Ah, what a gloriously weird and beautiful film!
It’s got some issues, but it was far and away the strangest, most visually stunning film my local Monster Horror Chiller Theater showed when I was a kid. I hated it at the time, but it stuck with me, and for the last ten years or so I’ve been interested in checking it out. I only saw it once, around 1978, at Don Bennett’s house, while my folks were visiting. I was bored, so they shuffled me off and I half-dozed through the film. I was a more stolid, less interesting kid in those days.
Alas, I’d forgotten the title, and it’s such an obscure little odd duck that most people had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually I was able to describe the film using sock puppets and cuneiform-based interpretive dance in such a way that a passing German took pity on me. (Germans: A class act!) He pointed me in the right direction, and here we are.
The film was made in Czechoslovakia back in 1961 under the title “Baron Prasil,” and was quickly dubbed into English and released elsewhere under the “Baron Munchausen” title a year later. It’s an amazingly stylish blend of live action, animation, and stop motion, as well as a ton of old-school special effects. It is a masterwork of Terry Gilliam-styled animation. Of course, I *call* that “Terry Gilliam-Style” but in actual fact I have no doubts whatsoever that Gilliam learned it from here. The movie is a gem.
It’s odder than heck, with the look and feel of a storybook, in the best sense of the word, some sumptuous shot composition of a kind that you never really get outside of cartoons, but, since this film is partially animated, obviously, they’re able to make use of a sort of hyper stylized placement of shots and camera angles, which render some scenes - a dancing girl in a palace, a party on the moon - so stunning that Greg Toland would hang his head in shame.
In short: The first man lands on the moon - a cosmonaut, as this was an eastern bloc country - and finds footprints. He follows them, and finds a glove. He goes a bit further, and finds the Columbiad from From the Earth to the Moon ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbiad#In_fiction ) complete with crew. While contemplating these 19th century types running around without space suits, Cyrano De Bergerac appears, and they all have a party. Cyrano introduces the cosmonaut to “Baron Prasil,” who’s Munchausen in every way excepting his name. I take “Prasil” to be a reference to “Huy Brasil,” the mythical country that Gilliam later referenced in his own “Brazil” in 1985. In fact, this whole film reads pretty much like the Gilliam/Jones post-Python playbook, if I’m honest. The American dub of the film dispenses with the pseudonym entirely.
The Baron takes our cosmonaut back to earth on a ship pulled by geese, encountering several slightly overweight witches on the way. They end up in Constantinople where they have audience with the Sultan, and both of them fall for a beautiful woman. The Sultan won’t let any of them go, so they stage a dramatic escape (Which appears to have a real-life horse on fire) and make their way to a ship. The ship then runs the gauntlet through a battle, disguising themselves with tobacco smoke. The Cosmonaut is lost during this encounter, while the Baron and the Girl get eaten by a sea monster, and it’s at this point that the movie hit’s the “Almost” territory that I foreshadowed above.
The sea monster is dull, and mostly they just hang out on another ship inside with a crew that had been previously eaten. It’s a long sequence during which nothing really happens, and it’s all an elaborate setup for one sight gag which, when it arrives, isn’t really funny. The swashbuckling adventure of the Sultan sequences is immediately followed up by a lot of sitting around doing nothing, and playing music. Then a whaler kills the monster, and they just walk out it’s mouth.
They find the cosmonaut who’s attempting to build a steamship. It explodes. He and the love interest are reunited, and clearly she’s made her choice. Inscrutably, the serpent from the garden of Eden offers her an apple, but she waves him off. Huh? The three of them escape to a castle involved in a war, and the Cosmonaut gets arrested for no good reason. Meanwhile, he tells her about his plan to turn a tower of the castle into a space ship using barrels of gunpowder in a well. These plans come to the attention of the king, who shows them to the Baron.
Meanwhile, a local guy takes a fancy to the love interest, and wants her for himself. The Cosmonaut escapes in a scene that pretty much defines “Not really trying anymore,” and just as he and his lady love are about to get shot, the Baron tosses a candle into a well, which then explodes, and blows them all to the moon.
En rout, the lady turns into a cosmonaut. Cosmonautette? Cosmonautess? Cosmonautrix? Whatever. Cyrano shows up and makes a profound speech about how the moon has always been the realm of fantasy, but now it belongs to man, and his kind will no longer reside there. But as long as there is a frontier, there will be room for fantasies that take place beyond it. He takes off his hat and throws it poignantly to the stars.
Basically the first act of this film is one of immeasurable and stunning originality and beauty. It kind of runs out of steam after they get out of Istanbul, and never really recovers. It’s still pretty much required viewing in my book.
There’s a scene where the Baron lulls the king to sleep with bawdy stories, and we see a brief sequence of a guy looking through a keyhole and drawing a naked woman on the wall. This is deleted from the English version. It’s the only substantial change between the two.
In concept, it’s similar to a Ray Bradbury story where they find fictional characters living on Mars, since Fantasy is illegal on earth in the oppressive future. They’ve hidden out there in hopes of the days when Man dares to dream again. I really like the obvious statement that our stories precede us, and that we follow where our daydreams lead.
The characters on the moon might seem rather odd and random, but in fact they represent a progression: Cyrano famously got to the moon using a bottle filled with dew. Munchausen visited the moon king somewhat later. The Columbiad Crew was a more realistic, but still pretty fantastic visit. So we’re looking at the transition from all-out dreams to more reasonable dreams to cold hard reality when the Cosmonaut gets there. The Baron shows the Cosmonaut the world of dreams that ultimately led humanity to the moon, and it’s obvious that humanity intends to stay. The ending shot of the Cosmonaut and his bride looking up implies that now that the preliminaries are out of the way, humanity will have even grander fantasies which will lead to a glorious and unimaginable-at-present future.
And if that ain't a happy ending, then I don't know what is.
Alas, the film has become an unintentional cautionary tale. We stopped dreaming, our first steps on the moon became our last, the even grander fantasies that might have arisen from it stillborn, our future lost.
And if that ain't a tragedy, then I don't know what is.