An enchanting movie poster for the Czechoslovakia film ‘The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’ (aka ‘The Outrageous Baron Munchausen’/‘Baron Prášil’) directed by Karel Zeman (1962).
I suspect the vast majority of Dangerous Minds readers have seen Terry Gilliam’s’ multi-multi-million dollar film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)—though I also believe that many of our devoted followers are probably also acquainted with the rich, cinematic history (at least eight shorts and more than a handful of films exist) based on the tall-tale-telling Baron who was actually a real person. It should also be noted that any George Harrison superfan likely knows a bit more about the Baron’s 200-year-old history as Harrison was an avid collector of the work of Gustave Doré, the great illustrator and engraver who conceived the quintessential image of the Baron.
As he notes in the extras of the Second Run Blu-ray of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen Terry Gilliam gives much credit for his vision of the story to director and special effects artist Karel Zeman saying Zeman’s influence on his own work is “continual,” and he’s “pretty sure” he has stolen many of Zeman’s artistic methods for his own films. Other fans of Zeman’s work include Tim Burton and special effects legend Ray Harryhausen who has said he “deeply appreciated” Zeman’s talent. As it relates directly to this post, one of the films the former Monty Python member perhaps pilfered from was The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (aka The Outrageous Baron Munchausen/Baron Prášil).
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen was directed by Zeman who also created the multi-layered, dreamlike special effects in the film. Here is Zeman (as seen in an interview with the director in the Second Run release), on his vision for the movie:
“I wanted to capture the surreal world of Baron Munchausen. I wanted this romantic fantasy to be unleashed from the mundane reality. So I used imagery resembling prints from the period. At the same time, I decided to treat color like a painter on a canvas. I put in only when it was necessary.”
Zeman on the set of ‘The Fabulous Baron Munchausen’ giving direction to actors Milos Kopecký (Baron Munchausen) and Rudolf Jelínek (Tonik). This image is part of a large collection of Zeman’s work displayed at the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague.
Every shot in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen contains some variety of extravagant special effects, and Zeman’s vivid imagery—much of which is based on Doré‘s original illustrations, fill every inch of every frame. According to Zeman’s daughter Ludmila, her father was an avid reader and collector of comic books and would often incorporate jokes or gags he found amusing into actions performed by his actors. Zeman even recruited Ludmila for The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and the then fifteen-year-old got to ride a horse as the stunt double for Jana Brejchova, the stunning Czech actress (and former wife of director Miloš Forman) who played Princess Bianca in the film. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is widely considered a masterpiece thanks to Zeman’s determination to make a very different film than German director Josef von Báky’s beloved Nazi-funded version of Munchausen’s story, 1943’s Münchhausen or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The budget for Báky’s movie was estimated at $6.5 million dollars (or approximately $95 million dollars if it had been made in 2019) and was commissioned by Nazi propaganda pusher Joseph Goebbels. Interesting, the screenplay for Báky’s adaptation was written by Emil Erich Kästner whose novels were regulars at Nazi book burnings. Kästner was in fact banned from publishing his literature in Germany between the years 1933 and 1945. The wildly opulent film was intended to rival The Wizard of Oz, but with an adult-oriented twist including a scene full of topless harem girls and other fantasy-based, “grown-up” scenarios. Despite the fact the film intended to serve as a mechanism for war propaganda, it ended up a luxurious, over-the-top take on the amorous, adventurous, cannonball-riding Baron.
George Harrison and Eric Idle on the set of Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’
As previously mentioned, Python super-fan George Harrison would be the main conduit for the last of the final big-three Baron Munchausen films, Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In 1979 he showed off his large assortment of Munchausen stories and shared his love of artist Gustave Doré with Gilliam. Then, Gilliam’s pal musician Ray Cooper gifted Gilliam with a copy of a book full of the stories of Baron Munchausen written (though published anonymously) by Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720-1797), encouraging the director (if not daring him) to make a film out of them. Allegedly $46 million (though Gilliam says it was “nowhere near $40 million), flowed into the lengthy, arduous production that was already over budget by two million dollars before filming began. Though it was a financial box-office bomb, it received high praise and would collect three British Academy of Film & Television Awards, and was nominated for four Oscars. The stories from the set have become legendary, such as Oliver Reed being perpetually drunk and hitting on a seventeen-year-old Uma Thurman, who plays Venus/Rose in the film. Gilliam’s finished product will forever be considered a triumph in the realm of fantasy filmmaking and “fantastical exaggeration” which the real Münchhausen perfected and unwittingly passed along over hundreds of years through other storytellers fond of hyperbole.
If you’d like to learn even more about the history of Baron Munchausen in cinema, film historian Michael Brooke provides a fascinating, in-depth exploration of the Baron’s many appearances on the big screen on the Second Run Blu-ray for The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil). Far-out images and trailers from all three films follow.
A still of actor Hans Albert as Baron Münchhausen riding a cannonball in 1943’s ‘Münchhausen’ or ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’
A curious scene from ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’
More after the jump…