Hollywood legend has it that Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) was the longest running – and most expensive – shoot in screen history. More than 400 days were spent on set, as costs (and Liz Taylor’s paypacket) continued to skyrocket. Yet if we measure the sheer amount time spent on any film, from first conception to theatrical release, Cleopatra doesn’t come close to Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which dragged on for more than 30 years.
The full, tortuous process has been detailed in numerous articles, and was the subject of a 2002 documentary called Lost in La Mancha. During the various stop-start attempts to make the movie, actors such as Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, John Hurt, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor and Michael Palin have come and gone. Gilliam was 48 when he began the project and is 78 today.
With anything that has been so long in the making one doesn’t know whether to expect perfection or disaster. Besides, Don Quixote has seen off better men than Gilliam. Orson Welles had been working on a version from 1957 until he died in 1985. The task was completed in 1992 by Eurotrash director, Jesus Franco, whose work is so reliably crummy he has attained cult status.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not a disaster but it’s a disappointingly scrappy production that suggests Gilliam and his colleagues have lost the ability see the material clearly. The narrative is all over the place, the script is worse than ordinary, the sexual politics are dreadful, and it’s far too long. On the plus side it’s beautifully shot, and Jonathan Pryce as Quixote, is his reliably brilliant self.
The mixture of narrative garble and great visuals is characteristic of Gilliam, whose films always seem to have something missing. There’s a streak of misanthropy or dystopianism that runs through his oeuvre, as if he sees human beings as essentially a blight on the planet. In ‘Don Quixote this is offset by moments of sentimentality, which don’t come naturally.
The protagonist of the story is one Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver) a once-promising director who has chosen the path of easy money by making commercials. Toby is in Spain, shooting a Don Quixote-themed ad for vodka, playing the part of the pampered creative genius being attended to by sycophants. He bullshits the Boss, (Stellan Skarsgård), a caricature businessman who cares only about money. He is prepared to succumb to the attentions of the Boss’s sex-mad wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), but circumstances get in the way.
The device that gets the story moving is a pirate DVD sold by a gypsy, that turns out to be Toby’s graduation project from film school. He casts his mind back to that movie, which was shot in a nearby village, Los Sueños (ie. “Dreams”). When Toby pays a visit to the scene of his early exploits he finds that his student exercise had a gigantic impact on everyone’s lives. The old cobbler, Javier (Jonathan Pryce), whom he got to play Don Quixote, has stayed in character and now imagines he isthe famous knight errant. Toby had told Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the 15-year-old daughter of the inn-keeper, that she had star potential. Accordingly she left home to pursue an acting career, and ended up an escort.
When Toby goes to visit Javier, the old lunatic believes him to be Sancho Panza. From this point things spiral out of control, as the lines between past and present, reality and fantasy are criss-crossed in the most confusing fashion. In the hands of another director there would be considerable scope for comedy, but Gilliam has such a brutal touch he leaves us disturbed rather than amused.
Adam Driver has played some memorable roles in recent years, but Toby will not be included in his greatest hits. He’s a self-centred jerk that spends most of the movie not giving a damn about anyone else. When he develops a sympathetic side towards the end, it’s hardly convincing. In times of stress Toby’s lines devolve into streams of expletives – loudly pronounced, or delivered with shotgun repetition. Maybe people do talk like this, but it’s lazy, uninspired writing.
The female roles are even worse. Kurylenko’s Jacqui is such a B-grade nymphomaniac I began to wonder whether Jesus Franco had a hand in this Don Quixote as well. As for Angelica – the innocent, small-town girl who meets her downfall in the big city – she has hooked up with a sadistic Russian billionaire who takes pleasure in humiliating her in public. This makes her a rather debased version of the ‘damsel in distress’ that brings out the knight errant in blasé Toby. It’s rare, in the #MeToo era, that one sees female actors so blatantly patronised.
In a remarkable essay Pierre Ryckmans once analysed how a book such as Don Quixote, written as a pot-boiler, could go on to become one of the great classics of world literature. In Quixote, Cervantes isolated an aspect of human nature that we all hold in common to a larger or smaller degree. He shows us a character who is foolish and deluded, but also noble to the core. In reading of his adventures we begin to feel the world itself is madder than this self-proclaimed champion of chivalry.
Jonathan Pryce captures this side of Quixote in his spirited performance. He is the only person in this movie for whom one may feel the slightest sympathy. For Terry Gilliam it’s enough that we renounce the world and all its rottenness, but Don Quixote aimed to reconfigure the world: to make it a better place for everyone. Somewhere Quixote’s brand of heroism got lost, and we’re left with the epic stubbornness of a director who didn’t know how to quit, or how to succeed.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni,
Starring Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro, Jordí Molla, Stellen Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Óscar Jaenada, Jason Watkins, Hovik Keuchkerian
Spain/UK/France/Belgium/Portugal, rated M, 133 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 May, 2019