Terry Gilliam Ranked
I first fashioned this run down mid-2013, before The Zero Theorem had been released, and limited it to Gilliam’s solo, bona fide features. To justify this 2016 re-edit (Gilliam would never approve of a director’s cut), I’ve included not only his co-effort with Terry Jones, but the various, more notable shorts he has produced over the years; alas, there has recently been a feeling of taking whatever you can, however meagre, as his fully-fledged gigs have been increasingly thin on the ground. I’ve also adjusted the placings somewhat, such are fickleness and passing moods. Number 1 is in no danger of changing that I can see, but others can seem better than each other (rather than worse) depending on the time of day, or what I’ve had for dinner.
The Legend of Hallowdega
(2010) Pretty bad, alas. Gilliam presumably took the gig for this eighteen-minute spoof documentary (can I not say mockumentary?), a promotional piece for AMP Energy Juice at the Talladega 500, out of a desire to keep busy. It certainly has no discernible creative or artistic merit, featuring Justin Kirk (a poor man’s Jimmy Fallon) as Justin Thyme (we can’t blame the director; it was written by Aaron Bergeron, a one-season contributor to The Daily Show), investigating the notional haunting of the track by inhabitants of a Native American burial ground.
There’s nary a spark of life in the proceedings; Gilliam caption-cameos as “Brain Control Tested on Senior Citizen”, David Arquette hams it up irritatingly as Kiyash Monsef, ghost hunter, and there’s some incredibly lame stuff about bananas. Actually, one moment did make me smile; Monsef announces ghosts aren’t the cause of the mishaps on the track. Then, in response to one of the crew pointing out a car in peril amid the haunted hoards, advises “He’s just a really bad driver”. Don’t let this give you the impression Gilliam’s just a really bad filmmaker. See it here
(1968) An animated short, pre-Python, Storytime eventually made it to the big screen accompanying Life of Brian in the UK (and then the re-release of Jabberwocky in 2001). Bolting together three pieces from Do Not Adjust Your Set, their combined weight evidences that three minutes really is ideal for this kind of thing; any longer and you run the risk of exhausting goodwill.
Don the Cockroach exhibits the Python penchant for random acts of violence, as the titular roach is stamped on almost as soon as he is introduced. It also has fun with narrative form and its own metatextuality, replaying an earlier section and then informing us the animator has been consequently sacked; a precursor to Gilliam’s later deceasement in Holy Grail. The Albert Einstein Story is a bit of a bust, revolving around not-that-Albert-Einstein being good with his hands and devolving to a rather laboured skit about interrelations and class distinctions between hands and feet. We end on a relative high with The Christmas Card, though, Gilliam having much fun animating said cards in unexpected ways, involving everything from cowboys and rockets. Storytime is patchy, but as a forerunner of his Python form quite illuminating. See it here
(2005) Apparently, Michael Palin told Gilliam Tideland this was either his best or worst film. My response is closer to deep ambivalence.
The director is fond of suggesting the lack of audience embrace was down to difficult subject matter. Certainly, it’s true that this tale of an odd girl with an active imagination, whose father has succumbed to an overdose (but remains dauntlessly decomposing in his chair), and who encounters equally peculiar neighbours, makes few concessions to a prudish viewer. But, unfortunately, it’s not down to that at all. It’s just not very engaging.
This is the film where Gilliam most needed to discipline himself, not in budget terms (it was cheap) but in paring down his story. The familiar theme of escape from an unwelcoming reality into a fantasy world is present, but the telling rambles and meanders, only reaching two hours in length through an absence of focus.
Ultimately, it’s a little dull (something I’d hardly have countenanced of the director previously). The general cry of Tideland’s adherents is the reductive refrain that if you don’t think it’s a masterpiece you don’t understand it. I’m afraid that puts me in the realm of the ignorant; it’s a curiosity, not without merit (Jodelle Ferland’s is yet another winning performance from a child actor in a Gilliam film), but ponderous and muffled.
(1977) Whereas the problem with Jabberwocky is that it’s all very thin; a thirty-minute short stretched to feature length. There’s nothing very wrong with it, and it often raises a smile. The art direction is gloriously evocative; you can all but smell the filth. The creature itself is highly impressive (much more so than Tim Burton’s recent CGI gubbins). And John Le Mesurier and Max Wall make a fine double act.
