The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam, one of the four surviving members of the Monty Python troupe, has a new movie out: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The film might well be titled: The Movie That Nearly Killed Terry Gilliam.

Gilliam began work on the film in 1989, the year he first read Cervantes’ classic. Without financial backing, Gilliam’s project didn’t go into production until 1998. What happened between then and now? (Don Quixote was officially released in the UK on January 31, 2020.)

On the first day of shooting in Spain in September 2000, a flight of NATO F-16 fighters repeatedly overflew the set making the sound recorded unusable. On the second day, a flash flood destroyed much of the film unit’s equipment. On day five, the French actor cast as Don Quixote – a knight on horseback remember – was rushed back to Paris with acute prostate pain and a double herniated disc. Production was cancelled.

Between 2000 and 2017, when filming re-started, Gilliam went through development hell. The industry-insider site IndieWire named Gilliam’s Don Quixote “one of the most troubled productions in the history of cinema.” Backers stepped in, backers dropped out. Lawsuits and counter-suits entailed. A revolving door of actors joined and left the cast: Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Michael Palin and John Hurt. As a final insult, Paulo Branco, a prior producer on the project, tried – unsuccessfully – to stop the film from premiering at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The film screened, closing out that year’s festival to a standing ovation.

Did 22 years of creative hell pay off? Moviegoers hoping for a faithful re-telling of Miguel de Cervantes’ original – first published in English in 1612, the year Shakespeare’s Tempest was staged – should check their hopes at the door. In Gilliam’s tangled plot, Toby, a film director played with screen-stealing panache by Adam Driver (Marriage Story), is in present-day Spain shooting a commercial for a multi-national insurance company. The commercial’s featured players – art imitates life imitates art – are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Off set, Tony hunts down a local cobbler, Javier, whom Toby cast in an earlier, student-film version of his story. Turns out that the local (sweetly played with all the cobwebbed lunacy one would expect from an elderly Spanish shoemaker gone off the rails by Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes, Brazil) now believes himself to be Don Quixote. Brilliant work here too from Joana Ribeiro as Angelica, the object of desire to both Toby and the Don.

Still in the picture? In Gilliam’s telling, it gets crazier. Gilliam’s other free-wheeling films include Baron Munchausen, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Life of Brian. If you’ve stuck with Gilliam’s Don Quixote this far and are a staunch Gilliam fan, you’ll have no trouble chasing him the rest of the way down his crazy rabbit-hole. If you prefer your Cervantes straight up, go back to the book. There’s an excellent English translation by Edith Grossman available from HarperCollins. Gilliam and Cervantes’ hero, the windmill-jousting Man of La Mancha, is lodged forever in our dreams. However we may imagine him, he will live forever.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is currently playing at Uckfield’s Picture House but will be coming to a screen nearer to Rye soon.

Image Credits: Fathom Events .


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