Note: contains potential spoilers
Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally making it to cinema screens across the world, concluding a story that seemed destined to remain unfinished. A tale littered with the sort of chaos and uncertainty that has become synonymous with Gilliam. The drama that has followed the project for the last quarter of a century is arguably more exciting that the film itself, but what now exists is a fascinating testament to the complexity of the creative process, and the singular determination of one of the great cinematic visionaries of the last fifty years.
First development took place in 1989 but it’s the aborted 2000 production that most of us know – itself documented in the film Lost In La Mancha. Shooting fell apart after mere days when sets were washed away in unexpected floods, and star John Rochefort injured himself. The 2002 documentary whetted the appetite of filmgoers with its star attractions – including Johnny Depp – and the snippet of completed footage looking as glorious as anything Gilliam ever produced.
Legal wranglings, insurance claims, and an ever-changing roster of cast names (including Ewan McGregor, Jack O’Connell, Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Michael Palin) kept the project in mind. Gilliam refused to give up, as production came dangerously close to happening more than once. A particularly horrendous situation with an unscrupulous egomaniacal producer threatened to kill the project entirely, and many others would have cracked under the pressure. Even as the film left the edit suite, en route to the cinemas, the release was almost halted.
Quixote defeated Orson Welles. Welles filmed his version between 1955 and 1972 and was still editing it when he died in 1985. The footage was cut and released by exploitation master Jess Franco in 1992, but a Welles version remains unseen – the footage caught up in various archives and legal wranglings.
It’s a point made in Lost in La Mancha, but one can’t help comparing the two directors. Both visionaries, with distinctive, challenging and brilliant films to their credit – but blighted by studio interference, compromised, and revisioned. Whether Quixote is an unfilmable project is to miss the point of the comparison – Gilliam creates unique work that rewards rewatching.
It’s been a long journey to the general release that finally awaits the film at the end of January 2020. Filmed in 2017, the first screenings hit festivals in 2018 and the film has already been available on Blu-ray in some territories since last year. Terry has expressed his frustration talking about the film, as he’s been doing the press junkets for it for years.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a contemporary set fantasy. A postulation on dreams and memory. A meta-text that reveals the essence of falsity that drives cinema, while prompting the audience to embrace the fantasy. A surrealist scenario. Fellini-esque. No. Gilliam-esque.
Adam Driver plays Toby, the advertising director/Sancho Panza who encounters Jonathan Pryce’s Quixote – a man who once cast to play the part in a student film by the advertising man, now embraces the part as his reality.
The film flits between Toby’s student film, his memories of making it, his contemporary escapades, and Quixote’s fantasy interpretation of the world around him. As viewer we are Toby at times, sometimes Quixote. But whose reality is the most real? Quixote’s dreams and delusions are infectious, and even once the layers of deception are revealed, once the set dressing is interpreted, we still want to be with Quixote.
This is a film with an unreliable narrator. Layer upon layer of deception and obfuscation. Appropriate commentary for the fabrication of the cinematic world – and the production of the film itself, false starts and promises, dressing and masks and a lot of pretending.
Toby isn’t just entering the world of Quixote, he is also revisiting his own film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” – he is reaching back into his memories of a film once made, he is returning to the spaces and the people, now changed and yet the same. Toby is Gilliam, delving into a cinematic past, an archive of half-finished ideas and images, reworking and expanding them. Our collective memory of La Mancha is evoked and altered, rebooted.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote previews across the UK on 23rd January 2020, and goes on general release on 31 January.
– Robert JE Simpson