But it’s quite inconsequential. I previously compared Jabberwocky to Ridley Scott’s The Duellists; a case of a director flexing his muscles, building up to the main event (which, in both Gilliam and Scott’s cases, would be a revelation). But on reflection, and revisit, Scott’s film is the significantly more impressive debut.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance
(1983) The one that started as a six-minute animation (Gilliam felt creatively stifled by the limitations of his technique), then became a live-action beast too big and unwieldy to be included in the The Meaning of Life (it went over budget too, an ominous harbinger of the ’80s to come, particularly given how the heroes are the elderly in both this and Munchausen), so finding a spot supporting the main feature. The Crimson Permanent Assurance is big on style and spectacle (you can’t watch it and not be reminded of the director’s more renowned visuals of the period, from the giant of Time Bandits to the cityscapes of Brazil) but low on actual content, substance to get your teeth into. It is very much a one-joke gag stretched to breaking point, and thus it’s entirely the visual acumen and inventiveness Gilliam brings to bear that carries it.
This is, though, in terms of channelled ideas, perhaps the purest distillation of Gilliam the animator as a live-action filmmaker, from great chains holding the Assurance building in place to its sailing to the City of London, and finally toppling off the edge of the world.
There’s a self-devouring aspect to these accountants bringing down the very system they depend upon (they sail the wide accountan-sea, on the high seas of international finance, with “one by one the financial capitals of the world crumbling under their mighty business acumen”), and it’s amusing to see Gilliam nominally siding with the bean counters (oppressed old men balancing the books) against the (American) upstarts of ’80s capitalism (“leaving them in ruins, their assets stripped, their policies in tatters”), lending the most boring of professions a sheen of glamour by equating book fiddling with actual piracy, rather than achieving it by way of a ledger. One does wonder slightly at the “Full speed ahead, Mr Cohen”, though.
Gilliam summons the triumphant spirit of ’40s swashbucklers (the title is a riff on Errol Flynn’s The Crimson Pirate) complete with a period-evoking score, and takes glee in killing off the suited bankers, their dying words announcing an abject lack of humanity (“File this”). Much praised (Gilliam likes to go on about how well it went down at Cannes) and visually prized as it is, The Crimson Permanent Assurance would have been much improved running to that significantly slenderer six minutes’ duration. See it here
The Wholly Family
(2011) There’s much to enjoy in this twenty-minute sort-of promo, albeit that, like his other live action shorts, it’s a touch on the long side. Gilliam had creative control, writing and bringing in regular DP Nicola Pecorini, and it’s blessed with a jolly, infectious score from Daniel Sepe. You wouldn’t really know – aside from some pasta face-stuffing by the brought-to-life, dangerous, mischievous Pulcinellas that taunt Jake (Nicolas Connolly) – that it was funded by the Garofolo Pasta Company.
Gilliam’s in his element with the demented fantasy antics of the Pulcinellas. The moment where Jake is sucked into the belly of one recalls the director’s exploration of the malevolence inherent in The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, and some of the content is downright disturbing: Jake sees his tiny tot self (with a hideously CGI-d baby head) nursed by his parents. When he refuses to desist from crying, his mother drops him to the floor where he breaks, revealing a Pinocchio-like doll. Irreparable, he is promptly thrown into a fiery trash can. And the conclusion, in which Jake and his parents are trapped as an exhibit in the street stall from which Jake stole the Pulcinella figurine that started all this, is entirely fitting with Gilliam’s sentiment-free impulse.
It’s a shame, then, that there’s no one to really engage with (Gilliam would likely say that’s the entire point, hence the ending, but the broader issue is that the performances fail to inspire). Jake is only ever a demanding, obnoxious brat, and his nominal change of heart fails to right the balance. It’s easy to see where he gets it from: his bickering, unsympathetic parents, who are subjected to clashing performance styles from Douglas Dean and Cristiana Capotondi. See it here
The Brothers Grimm
(2005) A film of great moments rather than a great film, Gilliam is granted the budget to create impressive spectacle and then some, but must traverse the nightmare terrain of those damn meddlesome Weinsteins to reach it.
