If nothing else, you can’t fault Terry Gilliam for his dogged persistence and tenacity.
The history of cinema is littered with the corpses of those movie projects which fell by the wayside, and were aborted either before or during production. It seems that the road to Development Hell is paved with good intentions, and Terry Gilliam has suffered perhaps as much as anyone in terms of seeing ambitions being thwarted. Look, for example, at his two abandoned attempts to try and adapt Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen for the big screen.
However, his most famous example is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film around 30 years in the making. He got painfully, tantalisingly close in 2000, when cameras finally started to roll in Navarre, Spain. Johnny Depp was the lead, with Jean Rochefort portraying Don Quixote de La Mancha. However, as is the way with these things, fate conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and things began to fall apart before they’d even really started.
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On day one of production, Gilliam found they sat under the flightpath of a NATO target practice area, drowning out all sound recording. Then, on day two, heavy rainfall led to the location being caught in a flash flood, damaging equipment and changing the entire landscape totally, destroying any continuity with what was already shot. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Rochefort sustained a herniated disc, which meant production on the movie stopped entirely.
For anyone who wants to know more about the unmaking of a film, you could do no worse than checking out Lost In La Mancha, a 2002 documentary about the brief life – and death – of Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to bring his project to fruition. At the end of that piece, it appeared that Gilliam’s dream was dead in the water. However, he managed to get it up and running yet again, but certain obstacles – such as protracted legal wranglings – nearly stopped all his travails dead in their tracks once again.
Yet, against all the odds, we finally have a finished product. But was it worth all the wait? Well, that depends upon what you were actually waiting for. Whatever the relative merits (or otherwise) of what Gilliam has ultimately delivered, this isn’t the same movie which he’d originally set out to make. Originally, this was intended as a spin upon A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, with a modern advertising exec thrown back in time, and becoming Sancho Panza to a real Don Quixote.
This is not that movie. Anybody waiting to see that will be sorely disappointed. Instead, Gilliam took the time after the collapse of his original attempt not just to lick his wounds, but to retool the entire story, partly for budgetary reasons, and partly for creative ones. What we get instead is the tale of a jaded director, disillusioned with the trajectory of his life, who finds himself making a Don Quixote-themed ad near to a small village where, as a student, he had filmed a project – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – using locals to play all the roles.
Hoping to find some inspiration and rekindle his passion by taking a trip down Memory Lane – as well as revisiting an unrequited love – he goes back to the village, only to find that things have radically changed, and it all happened in the wake of his previous visit there. Not only did his one-time Dulcinea – and romantic interest – move away, but the village cobbler who’d played Don Quixote went quite mad, believing himself to be Cervantes’ hero, and is now living nearby as a tourist attraction. It results in a series of misadventures, where our lead ends up becoming Quixote’s unwilling squire.
Gilliam is undeniably a true creative talent, somebody for whom the ‘auteur theory’ could have almost been created. As such, he has free reign to deliver what he wants, and seems happy with the end result, after three decades of hard labour. However, it’s a real pity that this isn’t what he started to make, so in many ways The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is still an unfinished piece, as we’ll never get to see just what he’d meant to present to us nearly 20 years ago. It might have been a far more satisfying feature than what we actually get here.
That’s not to suggest The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is by any means a failure, as there are are some very strong performances, notably by Adam Driver as the movie’s lead character, Tony Grisoni, as well as Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote (actually the delusional cobbler, Javier). The pair play well off each other, and Pryce in particular delivers a powerful portrayal of a man who, while seen as a laughing stock and figure of ridicule by others, has a quiet dignity, purity of spirit, and sense of purpose in his code of honour and nobility.
However, the movie as a whole seems less fantastical than most of Gilliam’s previous works, and carries a feeling of bitterness and disillusionment which is borne chiefly out of his own experiences both in the studio system in general, and in his struggles to get this particular movie completed. In that sense, it feels more than a little autobiographical, as Toby is frustrated and confounded by interference in his production, which is beset by one problem after another; the big backer of the project isn’t depicted in an especially flattering light either, so Gilliam’s cynicism shines through all too clearly, and sours the whole film’s flavour.
Also troubling – particularly in light of Gilliam’s remarks about the whole #MeToo movement – is his depiction of the female characters. For Gilliam, they appear to chiefly come in two main flavours: slut and whore. Toby’s chaste romance with a 15 year old Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) may be worrying at face value, but there’s nothing to suggest any licentious or improper behaviour; however, her portrayal in adult life is somewhat more disturbing, culminating in an uncomfortable scene which feels like it goes on too long, where she’s publicly humiliated and degraded.
There are still flashes of Gilliamesque brilliance to be found here, and the whole core of the movie – a two-handed epic mythical quest involving a delusional individual – harkens back to his earlier movie The Fisher King. We should, in a sense, be grateful for any of Gilliam’s projects which reach completion, given his chequered history, and with all the history weighing down on this film, it’s worth seeing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote on those grounds alone, out of sheer (morbid?) curiosity, if nothing else.
So, a flawed masterpiece? To the former, yes; to the latter, sadly not.