausen is the most positive ending of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination.” Even if the Baron died, his legacy will continue on. Despite all odds, he has defeated the system through sheer determination.
In their way, the Trilogy of Imagination sets up authority figures as people or systems with good intentions that has since gone extremely sour. The parents of Time Bandits don’t intend to abuse their child, they’re just absent. The Supreme Being of Time Bandits doesn’t intend to create chaos and sow dischord, he is just testing the resilience of his system. The government of Brazil doesn’t intend to oppress people, it just wants to create a working system without making things efficient. The government of Baron Munchausen is even presented as not terrible, citing the good of the people for the reason for killing off its heroes. In Gilliam’s world, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and instant gratification.
Conversely, the road to heaven is long, winding and paved with pitfalls along the way. Kevin, the hero of Time Bandits, falls in with a bad crowd of greedy bandits who have stolen from god. Brazil‘s Sam believes he is constantly acting to save an innocent Jill, but finds himself murdering cops, dumping houses, getting Jill fired, all while still supporting the government that’s oppressing everybody. Baron Munchausen seduces other people’s wives, gambles, tricks people, and engages in a wide display of self-centered tomfoolery.
Ultimately, what is the point of it all? Gilliam seems to be begging people to stop and think once in awhile. Instead of engaging in the split second no-thought process that was accelerating with the speed of technology, pause and wonder if you’re doing the right thing. Are your leaders doing what they’re supposed to be doing? Are you supporting the right people? And, if you do find that you’re in the middle of a corrupt system beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men, then you gotta find your own way through that valley of darkness. With a little luck, you just might make it through with your soul, or at least your legacy, intact.