The premise is solid enough, albeit one Tim Burton could as easily have dribbled Goth-chic over; the Grimms are conmen profiting from supernatural menaces of their own manufacture. All well and bad, but then they encounter a real magical threat. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger bounce of each other appealingly, but their characters aren’t strong enough to make you care very much for them. The cast includes both berserk theatrics (Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce) and exquisite menace (Monica Bellucci). And Lena Headey, who was foisted on the director; you can only agree that Gilliam’s choice of Samantha Morton would have been far more complementary.
For all the misplaced talk about sets being bigger than his actors, this is Gilliam’s one film where what’s on screen does take over. Because the script just isn’t there. The tower set is gorgeous, and the Ledger climbing it a vertiginous treat. Gilliam pulls off wickedly clever little moments, like a dinner party created by a hall of mirrors and an upside-down torture. Whereas, the mud creature is unsettling but the visual effects don’t quite sell it (unlike the more sinister opening with the big bad wolf). The Brothers Grimm is a broken-backed hotchpotch; a failure, but a likeable one.
The Fisher King
(1991) In post-Munchausen recovery mode, The Fisher King saw Gilliam return to bankability with an on-budget delivery of the goods. Replete with Arthurian themes and fantasy interludes, it’s not so far from his usual obsessions, but the romantic core is a complete break (and something he hasn’t returned to since). He’s like a duck to water with it, however, and this element is mostly touching and genuine; indeed, the more fantastical aspects sometimes translate as lukewarm Gilliam, which is not something to be encouraged.
Where The Fisher King comes up slightly short is that it isn’t lean enough. Both visually and in terms of editing, the pacing is just that bit off. I blame Gilliam’s conscious decision to forgo storyboards. It needs to be loose enough to allow the romance to unfold naturally, but you end up feeling it’s still about twenty minutes too long.
Jeff Bridges is great in one of his first “mature adult” roles (this, Fabulous Baker Boys and Fearless make a defining trio), Robin Williams slightly more problematic. But Williams always is. His serious thesping often veers towards mawkish self-indulgence (when he isn’t playing the villain), but he’s supported by enough solid craftsmanship (Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer) to just about rein him in. The themes of mental breakdown and aberration are strong ones, sensitively weaved with the love stories, and the Grand Central Station sequence is justly celebrated, but the film as a whole doesn’t quite sing.
Miracle of Flight
(1974) If Storytime gives us Gilliam experimenting with his animation art and not quite delivering, Miracle of Flight finds him at the height of his post-Python powers, sustaining his running gag beautifully – it isn’t possible for man to fly, as it defeats all common sense. Thus, we run through a medley of early attempts to repeat Icarus’ feat, including men in mechanical chicken outfits, tarred and feathered, or with hammered-flat arms, each racing over the edge of the same cliff and plummeting to oblivion.
It takes an unnamed king to tackle the problem… by kicking a succession of scientists off the top of his mountain fortress (“Mmmm. Not as successful as I hoped for”), accompanied by some sly sight gags (an apparent perfect flight is actually headed straight for the ground again). Suddenly, 300 years later, the invention of the airline ticket hastens a succession of further air-related developments, including the air terminal. Through which a character proceeds, ending up on the edge, and then off the edge, of that same mountain fortress (“Nope, still not got it!”). Stylistically, it’s a culmination of the skills Gilliam honed during his four years doodling for that forgotten TV show, but crucially it also has a wholly satisfying structure. See it here.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
(2009) The 2000s were not kind to Terry. First The Man Who Killed Don Quixote went tits up. Then he got into bed with the Weinsteins for The Brothers Grimm; he knew better, but he did it anyway, just to get something moving. Then Tideland got made exactly as he wanted to make it, but no one gave a toss. Finally, right at the end of the decade, he directed his first self-originated movie since Brazil (again collaborating with Charles McKeown). And (whisper it) it was a minor hit.
But the road proved no less problematic than before, as Heath Ledger died before completion. Those who haven’t seen it probably assume Ledger is the star, as per Brandon Lee in The Crow. In fact, it’s Christopher Plummer’s titular Doctor, who has made a Faustian pact with Tom Waits’ Mr Nick. The elderly Parnassus echoes Baron Munchausen but is also a readily identifiable alter ego for the director himself.
