Friday, January 8, 2010

Orson Welles' Don Quixote: A Review


No Señor, Don Quixote y Sancho Panza No Estan Aquí...

Does anyone else remember that song about Don Quixote y Sancho Panza? It was Magazine 60, a forgotten pop group, that sang Don Quichotte, and it's insanely catchy and I like the song very, very much. Well, I digress.

Don Quixote was the dream project for Orson Welles, who wouldn't give up on it in spite of near total lack of funds. He worked on it on and off for fourteen years, scraping what moneys he could whenever he could. It would never be finished during his lifetime, nor in the lifetime of Francisco Regueira, who played the title character. Now, with the aid of assistant director Jesse Franco and Oja Kodar, Welles' companion in his final years, Don Quixote has been released on DVD. The footage itself shows Welles was still an extraordinary craftsman...the film shows he was unlucky and undisciplined in planning.

Like many of Welles' other films (The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil) Don Quixote makes little to no sense plot-wise. Unlike the other two, this film did not have the active participation from Welles himself in an effort to bring his own vision to the final product. The end result is a confusing hodgepodge where everything seems jumbled with the hope of putting something together. The sloppiness of Don Quixote I believe is a result of the fact that Welles had no script to begin with, and also because due to his shoddy financing he was forced to create TWO films and try to collide them into one, with the results being a bit bonkers but endlessly fascinating. It is difficult to give a simple synopsis because it really is confusing to begin with.

Parts of the film appear to be a straightforward narrative of the Cervantes original, a story almost universally known but not widely read. A man becomes so enthralled with tales of knights and their ladies fair that he goes mad. Believing himself to be a great knight errant, the newly-christened Don Quixote De La Mancha (Reguira) goes to pursue his dreams of glory, aided by his "squire", a fat man named Sancho Panza (Akim Tamiroff). Quixote fights windmills thinking they are giants, slaughters herds of sheep thinking they are great armies, and attacks religious processions believing the penitents are being enslaved by cruel masters.

HOWEVER, somewhere along the film Don Quixote and Sancho Panza end up not in 16th Century Spain, but in its 20th Century. There, primarily Sancho Panza is shocked by what he sees: television, a parade, a running of the bulls, and a film that has Orson Welles as director and star of a film project about Don Quixote.

Therein lies the problem with Don Quixote as presented to us. We frankly don't know what's going on. If they both came from the past, how did they get to the present? If they are from the present, how do they not understand present-day inventions? The audience is lead BOTH ways: Quixote and Panza clearly do not understand the world they are in during some scenes, but in others Panza recognizes people in the present world as his relatives. In short, THE FILM MAKES NO SENSE.

Another problem is in the technical realm. It's obvious that the footage is a mix from various sources. The quality of the prints shifts, sometimes in the same scene. Scenes involving Welles look like a cross between outtakes and vacation movie footage. The worst moment of the chaos of the production not gelling with the post-production come when Quixote charges a religious parade. It's obvious that Quixote is charging them in DAYLIGHT, but it's equally obvious that the parade is taking place in NIGHTTIME. The final straw to this disastrous scene is when Quixote finally fights the participants. The nighttime crowds we've seen are massive, but the ones he fights don't total more than eight.

In a similar vein, it soon becomes clear that there is voice dubbing all throughout Don Quixote. The words heard on the screen don't seem to come from the lips of the actors on the screen. You also have much narration in an attempt to disguise the fact the film was made with no real soundtrack. As much as the filmmakers try, it just doesn't work. There is no synchronization, and none possible given the circumstances.

All that isn't to take away from what good things there are in the film. Francisco Regueira is a perfect Don Quixote: his gaunt face and lean frame fit the description of the character. Some of the footage shot is absolutely marvelous to behold: the fight with the windmill especially so. Curiously, one of the best scenes to Don Quixote is not in the DVD. A scene where Don Quixote & Sancho Panza end up in a movie theater, where Quixote proceeds to destroy the screen to defeat the charging knights in the film, is in the legal ownership of someone else, and he declined to allow its inclusion in the attempted restoration. The scene is well-made, even if there is no sound to it (Welles never got around to adding an actual voice soundtrack, nor did he have the finances to do so). The music, composed by Daniel J. White, is excellent and helps make many of the silent scenes visually splendid.

In the final analysis, Don Quixote and Don Quixote are both ideal ways of describing the career and vision of Orson Welles himself. The film (and its incompletion) as well as the character himself are a brilliant analogy to the director: a dreamer, a seer of visions, a journeyman who in the end was trapped by fate/fortune and reality, forever charging at windmills and getting knocked off his horse, forever seeing things that were not there, always trying to bring his idealism to fruition and always being frustrated in his efforts to do so but never giving up. His career, and this film, are a collection of Delusions, Illusions, and Folly--just like it was said in the film.

It is a terrible loss for cinema that neither of Welles' ideas for Don Quixote: either a straight film of the story or of putting the characters in the modern world, ever came to be finished. Either, or both, film versions could have been brilliant. However, a mix of Welles' bad luck and bad planning doomed to project. I will never understand what possessed him to make a film without an actual script, nor will I understand how everyone else involved in the project could have returned to it over and over and once more to it whenever Welles was ready and able to get back to it. Maybe it was love, maybe it was madness, maybe it was hope, maybe it was that Welles' enthusiasm for Don Quixote infected everyone else around him, or maybe it was a mixture.

A documentary about the failed, perhaps doomed Don Quixote project would have been good, with some effort at restoration.  Ultimately, I think the final product, though given the best effort possible, will leave few satisfied. If you are the type to love watching incomplete projects and don't mind taking an hour or two to see some brilliant footage, Don Quixote is worth your time. However, if you want to see an actual movie (and one made well as opposed to made by Welles), you might be better to read the book.


  1. "Don Quichotte" by Magazine 60.

    1. Thanks for letting me know. The updated version adds the song and artist.


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