Witness Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a movie out of Don Quixote. The symbolism practically writes itself.
Dir. Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, 2002, 93 min
Making a movie out of Don Quixote seems to be positively tempting fate. But if anyone’s going to shoot for the gold in the face of utter disaster, it’s Terry Gilliam. One of the most delightfully loopy filmmakers in the world, Gilliam, one of the members of Monty Python, is the director of such films as Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He’s gained a reputation as a man who will go drastically over budget in the service of his fantastical visions, often to the result of amazing visual feasts that fail to recoup their budgets. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was the movie that finally “beat” Gilliam, the project he couldn’t finish. This documentary chronicles that sad, abortive journey.
Gilliam and Don Quixote are of a kind, which is why the director had been trying to make a film of Cervantes’s celebrated novel for over a decade before finally getting into production. Both men are dreamers and romantics, obsessed with the visions in their head, and trying to live them out. The difference is that while Don Quixote is a tragicomic figure, held up to mockery for his inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, Gilliam is capable of bringing what’s in his mind to reality, thanks to the magic of cinema. From what we see of the storyboards, production art, props, and footage shot of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it would have been something truly dazzling and unique to behold.
Because of Gilliam’s infamy, no American financiers were willing to take risks on him anymore, so he sought the help of European producers. The high budget meant that there was no room for error on the film shoot. There’s just one problem with that: there are always errors on the film shoot. We watch as the problems begin on the very first day of filming, when Gilliam and his crew discover that fighter jets are constantly blasting over the badlands, ruining any on-set sound. That’s just a hiccup compared to day two, when a flash flood ruins equipment and makes the location look completely different. And then the star of the film got a herniated disc. And so on and so forth.
A superstitious person might say that this movie is cursed, or that Gilliam is simply “not meant to do it.” Watching the movie start to come together, and then irrevocably fall apart, is profoundly disheartening. Gilliam’s sense of imagination radiates from the screen, and seeing his ideas beginning to translate from paper to reality instills an exciting sense of possibility. But possibility is all that’s left now of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Creation is exciting, a defiance the law of entropy. This is a story about the triumph of entropy, and on that level it’s not just emotionally but existentially downbeat.
After the string of disasters forced the production to a halt, the rights to the film were held by the insurance company. In 2008, those rights reverted to Gilliam, and since then he’s been trying to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote back off the ground. He was able to cast Robert Duvall and Ewan MacGregor in the film, and set a release date… of 2011. Perhaps, someday, Gilliam will finally complete his ambition, and Lost in La Mancha will have a happy postscript. But until then, Gilliam is still, well, lost in La Mancha, so to speak.