While the theme of the power of storytelling is a strong one, and the concept of the Imaginarium is inspired, the character of Tony (as played by Ledger, Law and Depp) is arguably less well developed. Gilliam explicitly compares him with Tony Blair, while the initial discovery of Tony hanging from a bridge is an overt nod to the Calvi Affair.
If there’s a lack of finesse in attempting to make a political statement few are disputing anyway, the plotting lacks clarity at times (the means by which Mr Nick is willing to accept Tony’s soul rather than Valentina’s is disappointingly arbitrary). At others, the giddy inventiveness of the Imaginarium becomes undisciplined. But the combination of practical effects (cut-out trees becoming an actual forest) and CGI (the crazy landscapes and perspectives) generally combine in an appreciably Gilliam-esque fashion.
Parnassus was the first film he storyboarded himself since Munchausen, but ironically, there’s a formlessness at times suggesting otherwise. Perhaps the improvisation Gilliam encouraged led to a lack of focus and a reluctance to cut away; the early stages of the film flounder aimlessly in terms of story, tone and camerawork. Truth be told, Parnassus is a mess. But it’s also a seductive compendium of the director’s work, a greatest-hits compilation of sorts, and as such it’s irresistible.
The Zero Theorem
(2013) I half expected The Zero Theorem to go down in my estimation upon revisit. It is, by far, Gilliam’s bleakest film, and also probably the most impinged upon in terms of accessing his untrammelled imagination – purely on budgetary grounds, if not in terms of his main protagonist too. Christoph Waltz’s Qohen is the embodiment of Gilliam most pervasive dread regarding the modern world; closed-off, reclusive, hypochondriac (“We fear a great many things, but we fear nothing most of all”), he is filled with thoughts and fantasies that represent the antithesis of the director’s own. Qohen’s caught up in a world of equations, putting faith in his equivalent of God – an elusive phone call that will resolve everything for him. And, of course, it never comes.
Gilliam, a confirmed atheist yet blessed with the inspiration of one unrestricted by such labels, here explores the consequences of realising there’s no escaping reality for a realm with higher purpose. At least Sam Lowry has his world of daydreams. Qohen lacks even that, banished to another’s electric simulation, an embodiment of the theorem itself, that the universe is all for nothing and “you led a meaningless life”.
While The Zero Theorem is very much aligned with both Brazil and 12 Monkeys, it’s much less of a greatest-hits package than Parnassus. Both are, however, evidently diminished to a degree by the need to rely on (still creative) CGI rather than physical effects.
It’s comforting to see the director continues to rally fine casts for no great financial reward; Waltz in broad mode is a perfect fit, and used far more keenly than by the likes of Burton and Bond. Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis and Lucas Hedges (if Gilliam’s eye for an up-and-comer is any indication, Hedges will be taking up residence in Hollywood in no time) are particularly strong, and Matt Damon shows off his capacity for blending in at parties (Management’s outfits match whichever drapes or chair he is in the vicinity off at the time). Tilda Swinton steals the show with her Dr Shrink-Rom cameo, but that’s not uncommon. Gilliam’s asides are in abundance, but perhaps my favourite is a rat scurrying off with a pill evacuated from Qohen’s windpipe only moments before.
(1995) Gilliam’s only straight science-fiction effort (The Zero Theorem is closer to the satire-fantasy territory of Brazil) is blessed with a dense riddle of a script from David Webb Peoples (and wife Janet). As such, it may be structurally the most finely tempered of all the director’s films.
The time-travel plot is rigorously assembled, refusing to succumb to the kind of paradoxes that often leave one scratching one’s head. There’s a stoicism and resignation to the post-apocalyptic world depicted here. And a tragedy to the pre-determination that dictates James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) actions. Until The Zero Theorem, it had the veneer of Gilliam’s most pessimistic film; the only vision is a portent of our hero’s doom, and all that can be mustered is a hope that the future world will find a way.
Gilliam is ignited once again by many of his predilections; the wheels of bureaucracy are ever closing in around his characters. In this case, the freedom to fantasise is forcefully impinged upon; those failing to conform are regarded as insane and medicined until they comply (these themes also link the “American trilogy” movies that sandwich it, The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing).
