Some films gain just as much attention from the stories surrounding their production as they do because of their content. Within this spectrum, most film buffs will agree that beyond their narrative content, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, Lynch’s Dune, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Proyas’s The Crow have garnered significant recognition as a result of the difficulties and tragedies surrounding their production. However, the tales of hardship, acts of God, and logistical nightmares surrounding the production of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has earned it recognition, by many critics, as the most cursed film ever.
In April, the finished film crept into the daylight with a very limited theatrical release, and the DVD and Blu-ray releases made their way onto shelves just a couple weeks ago. Regrettably, this writer didn’t have an opportunity to pop into the local arthouse theater, so my experience of Gilliam’s film was via Screen Media’s Blu-ray release. As for the film, it is a challenging affair, but more on that in a minute, as the background of the production is a story well-worth knowing.
In a nutshell, Gilliam began pre-production on the project 30 years ago, and, since then, its life has been riddled with difficulties. The most notable chronicle of the film’s troubled life was documented in the film Lost in La Mancha (2002), which showcases the doomed 2000 production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp. The production was crippled by physical ailments, military training exercises, and flash floods. As the years went on, various other incarnations were slated, with other notable talent attached, variously including: John Hurt, Robert Duvall, Michael Palin, Ewan McGregor, and Jack O’Connell.
Following the completion of the film, legal disputes over the film’s ownership took place in France and England, as one of the film’s previous producers, Paulo Branco, claimed that Gilliam had no right to his own film because of a contract violation. Branco attempted to halt the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but he failed. After the film’s screening at Cannes, it received a 15-minute standing ovation [a distinguished record]. Later this year, another documentary about the film’s epic journey is slated for release; it is called He Dreams of Giants.
Now, about the film… For his take on Miguel de Cervantes’s classic novel, Don Quixote, Gilliam took the meta approach of adapting the source material into a story about the source material, itself. This is a fairly tricky maneuver as the storytelling becomes inherently intellectual in the process; thus, it is likely to isolate many viewers who do not enjoy working out puzzles while they munch on popcorn. Notable entries into this style of filmmaking include Tristram Shandy, Shadow of the Vampire, New Nightmare, and Ed Wood.
The narrative centers on a fimmaker named Toby (Adam Driver) and his relationship with Javier (Jonathan Pryce), the man he cast as Don Quixote in an early film project. Evidently, Toby’s directing style induced a mental breakdown in his lead, who then believes that he is Don Quixote. The film is full of surprises, and there is no shortage of surreal scenarios. It is, at times, hysterical, touching, and tragic. Jonathan Pryce (whom Gilliam fans will recognize as having played Sam Lowry in the masterful Brazil) is brilliant as Javier, the timid shoemaker-cum-delusional hero, and Adam Driver is terrific as the snide, obnoxious, and occasionally wistful filmmaker. Other notable performances include Joana Ribeiro as Angelica, another tragically fated member of Toby’s Don Quixote cast, and Jordi Mollà as Alexei, a Russian crime boss.
Unfortunately, the pleasing spectacle of Gilliam’s visuals (coupled with the gorgeous natural and historical locations) and the charming performances of all the players are convoluted by a surplus of whistles and bells. It seems that in an effort to create a convincing displacement for Toby (and the audience) — to the extent that we embrace Javier’s Don Quixote persona for the passionate and endearing fool that it is — every gimmick in the book was poured into the script. This includes: head injuries, dream sequences, hallucinations due to starvation, and a lavish role-playing scenario in the palace of a villainous aristocrat. Throughout most of it, Toby comments on the proceedings with a tiring string of f-bombs.
The film is a spectacle on many levels, and Screen Media’s Blu-ray presentation includes a fine presentation of the 2.40:1 Anamorphic picture as well as a solid 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo audio mix. The supplements include five brief featurettes on the production, which provide some glimpses behind the scenes of this production and a nod to Gilliam’s own Don Quixote-esque persona. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote isn’t perfect, but it is definitely a quizzical enterprise that is steeped in a primal creative impulse. And while Gilliam doesn’t deliver a universally accessible film, he does tap into the magic of Cervantes’s lovable, delusional knight-errant, and, indeed, brings him to life in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.