Friday, January 8, 2010

Orson Welles' Don Quixote: A Review


Don Quixote was the dream project for Orson Welles, and one could see similarities between the mad would-be knight and the journeyman filmmaker. Working on his own film version on and off for fourteen years, Welles scraped what funds he could whenever he could to continue his own version of battling with windmills. He would never finish Don Quixote, nor would it be finished in the lifetime of Francisco Regueira, who played the title character. 

With the aid of assistant director Jesse Franco and Welles' longtime companion Oja Kodar, Don Quixote now has something of a shape, but it's a disformed one. The footage itself shows Welles was still an extraordinary craftsman. The film shows he was unlucky and undisciplined in planning, with the end result a dull, convoluted effort. One can cut Welles some slack given the chaotic production, but it doesn't make Don Quixote any more bearable to view.

Don Quixote makes little to no sense plot-wise. Parts of the film appear to be a straightforward narrative of the Cervantes novel. 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.

Somewhere along the line though the film shifts hodgepodge like from Don Quixote and Sancho Panza  not in 16th Century Spain but 20th Century Spain. There, primarily Sancho Panza is shocked by what he sees: television, a parade, a running of the bulls, and a film crew, one where Orson Welles is both director and star of a film project about Don Quixote.

As Welles died long before the various pieces could come together, what we have is a confusing production 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. Welles also was hampered by by shoddy financing. One gets the impression he was forced to create two films and then try to mash them into one. The end results are a bit bonkers but endlessly fascinating. 

Viewers frankly don't know what's going on. If Don Quixote and Sancho Panza 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, one moment with Quixote and Panza clearly not understanding the world they are in during some scenes, other times with Panza recognizing people in the present world as his relatives. 

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 production chaos comes 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. 

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 have much narration in an attempt to disguise the fact the film was made with no real soundtrack. 

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 seemingly tailor-made for the description of the character. Some of the footage shot is absolutely marvelous to behold, the fight with the windmill especially so. Daniel J. White's score is also excellent and helps make many of the silent scenes visually splendid.

Don Quixote and Don Quixote both capture the career and vision of Orson Welles himself. They are both dreamers, seers of visions but trapped by fortune and reality, forever charging at windmills and getting knocked off their horse. 

It is a terrible loss for cinema that neither of Welles' ideas for Don Quixote either as a straight retelling or shifting the characters to the modern world, ever came to be finished. 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, 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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