While the likes of Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) and Frank Gorshin (the Riddler) pop up in supporting roles, this is the least idiosyncratically cast of the director’s pictures. One might have thought Willis would summon his freewheeling David Addison in the crazy world of Terry, but he plays it completely sincerely. His is a tortured, affecting performance and one of the last really compelling ones Bruce would give, before falling victim to “serious acting” (picking boring parts, playing them impassively). It’s Brad Pitt who gives the crazy, one of the first times we got to see him actively fighting his pretty-boy image. In both cases, Gilliam is revealed as an actor’s director, one who can elicit surprisingly distinct and against-type performances that muster general acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for Pitt).
Credit too to Christopher Plummer (who would return to Gilliam’s world nearly fifteen years later) and Madeleine Stowe (all but forgotten, but she provides the very necessary grounding the audience needs). I should also mention Paul Buckmaster’s haunting, vibrant score (whenever I listen to Gotan Project’s tango-influenced albums, I’m put in mind of the 12 Monkeys soundtrack – and vice versa).
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(1974) Terry Gilliam’s first stab at feature direction, in tandem with Python compadre Terry Jones. It was this dual managerial role that drove the former Terry to distraction, what with Jones’ penchant for the sloppy – or, charitably, TV aesthetic – shot, but he was at least successful in creating a convincingly earthy, bedraggled and sodden Arthurian era. It didn’t encourage him to go a second round, though, sitting out Life of Brian and instead assuming the mantle of its production designer. He’d made Jabberwocky by that point, of course, which was even filthier than Grail (in mud content, rather than gags).
And Monty Python and the Holy Grail itself? It needs little introduction and even less fanfare. If it’s inferior to Brian, it’s only by increments, or by virtue of just how good the latter is. Gilliam acquits himself with honours on the acting front, be it as devoted, faithful Patsy or the doomed animator. Elsewhere are fully justified favourites Brave Sir Robin (who ran away), Camelot (a silly place), the Black Knight (prone to suffering flesh wounds), and the killer rabbit (ultimately dispatched by the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch). The end is very silly too, of course, which is entirely fitting. Gilliam modestly commented of Holy Grail’s key virtue that, “if we hadn’t managed to make something with a coherently real and gritty feel to it, we’d have been left with just a collection of sketches”, adding in scornful parentheses “like Spamalot years later”. He’s probably not wrong, though.
(1985) This is the de facto “best Gilliam movie”. And I can’t deny its brilliance, but it (clearly!) isn’t my favourite. Which I suppose makes me something of a dissenter (even though it undoubtedly warrants full marks).
The director’s first screenwriting collaboration with Charles McKeown, although Tom Stoppard provided three initial drafts. It’s easy to see why it’s the most celebrated Gilliam picture, as it remains his most topical. His recurring theme of fantasy versus reality is tackled in this second cycle of his “ages of man trilogy”; young man Sam Lowry (Pryce was 38 when the film came out, somewhat older than Gilliam had envisaged) is ensnared by twentieth-century bureaucracy. This is Orwell’s 1984 at its most terrifyingly mundane. But, unlike the director’s other trilogy protagonists, Sam’s fantasy leads to a far from triumphant outcome; it’s a reflection of how limited and ineffectual he is in the real world.
Gilliam combines retro-visuals (costumes, architecture) with Lowry’s Walter Mitty flights of fantasy, but it’s the dark satire that resonates. This is a world where false-flag terrorism goes hand-in-hand with sheep-like acceptance of state detention and torture; Gilliam has little claim to being a prophet of the age, but in the thirty years-plus since it was made, Brazil has become only more relevant. A bleak inevitability.
His problems with the release of Brazil first foisted upon him the “difficult” label, but as with Munchausen, there’s no sign on screen of such behind-the-scenes troubles (provided you see the longer cut). In this case, it’s because the troubles began after the fact.
