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The Impossible Film?
on 19 September 2010
I initially approached this film with a great deal of trepidation. I had always loved Man Of La Mancha on stage - not just for its performance, story and great songs - but also for the sheer theatricality of the piece. The device of having Cervantes in prison acting out his great creation of Don Quixote was a marvellous one and the imaginative staging was a neverending joy. There was no way this unique and exciting concept could be recreated on film.
However, the film makes a better attempt than I expected, substituting a gritty reality for the stylized stage vision. Sometimes this works quite well, particularly in the opening scenes. Other times, a bit more dream-like quality would have helped. One good move was to retain the basic design for the huge prison cell, with its long dramatic descending staircase. Visually, the film had promise.
But, of course, Man Of La Mancha is a musical and musicals tend to rise or fall on the strength of their performers. For the central role of Cervantes/Quixote, Peter O'Toole was a great choice - in a dramatic sense. His flamboyant acting style suited both characters and he made the transition back and forth with the ease of a seasoned trouper. But Man Of La Mancha was written for performers with strong singing voices and O'Toole, as he proved in Goodbye Mr Chips, doesn't have one. So instead of stirring renditions of "The Impossible Dream" and other songs, we get dramatic versions that are spoken as much as they are sung. This is not as bad as it sounds and O'Toole pulls it off much better than, say, Richard Harris in Camelot. It is only the knowledge of how the songs could sound that leads to a touch of disappointment. Still, O'Toole does better than some of his co-stars.
The largely British supporting cast of non-singers does well enough. Dependable old Harry Andrews tries gamely, Brian Blessed roars and stomps as he usually does, Ian Richardson is wasted in a part that was much larger on stage, and John Castle is quietly effective as a sarcastic cynic. But James Coco as Sancho Panza is a huge obstacle to credibility. Why he was cast is a mystery - presumably someone wanted an American in the project. But he seems uncomfortable and out of place, and the rapport he should have with O'Toole simply isn't there. Then there is Sophia Loren...
Loren manages to seem, often at the same time, both perfect for her part and totally miscast. At first glance, she looks wonderful as Aldonza, the serving wench with easy virtue. But, on closer inspection, she occasionally appears too glam and at other times (dare I suggest it?) too old. Her acting is fiery and sexy enough. But I always thought Sophia was a better singer than she demonstrates here. However, she looks great in the stills!
All in all, Man Of La Mancha arrives on screen reasonably intact but with a cast better suited to its dramatic elements than its musical ones. Man Of La Mancha is such a great play that it will take more than this to ruin it. Its impact may be diminished, but it is still an interesting and relatively enjoyable experience.