THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN
Flush from the international success of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Karel Zeman next turned his attentions to the story of Baron Munchausen. (Both Jules Verne and Baron Munchausen had been adapted into films/served as sources of inspiration to Georges Melies whose style of filmmaking heavily influenced Zeman). Baron Munchausen, or to use him his real name, Karl Friederich Hieronymous Von Munchausen (1720-97), was an actual historic figure. Born in Bodenwerder, Germany, Munchausen fought in the Russian army in several campaigns against the Turks. In the officers mess, he began to concoct wilfully fanciful accounts of his exploits. These were later collected by his friend Rudolf Erich Raspe and published in English as Baron Munchausens Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1795), something that Munchausen was never pleased with, even though the book proved immensely popular. Into the 20th Century, the material has proven lucrative to filmmakers George Melies made his version The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1911); there was a lost British version in 1927; Münchhausen (1943), an opulent colour production produced in Germany under the Nazis; The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1977), a French-made animated childrens film; most famously Terry Gilliams The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) starring John Neville; and Baron Münchhausen (2012), a German tv mini-series. Of these, Karel Zemans Baron Munchausen (who is referred to as Baron Prasil in the Czech language, although is the same character as Baron Munchausen in every other regard) is regarded as the best film version of the Barons exploits by those who have seen it. (Reportedly, Terry Gilliam was inspired to conduct his remake after seeing a print of the Zeman film). Although it did receive an international release in 1964, the film does not have a high profile in English-speaking countries.
Karel Zeman takes the same fabulist approach he did in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, basing the visual look of the film on the lithographs of celebrated 19th Century illustrator Gustave Doré (as well as those for the German translation of the Barons adventures by Gottfried August Bürger). Whereas The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was in black-and-white, the major difference here is the addition of colour, as well as black-and-white scenes that are tinted different colours (just as Melies used to do). Zeman creates a wraparound framework to the telling of the story, transplanting the Barons adventures into the present-day of the 1960s Space Age where an astronaut arrives on the Moon to be greeted by Munchausen and early fabulist travellers such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Victor Barbicane from Jules Vernes From the Earth to the Moon (1865) whereupon Munchausen mistakes the astronaut for a Lunarian and determines to take him on a tour of his world. The idea is to contrast the two as imagineers, where the Baron is constantly taking the astronauts engineering marvels and recounts of the modern world as rival works of fancy.
What is visually alluring about the film is the same thing that we saw in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne Zemans employment of the amazing mix of animation, cut-outs and live-action. There are wonderfully appealing shots like the Sultan with his retreating throne, which is replaced by a giant cannon before Zeman cuts away to an animated diagrammatic cutout that shows a giant contraption of clockwork and mechanical parts beneath the throne room. Zeman has a perfect sense of nonsensical fabulism, which makes him ideal for adapting the Baron Munchausen tales. The venture into the sultans palace to rescue the princess is full of charming images the Barons hand sneaking up to makes moves in a chess game being played by two guards; swordfights conducted to jaunty xylophone music; the Baron emerging from a fight with the bodies of 10,000 guards lying with their feet all neatly lined up; the Baron and Tony (Rudolf Jelinek) struggling to batter down a seemingly locked door before the princess (Jana Brejchova) calmly walks over and opens its sliding panels.
The most charming sequence is where the Baron falls underwater on his horse and then calmly swims along on horseback, taking back his coat as a swordfish swims by with it draped from its nose, passes through a giant fishs mouth and then out another mouth at the other end, encounters mermaids and shoos off sharks. Other highlights include the Barons journey into the whale (where he uses the opportunity of a trip around the world to woo the Princess) and the flight across the battlefield by cannonball to scout the enemys position (and then returning from whence he came by simply jumping onto a cannonball fired in the other direction). There is a wonderfully eccentric menagerie of creatures that turn up throughout the film cartoonish sea monsters, giant spiders and the perfectly nonchalant image of the Baron sitting back to smoke his pipe as he is carried away in the claws of a dragon creature.
For all its being made with primitive resources that were way before the era of CGI and motion control cameras, Baron Munchausen has an almost unlimited degree of imagination and visual playfulness that seems completely lacking in most modern $100+ million dollar films. Baron Munchausen is slightly the lesser of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne but never any more the enjoyable for all that.