on 3 March 2017
Lost is a decent theme and condition in “Don Quixote”. The protagonist is dotty, barmy, confused, disoriented. It’s a wonder he’s able to mount his horse properly, facing forward in the saddle instead of steering by the tail and stars. He’s lost in time as well, a mounted knight questing in the wrong century, chivalry no longer alive in his era. But not to worry. His mission is to restore it, to put things right. He quests for redemption and fulfilment. He wanders through deserts as Odysseus sailed through seas to find the Golden Fleece, the elixir that will cure the world of its many ills. Obstacles and dilemmas are problems to be confronted and dealt with, not cowed from and avoided. A rickety old windmill is a giant who shouts, waving his arms. It must be attacked, slayed for the good of the world. So, lance or sabre in hand, he rides forth, charging the enemy.
A sense of the divine and eternal also informs his quest. Giant killing is Don Quixote ridding the world of sin, cleansing it of its impurities. If Eden is the garden, the place of Paradise he longs to dwell in, the desert is a wilderness he must cross in order to reach it. In this inhospitable land he will be tested. Thus his wandering is not aimless at all. Only to the untutored eye does it seem so. Like Sancho Panza, his trusty servant and squire, we have everything to learn from the great don. He is not leading us astray. Indeed, like Moses or Brigham Young, he guides us through the desert to the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land.
Quixote is not the only man on a mission. So is Terry Gilliam, the principal subject of this film. It isn’t one he wanted to be in. It’s a film of the film he wanted to make, a documentary that chronicles failure, just as the great book by Cervantes does with Quixote, each an examination of good intentions gone wrong, of idealism defeated by harsh reality. It makes for painful viewing, which also mirrors in parts the reading experience of “Don Quixote”, a book about illusions and the shattering of them.
Gilliam worked for years on the script and storyboards for the film (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”). He’s an imaginative guy, a lover of fantasy, well known for films such as “The Fisher King” and “The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen”. He’s also the crazed illustrator of the Monty Python shows and films, his mind only working outside the box, apparently, never in it.
Who is the man who wanted to kill Don Quixote and why? We’re not sure, as the film did not get made, and we understand why when watching this excellent documentary of it, detailing as it does what went wrong with the production process. Johnny Depp was slated to be that man, the killer of Quixote (played by the fine French actor Jean Rochefort). He time travels from the 21st century to the 16th to carry out the assassination. He’s greedy and vicious, an ad man from the future, representing Gilliam’s take on the modern world. Quixote’s times were not purer than now, but at least they had no ad men in them, no marketing executives. You can tell Gilliam’s professional artistic life has been plagued by these vipers. He’d like to see Quixote run his lance through the chest of Depp’s character. We’d cheer at such a moment, just as we cheer when the oaken stake is driven through Dracula’s withered heart. We love to hate villains, and love it most when they die, preferably slowly, killed by the hand of our hero, even a shaky hand such as Quixote’s. So I wonder if the title is right. Shouldn’t it be “The Man Whom Don Quixote Killed”? As ogre, troll, dragon, giant or Godzilla, an ad man seems a good replica and target. Throughout most of human history our kind survived without marketing. When we left Africa 85,000 years ago there were no signs on the shores of the Red Sea that said “Better real estate beyond”. We coped and managed. Gilliam is the same. His complications are all part of a greater simplicity he strives for.
What happened? What ruined the making of the film? Two major catastrophes struck.
First, Gilliam lost Quixote (and how does one make a film about Don Quixote without Quixote in it?). Jean Rochefort’s back gave out. He couldn’t ride Rocinante, his horse. In fact, he could barely stand and walk. Two discs in his lower back were herniated, the pain intense. His handlers flew him back to Paris from La Mancha for treatment.
Second, the outdoor set was destroyed by a massive rainstorm. High winds, hail stones, flash floods. Props were swept away, equipment damaged, mud everywhere, and, after the storm passed, the light was all wrong. No sunshine, just grey-black clouds glowering low on the horizon.
The insurers were called in to assess the damage. Acts of God — such as massive rainstorms — were not covered under the policy. Compensation for lost and damaged property would not be forthcoming. At any rate, Rochefort was still in hospital in Paris. How long would he be bedridden? The doctors weren’t sure or weren’t saying.
The crew were restless. The second director (assistant to Gilliam) quit. Fate or the cinematic gods had conspired to wreck the project and crush Gilliam’s dream, the world around him falling apart.
After weeks of waiting in purgatory, no Quixote, finances dwindling, pressure and pessimism mounting. Forced to accept defeat, Gilliam was a broken man headed for the gallows. A perfect storm of bad luck and bad timing, literal and figurative, declared it wasn’t to be, years of planning and dreaming down the drain.
A scene near the end of the film is difficult to look at. Terry Gilliam sits alone in the director’s chair near a tent, nobody around him, his face in his hands, the posture and portrait of a man in despair. The only equivalent image I know of on film is Francis Ford Coppola putting a loaded handgun to his head amid the ruins of his outdoor “Apocalypse Now” sets, nearly everything destroyed by a powerful typhoon. But Coppola didn’t pull the trigger, the sets were rebuilt, the film proceeded and eventually was made (though not as coherently as he and many others had wished). Gilliam was not as fortunate. His film ended with only six days of shooting in the can, a fraction of what was needed to tell the story.
But like Coppola, Gilliam survived, and so did his dream. Rochefort and Depp are long gone from the project now. For a time it seemed as if the great Robert Duvall would replace Rochefort as Don Quixote. I could picture that. But in the game of musical chairs called casting in the film industry, things are forever changing. The Duvall moment came and went. For a time old Python buddy Michael Palin looked set to come onboard as Quixote. But that one didn’t pan out either. Finally, Jonathan Pryce signed on. Excellent actor, always good. Probably better than Palin in the role. And who replaces Depp as the modern ad executive whom Quixote mistakes for Sancho Panza? Adam Driver. Fine choice too.
The project is in pre-production and is expected to be released next year (2018). But…yes, there’s a hitch. Given its history, how could there not be? Filming was due to begin last October but still seems in abeyance due to funding issues again. Nevertheless, ever the optimist, Gilliam told the press this at Cannes last September:
“We should be back here in Cannes next year with the finished film, and then you can ask me why I made such a mess of it or why I made such a wonderful film.”
What an odyssey he has endured, all these years tilting at windmills of his own.
You’ve got to love what you do. If you don’t, you won’t survive. The forces of entropy that tear structures down are too great. You defy them with resilience, with a refusal to say no and die. Great art, a thing of creation, defies destruction. The will to live and express what it means is why people like Gilliam toil on as they do.