For many years, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was a film best known for not having been made.
In the past, we’ve used the Icarus Files as a way to write about filmmakers who flew too close to the sun of their own ambition and who plunged down to the sea as a result. However, in the case of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the sun is not director Terry Gilliam’s ambition. Instead, the sun is a combination of shady financiers, natural disasters, and film industry silliness that seemed to all conspire to keep Gilliam from making his film. And yet, unlike the real Icarus, Gilliam insisted on continuing to fly, regardless of how many times he crashed into the ocean.
Terry Gilliam first started to talk about adapting Migel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote into a film in the late 80s. The tale of a Spanish nobleman who becomes convinced that he’s fighting giants when he’s actually only jousting with windmills, Don Quixote sounded like an obvious project for Gilliam. Gilliam’s films have always dealt with the power and importance of imagination. However, it’s often forgotten that Gilliam’s protagonists are often both saved and eventually destroyed by fantasy. (One need only think about the end of Time Bandits, in which the young main character goes on the journey of a lifetime but then watches as his parents blow up in front of him.) It’s easy to forget that Don Quixote dies at the end of Cervantes’s tale, having regained his sanity and having announced that his niece will be disinherited if she marries a man who has ever read a book about chivalry.
From 1990 to 1997, Gilliam started pre-production on his version of Don Quixote several times, just for the production to be canceled. Sometimes, this was due to Gilliam not being able to get the budget that he felt would be necessary to bring his vision to life. Frustrated with the Hollywood studio system, Gilliam wanted to raise the money for and make his movie in Europe but this turned out to lead to a whole new set of financial and regulatory complications.
Filming finally started on the film in 2000, with Jean Rochefort playing a former film actor who thinks that he’s Don Quixote and Johnny Depp playing the director who fills the role of Sancho Panza. Unfortunately, as shown in the poignant documentary Lost in La Mancha, the production seemed to be almost cursed from the start. The footage from the first day of shooting was unusable, due to planes flying overhead. The 2nd day of shooting was ruined by a flash flood that swept away much of the set. Jean Rochefort injured himself and, despite his best efforts to act through the pain, he had to step away from the role. Filming was suspended in 2000 and, for the next 16 years, Gilliam tried to find a way to get the stalled film started up again. Many actors came and went, including Robert Duvall and, most promisingly, John Hurt. Hurt agreed to play the role of Quixote but, just when it seemed that the film was finally going to go into production, Hurt passed away from pancreatic cancer. A few months later, the original Quixote, Jean Rochefort, also passed away. The film went back into limbo.
Finally, in 2016, a producer named Paulo Branco offered to fund the film. Pre-production started up again, this time with Adam Driver in the Sancho Panza role and Michael Palin playing Quixote. However, the project was soon once again stalled, as Branco wanted creative control of the film. When Branco slashed both the budget of the film and Palin’s already reduced salary, Gilliam denounced Branco’s actions. Branco suspended production but, by this point, Gilliam had already hooked up with another set of producers. Jonathan Pryce replaced Michael Palin as Don Quixote and, finally, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was filmed!
Once filming was complete, however, Paulo Branco popped up yet again. Claiming that he owned the rights to the story and not Terry Gilliam, he sued to keep the film from being distributed. The courts ruled in Branco’s favor but Gilliam countered that he hadn’t used one frame of footage that had been shot while Branco was serving as producer and that, while Branco had the rights to his version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, he did not have the rights to Gilliam’s. While the lawyers argued, Amazon Studios withdrew from an agreement to distribute the film. Once the case was finally settled, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was finally given a haphazard release in a few countries, often in edited form.
And that’s a shame because The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a delight. It’s a film that is both playful and snarky, a celebration of imagination that also serves as a satire of Hollywood narcissism. Adam Driver plays Toby Grummett, a director who returns to a Spanish village to direct an big-budget, epic adaptation of Don Quixote. Ten years earlier, as a student filmmaker, Grummett shot a previous adaptation of Don Quixote in the same village. When he tracks down the old shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce), who starred in his student film, he discovers that the shoemaker thinks that he is Quixote and that he’s become something of a tourist attraction.
And from there, the film follows Don Quixote as he takes Toby on a quest to fight giants and protect the helpless and to live a life of chilvary. Along the way, Toby finds himself getting caught up in Quixote’s elaborate fantasy world. It leads to a lot of comedy but there’s also something rather poignant about the old shoemaker’s attempts to be a hero and Toby rediscovering the love of fantasy and the imagination that he had when he was a film student. And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this film is simply a light-hearted fantasy. The laughs are tinged with melancholy. The enemies that Quixote and Toby meet are not just imaginary giants. This a film that mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that few other films have the courage to do so.
As is typical with Gilliam’s later films, it bites off a bit more than it can chew but it’s still hard not to get caught up in it. Driver and Pryce are both wonderfully cast and the film’s satire of the film business carries a sting to it. Watching the film, it becomes apparent that Gilliam sees himself as being both Quixote and Toby. The film’s ending seems to be Gilliam’s defiant message that he will always choose to fight the giants.
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