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Yesterday I watched Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for the first time. It stars John Neville as the Baron and Eric Idle as Berthold. It’s a fantastic film, completely absorbing and surreal with amazing sets, stunts and action which look so impressive compared to today’s CGI alternatives.
With spectacle comes criticism however as, having done some research on the film, it is clear that Gilliam’s films are notorious for being dangerous and traumatic for the cast and expensive to film – watching this one, you can see why. Sarah Polley, who played 9-year-old Sally, said:
It definitely left me with a few scars … It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it’s dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe.
There were disputes surrounding the production and in the end it received limited distribution and only made $8 million in the US box office. Nonetheless, I really recommend it as it is so spectacular and engrossing – and it’s currently on Netflix!
It really made me think about the stories that inspired the film and specifically the real Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen. The real Baron was a German nobleman, born in 1720, who became famous for telling stories about his adventures.
Münchhausen moved to Russia where he rose to the rank of Rittmeister (Captain) in the Russian cavalry and fought in the Russo-Turkish War. He was known as a amiable and truthful man, however after he retired he gained a reputation as a teller of extraordinary stories about his time in Russia. He told these tall tales at social gatherings as entertainment and perhaps to poke fun at his contemporaries’ love for rationality. This theme certainly runs through the film as the Baron exclaims he is tired of the world because:
It’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me.
Bearing in mind this relatively simple story of the Baron’s real life, it is amazing that his stories had such far-reaching effects. He began to be fictionalized before he even died, when 17 of his stories made it into the Vademecum fur lustige Leute between 1781 and 1783. In 1785 these were translated into English, as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia by Rudolf Erich Raspe, and over the next century his stories were expanded and republished multiple times, becoming very popular.
It is likely that folk and fairy tales made it into the narratives that were attributed to him, so we cannot know how much of the material is really his. He was apparently very annoyed that his name was associated with these tall tales as he was given the name Lügenbaron or Baron of Lies.
Still it was way too late to stop public enthusiasm for the fictionalized Baron and the character and stories were replayed again and again on the stage, on radio, television, in films and even in video games. Some of the most famous stories that were in Raspe’s 1785 book and in Gilliam’s film include the Baron’s journey to the moon in a hot air balloon, his meeting with Venus and his escape after being swallowed by a giant fish.
Lastly, Münchausen Syndrome was named directly after the fictional Baron. In an article published in 1951, British doctor Richard Asher proposed the name Münchausen Syndrome for cases of patients lying about their illnesses, arguing that:
Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the baron, and named after him
He was criticised for this, since other physicians felt the name trivialised the disorder and downplayed the dangers associated with it and also linked it to a real man who did not suffer from the condition. Clearly though the name has stuck and is now in common usage.
The phrase ‘motley crew’ derives from the eighteenth century. ‘Motley’ is a medieval word meaning mixed in colour and often referred to clothing. The Motley was therefore the court jester due to his multi-coloured costume.
The meaning of the word then developed to mean ‘mixed bag’ or ‘various things’ so the phrase ‘motley crew’ began to be used to mean ‘a roughly-organized assembly of characters’. The first use is found in 1748 in George Anson’s Voyage Round the World:
With this motley crew (all of them except the European Spaniards extremely averse to the voyage) Pizarro set sail from Monte Video.
By the nineteenth century, ‘motley crew’ was an well-used cliché. It refers to a mixed group of unlikely heroes coming together to overcome adversity. It most often referred to pirates and is now a common archetype for sports and science fiction stories.