As with the rest of the trilogy, the supporting players are prone to stealing the show; Michael Palin gives possibly his best performance (certainly his most – only? – casually chilling one) as Sam’s friend Jack Lint. Robert De Niro’s freedom fighter, Ian Holm’s ultimate bureaucrat, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson and Katherine Helmond (the film is a plastic surgeon’s nightmare) fill out a mostly impeccable cast. Only Kim Greist’s love interest fails to ignite flames of passion, which is unfortunate as the object of Sam’s fantasies is a crucial part of the story.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(1998) If Baron Munchausen was an expensive disappointment, Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous work was a (relatively) cheap one. But perhaps any expectation of a cult novel becoming more than a cult movie is unwarranted. Strangely, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas met with a tepid critical response, even though Gilliam is remarkably faithful to the themes, tone and authorial voice of Thompson. Maybe it’s a case of the easily digestible on the page proving too extreme once visualised.
It’s a Gilliam film I’ve enjoyed more on each revisit, I think because it’s initially difficult to displace the power of Thompson’s prose (and, to be fair, Gilliam doesn’t try; he and co-writer Tony Grisoni are rightly guided by Raoul Duke’s narration). Johnny Depp’s Thompson impersonation is startling, possibly the best of his more cartoonish creations. All exaggerated movements and staccato intonations, he only has to open his mouth to induce mirth.
Gilliam has commented that he’s never been one for artificially achieved altered states; he has a natural affinity with them. And it shows. His subdued but suitably trippy use of CGI and prosthetics is only there as the icing on the cake of an already exaggerated landscape, one informed by performance and the director’s trademark use of wide-angle lens (albeit he also adopts Dutch angles, and adjusts focus and lighting, depending on the properties of the individual substances consumed).
Fear and Loathing is all the more impressive given the brief turnaround time; the project was floundering under initial director Alex Cox, and Gilliam dived in head-first. Ninety percent of the director’s casting and music choices are spot-on. Cameos from Tobey Maguire and Gary Busey are amusing and memorable, while the scenes featuring Christina Ricci and Ellen Barkin are disturbing and memorable. If there’s a failing, it’s the Benicio Del Toro’s Dr Gonzo lacks the warmth to counteract his extreme behaviour (a criticism Ralph Steadman raised, and one Gilliam acknowledged, albeit he has slightly recanted since).
I’m not being perversely choosy by placing two of his least embraced films (see also the premier spot) near the top of my list; I simply continue to get the biggest kick out of them. That said, Gilliam’s rendition of the end of the American Dream seems to be increasingly finding the audience it deserves.
(1981) Gilliam hit it big second time out; commercial success was not something he would get used to, unfortunately. Time Bandits is his only overtly family movie, but there’s never less than a piercingly adult intelligence behind its dismemberment and mockery of traditional concepts of good and evil.
The first in his “three stages of man” trilogy, it’s also the first instance of his consistent flair for casting likeable child leads (no mean feat when you witness the insufferable urchins populating most Hollywood fare). But Craig Warnock is also supported by the kind of magnificently eclectic cast we’ve come to expect from the former Python.
The sadly passed-on David Rappaport (of Jigsaw’s O-Men, he’s mercifully the one who isn’t Sylvester McCoy) deserves the most acclaim for his charismatic Randall, leader of the motley band of dwarves who accost Kevin. But Sean Connery also gives perhaps the warmest performance of his career as a paternal Agamemnon. Ian Holm is delightful as a height-conscious Napoleon, Ralph Richardson a suitably doddery old Supreme Being and David Warner relishes the chance to ooze frustrated malevolence as Evil (a part earmarked for Jonathan Pryce, but given his undiluted hammery in most of his work with Gilliam, I’m grateful we got the former Omen actor).
Visually and structurally, Time Bandits is most comparable to the later Munchausen. Both organise themselves around quests/pursuits, enabling an episodic and eventful format. Both also engage with fantastic landscapes, merging myth, history and metaphysics into a thematically rich adventure, one where reality and fantasy are left slightly confused.
For a family film, Gilliam has no qualms in embracing the darkness. Sometimes this comes through in the striking imagery: the Supreme Being’s commanding face as the bandits tumble down the time corridor; the broken mirror revealing Evil’s lair on the other side. At others, it’s thematic: Kevin’s dismissive, preoccupied parents ultimately meet a fate many adults would think twice about letting their kids witness (it’s the kind of blackly comic ending you can imagine Gilliam cackling maniacally over as soon as he thought of it).
