Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was in selected theaters Wednesday night. I got my elder son to join me by telling him the Fathom event was a one-night showing. Actually, the film will be available on a streaming service soon, and I was a little embarrassed when it turned out to be a two-hour-and-12-minute adequacy that he did not need to miss homework for. My son liked it, though, or said he did as a kindness to me.

Yes, the film is a little weird, which should come as no surprise, given that it is directed by the American Python, who of course went on to write and direct Holy Grail; write Life of Brian; and direct Time Bandits, Brazil, Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Question is, is it weird enough to satisfy Gilliam fans, or to fulfill the nearly 30-year wait for it to arrive?

Gilliam’s Quixote is a (very) loose adaptation of the Cervantes novel, with a squeeze of metanarrative and some scatterings of modern political issues. It is still a picaresque, which is to say one damn thing after another.

“There’s a plot?” star Adam Driver says incredulously toward the end of the film. (Editing choices often leave him looking like he overacts.)

Driver’s character is the director of a schlock commercial (on a Quixote theme) being shot in Spain. He was once a wunderkind filmmaker, and as a student shot a very different, authentic version of Quixote nearby, casting ordinary people, including an elderly cobbler as Don Quixote, and a teen girl, out of infatuation.

As he gets more disgusted with his commercial shoot, he realizes the village where they lived, Los Sueños (get it?), is nearby. That he did not know this, or that the village is not handled as a descent into dream or madness, is typical of the caught-in-between quality of the film. (An early version of the script was a time-traveler’s tale, which would have solved some of it.)

Driver visits Los Sueños and learns he ruined his actors’ lives by putting them in what he calls his “passion project.” The cobbler believes he is Quixote, and the girl, pursuing an acting career, resorted to sex work.

Mild misadventures that are neither plottish nor particularly symbolic ensue. There is some confusion about Middle Eastern terrorists, illegal immigrants, and a Russian oligarch backing some other film. It is Holy Week, so locals in costumes, and a costume party in a castle that the Russian “bought last week,” bridge some of the gap between reality and delusion.

There is not a whole lot to give away, but I will just say that it turns out Don Quixotism is a sort of virus, and catching.

This applies to Gilliam himself, and perhaps the most interesting part of his film is its backstory.

“If you’re going to do Quixote, you have to become as mad as Quixote,” Gilliam told Rolling Stone in 2014.

Gilliam tried eight times, since 1989, to make the film, including an infamous full-scale production in 2000 that ended after a week. Actors associated with the Gilliam project have included John Hurt, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor, Michael Palin, Jean Rochefort, and Johnny Depp. (At one point, a production company tried to make the picture with a different director and with John Cleese as Quixote and Robin Williams as Sancho.)

Two leading men died, the film was called cursed, and even now it is used as a prime example of “development hell.” One documentary, called Lost in La Mancha, was made about the 2000 failure; another, updating Gilliam’s trials and eventual success is in post-production. Presumably it will include material about Paulo Branco, a Portuguese producer generally cast as the bad guy in Gilliam’s literal trials: Branco sued Gilliam for rights to the final film, at least partially won, and tried to keep it from being shown at all.

The screenplay was rewritten many times before the film was finished in June 2017. Quixote is now played by Jonathan Pryce. Adam Driver becomes a reluctant Sancho as well, and Joana Ribeiro is his reluctant love interest. When Quixote was finally in the can, Gilliam joked on Facebook he had accidentally deleted the film.

“Certain things just possess you,” Gilliam told Deadline in 2013, “and this has been like a demonic possession I have suffered through all these years. The very nature of Quixote is he’s going against reality, trying to say things aren’t what they are but how he interprets them. In a sense, there is an autobiographical aspect to the whole piece.”

Despite a standing ovation at Cannes, reviews are half-hearted and rely on Gilliam’s admirable effort to endure long enough to make the thing—the quixotic near-madness of an artist.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.