The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Gilliam and the Art of the Reveal Part III

Conclusion of this series examining Gilliam's reveal shots in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

This is the third (and final) part of a series examining the “reveal” shots in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”.

Previous installments of this series are available here and here.

For this installment, I’d like to start by reviewing a series of shots ending in a reveal. The Baron and his companions are in the belly of a sea monster, and they are approaching a group of people who were already there. It starts with a POV shot from our protagonists, but probably specifically from Sally’s point of view. We can distantly see the members at the table, but can’t specifically make any of them out.


The shot is reversed, and we can see our protagonists between two unfamiliar-looking people.


We move in a little closer to watch Sally, Albrecht, Berthold, and The Baron try to see the occupants of the card game.


… but the card game is still too far away to make out anything.


Closer to Sally, so we can really get into her head.


Gilliam finally gives us a full view of the table so that we can see all of the five clearly visible card players.


Next up, we get a closeup of the two semi-familiar characters (Gustavus and Adolphus) – The Baron has finally found the last of his lost companions. But that’s not the actual reveal; not yet.


The Baron and company approach the table…


… and join the group of misfits (and lost friends) already seated there. Gilliam has set the stage for a reunion between the characters, and that sets our expectations for the following shots much lower.


Sally is trying to convince The Baron to go back to trying to save the town, but he is despondent, insisting that the town is in no immediate danger. We then see a few quick cuts of the Turks attacking the town, to downplay The Baron’s tenuous grasp on the gravity of the situation.


We’re then treated to a very odd closeup shot of a strange set of hands dealing cards…


The conversation continues, and Sally circles The Baron, trying to convince him to continue on as he picks up the cards and examines his hand.


The next thing we see is the payoff of all of this build up – we now know that Gilliam has been dancing around the table position occupied by the embodiment of Death by carefully avoiding allowing us to see him sitting there. All of the characters, including Sally, should be able to see him, but no one seems alarmed or aware of this at all yet. This reverse shot is for us, the audience.


Sally realizes something is wrong …


… then does a violent double-take.


We can now see exactly where Death is, in relation to everyone else – and he’s been hiding in plain sight this entire time.


The next reveal shot that I’d like to examine is probably the most well known. This shot has been somewhat duplicated, allegedly as homage, in Raimi’s Army of Darkness, during the scene where Ash is about to be thrown into the monster pit.

We start with a low-angle medium shot of the large golden hand which is meant to catch The Baron’s head.


We naturally expect a cut to The Baron, the executioner, the Sultan, or maybe others – but instead we start dollying back to reveal The Baron, standing in the precarious position above the execution platform.


Pull back, and the scribe and executioner move in to fill the negative space on either side of The Baron, as the lower level of the camera becomes less severe in relation to the position of The Baron, and he moves into the dead center of the frame.


Further back. We don’t know what’s in front of the platform, and at least for the moment, it seems as though there are a few sparse soldiers.


But wait – as we move back, they move back into the center, occupying the space where the camera was. In the epistemological system that is the film, outer or inner story, these characters are unaware of a camera or moving observer. Their movement is strictly a function of allowing us to view their numbers.


Further back. The Baron is still dead center frame.


Even further back – the scale has reduced The Baron to a mere pinpoint in the center of the frame, and now we’re seeing flags and banners begin to occupy the space allowing us to see him. The soldiers and troops we’re seeing now can’t actually see the execution, but are here specifically to represent the massive scale of the shot, or maybe were ordered by the power of the Sultan?


We now really can’t see The Baron, or the platform, or anything else that is the subject of this shot, but we continue to move backwards. The scale increases, letting us subconsciously understand that this is a massively important moment simply by the virtue of the number of people standing at attention.


We’re at the end of the shot, with two cannons facing each other – a subtle call-back to the first interaction in this layer of the film which The Baron had with the Turks (grabbing on to a mortar shell as it flew over their encampments and a cannonball on the way back).


The scale completely sells this shot. We need to see the massive number of extras, props, and scenery so that we can feel that there is an entire army waiting patiently for the death of this symbol – The Baron.

The last sequence I’d like to examine, as part of this series, is the sequence where The Baron leads the “outer film/story” versions of the characters – the actors in the theater, Sally, and the townspeople who have been ostensibly watching him tell these stories on stage – to emphatically “open the gates!”

Skip forward to the confrontation between the city troops, led by The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, and the townspeople, led by The Baron. A wide high-angle shot on The Baron, implying disadvantage at the same time it exposes scale …


… is followed by a closer reverse shot on Jackson, surrounded by his troops. It’s not a direct reverse shot, however. Gilliam has it positioned as though we are standing directly between the two men, at a lower angle – perhaps that of a child? These are, after all, the metaphoric ranks of imagination (The Baron) against reality (Jackson).


The Baron plows through the rank and file of reality’s troops like a ship through water.


Jackson screams at the forces of imagination as they effortlessly glide past him.


We’re back to The Baron, who is still moving forward, even as Jackson is stuck in place.


Back to the previous shot of Jackson, who removes his glasses, incredulously.


We pull back to reveal that Jackson is, more or less, alone and the subject of mockery. A child kicks him in the shin to put the proverbial icing on his humiliation.


Another high shot, to give us the scale of the tide of townspeople surging toward the city gate.


The logical reverse shot, but with the gate standing between us and the crowd. Gilliam could have shown us more, but purposefully does not allow us to see what’s going on outside of the gates. There’s still some suspense to be had.


We cut in closer on the motion of the gate to the Baron’s face. There isn’t a definitive reaction on his face; everyone just looks outwards in bewilderment.


We dolly to the right and pan to the left, to stretch out the palpable tension. Everyone looks out in wonderment, but we are denied a view of the outside of the town.


Cut to the smoking remains of the battle we just saw in a inner layer of the film. The implication is that the story we were just told wasn’t just a story – Sally literally says this in a few moments – but that means that The Baron may have been telling the truth. In the epistemological system of the outer film/story, this presents a few problems, including that Sally couldn’t have conceivably gone on the journey that The Baron describes, as she was in the theater the whole time. The Baron, as imagination, resembles reality, but does not accurately portray it at all times. Our narrator is a liar, but not entirely.


I only include the last shot as part of the sequence is necessary for us to internalize what we’re seeing. The townspeople are theoretically objective in the outer layer of the story/film, and seeing them react to this helps us confirm internally that what we’re seeing is real in relation to the reality of the outer layer.


The denouement of the film is the triumph and realization of fantasy / imagination, through The Baron and his companions, over the forces of reality, through The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson and the endless and pointless “logical” war. It hasn’t just been a battle for the city, but specifically for the youth and innocence represented by Sally. The Baron, when tempted to give his always-present rose (from the Hammerspace in his coat), gives it to Sally after she realizes that this wasn’t just a story.

It’s interesting to note that we never see any other “inner film/story” versions of Adolphus, Gustavus, Albrecht, or Berthold. In the outer layer, we only see them as the actors playing those characters – yet the ending would not be possible without the story in the way that The Baron told it, including his supernatural companions. All of these things have to be hand-waved away by the notion that you have to have imagination (and believe in it) to understand the world of The Baron.

(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Columbia/Tristar, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)