Terry Gilliam’s films often explore a dichotomy between fantasy and reality. The Fisher King is about a man whose mental illness gives him trouble separating his hallucinations from fact; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about a man whose drug abuse occasionally untethers him from reality; 12 Monkeys is about a man who is alone in his belief that he is a time traveler from the future. The Adventures of Baron Muhchausen is right in that wheelhouse, then, because it is about a man who is fond of telling tall tales about traveling to the moon or being dropped through the center of the Earth who finds himself stuck in “the Age of Reason” where his stories are met with incredulity.
What sets this movie apart from some of Gilliam’s other films is the nature of Munchausen’s delusion. Munchausen’s stories do not seem psychotic, nor do they seem like snapshots from an alternate world. No, they represent something very specific: childish whimsy. The Baron’s wild yarns would not make sense as a literal truth, but they do speak to what a child might expect the world to be.
Children don’t understand limitations in the way that adults do. They will often argue that something is “not fair” because they don’t understand how limited the idea of “fairness” is. They don’t always get that being the best at something is not a guarantee that you’ll always win at that thing, or that justice is not always done. In many ways the world the Adventures of Baron Munchausen constructs is built around a child’s idea of justice. If you’re fast enough you can outrun anything; if you’re strong enough, you can lift anything; if you have the smartest and fast people on your side, you’ll win every battle, even if you are overmatched. Oh, and also: if you are full of vitality and life you’ll never die.
The world before the Baron shows up works in the illogical, shitty way that the world actually does, where invading armies attack towns full of innocent bystanders for basically no reason at all and petty bureaucrats are in charge of the only lines of defense. After the Baron arrives, however, we move into a fantastic version of reality where things go as they are “supposed to go”. When he needs the help of his friends, the Baron goes to collect them from the various prisons he left them in and they all forgive him instantly; women flock to the Baron even though he’s less rich and powerful than their wrathful husbands; the Baron’s bravery and righteousness do more to end the war in a few hours than all the strategists and negotiators combined could achieve in a few months.
Now that I’m older I see the folly – romantic folly, but folly nonetheless – in all of the Baron’s stories. The film wants you to see the Baron as the hero, and it wants you to believe that he can triumph over all of the people that lack imagination in the world. But the truth is much more melancholy than that. Death claims vivacious people all the time, and petty bureaucrats often stand tall over the dreamers at the end of the day. Watching this movie I could see how it made so much sense to me as a child, and but now that I'm an adult, it's really hard to buy into the Baron's arguments that we should opt to live in a world of whimsy instead of the world we actually have.
Well, maybe I'm just being cynical. Gilliam isn't really claiming that the dreamers will win, just that they should win. I can agree that, yes, they should. But somehow I suspect the world will continue to be more like it is in the Fisher King where cruelty can strike randomly, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where it always seems like the best parts of history are receding from view, like 12 Monkeys where disaster is always near, than it will be like Baron Munchausen, where the boldest always win over the skeptics after winning the big battle.