This was the director still finding his way post-Python, and as such, he enlists old comrades John Cleese (as a typically Cleese-like Robin Hood) and Michael Palin to help. Palin co-wrote the rather wonderful screenplay with his director, but his recurring role(s) as one half of an ill-fated couple (with Shelley Duvall) is the film’s only weak spot.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
(1988) For many, this is Gilliam’s magnificent folly, the film that cemented his reputation as difficult, out-of-control and unmanageable. The making of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has been much documented (it ended up costing double its $23.5m budget, that figure having been revised repeatedly downwards to fit the producer’s wishes rather than practicality), and it’s an (yes!) albatross he’s carried around throughout his subsequent career. One of Gilliam’s most appealing qualities is his inability to temper his (cheerful) openness about his experiences, and the account of the lunacy of the production is almost as compelling as the film itself. I fell in love with Munchausen on first viewing, and it remains one of my all-time favourites.
The final part of his “three stages of man” trilogy, Munchausen best expresses the invigorating effect of the tonic of imagination on the soul; it’s the central recurring theme in Gilliam’s work. In Munchausen’s case, the dreary joylessness of the scientific age is cast off as his weary old soul is physically and mentally rejuvenated by a precocious young one, who knowing no “better”, chooses to believe in him. In the end, imagination wins out over death itself.
John Neville is a delight in a rare leading role (he’d been absent from the big screen for the best part of two decades, but earlier appearances include a memorable Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror and Wellington in the somewhat pre-Gilliam-esque The Adventures of Gerard). Sarah Polley proves a winningly uncutesy co-star as Sally Salt. This is the last (to date) of Terry’s Python collaborations, with Eric Idle drawing the short straw (much to his frustration). But the film is wall-to-wall with memorable turns, including co-writer Charles McKeown, Oliver Reed (inspired casting, and an inspired comic performance as a henpecked Vulcan), Time Bandits’ Jack Purvis, Jonathan Pryce showing absolutely no restraint as the villain, Bill Paterson, Alison Steadman, Uma Thurman (as Venus), Peter Jeffrey (almost unrecognisable), Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese (who, for all Williams’ scene-stealing hyperactivity, gives the more vibrant performance as his wife, the Queen of the Moon). Oh, and Sting.
The film is gorgeously shot by Giuseppe Rotunno (the ripples of sand on the Moon, the insides of the giant fish, Venus revealed from a giant shell in a live-action Botticelli) and Dante Ferreti’s art direction is sumptuous. The visual effects are of-a-piece; unexpected, imaginative, cartoonish yet always tangible (it’s little-remembered, but the film earned four technical Oscar nominations; it deserved the actual statuettes every bit as much as Fury Road warranted its clutch). This is a film where no aspect has dated, as it looked like nothing else when it came out. And (as they say) the money is all up there on screen. It’s one of the last pictures of the analogue age, and it yields miraculous dividends, be it in the animated zodiac or the delirious moonscape.
It’s difficult to single out a favourite sequence; the set pieces of the Sultan’s palace, the Moon, Vulcan’s volcano and the big fish are all extraordinary in their own ways. It would be a treat if we could one day get to see Gilliam’s original cut, just a couple of minutes longer but – so he says – making all the difference in perfecting the flow. And yet, what we have remains a masterpiece.
The blending of fantasy and reality is much more self-reflexive than its director would attempt again, as a performance of the Baron’s adventures gives way to the arrival of the actual Baron, which slides into a flashback to one of his adventures and then finds him setting off on a new one. Gilliam throws in ample suggestion that this is all an extravagant confabulation on the Baron’s part, but then delivers the pleasing curveball that it may all be true. Because the tale and the telling are so interwoven, it’s impossible to prise a definite answer, which is the joy of the experience.
Pauline Kael suggested the lack of clear narrative was a fault, and pointed to the illogicality of the conclusion, yet this dreamlike uncertainty is precisely the point. Gilliam’s daring you to embrace it, to reject the Age of Reason; here we have a glorious piece of work, but it may have slightly punctured its director’s dreams of “hot air and fantasy”. After his most optimistic film – ironically, given its themes – he would never ride quite so high and free again (to date). Perhaps we’ll yet see (old man) Gilliam triumph where the Baron did before him.