Even the most casual of cinephile has at least heard the tale of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. A long fabled unfinished project that had come to serve as a cautionary tale to aspiring filmmakers everywhere, in large part thanks to Lost in La Mancha (2002). The documentary chronicled the pre-production, disastrous production and complete collapse (four days in) of the first attempt of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote passion project. This version starred Johnny Depp as the two had just worked together on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). The documentary ends with the set literally floating away on location in Spain, original Quixote actor Jean Rouchefort injured so badly he couldn’t ride a horse, and in the end, there were only mere minutes of footage ever captured. It seemed as if Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was as cursed as the source material.
The world moved on. Terry Gilliam made several more films throughout the 21st century, including the beautiful but underrated and/or misunderstood Tideland (2006) and Zero Theorem (2013), but part of the director never truly left the world of Don Quixote. Terry Gilliam was always trying to secure funding to get the cameras rolling again on the film, but every time he seemed to have everything in order, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote proved to be cursed again. After the Depp led original project fell apart in 2000, both Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell were attached to play Toby over the next two decades…Robert Duvall, Michal Palin and Sir John Hurt as Quixote. For various reasons from 2003-2016, each iteration of the film could never quite make it off the ground. It looked as though Terry Gilliam was beginning to become a lot like Don Quixote himself as his critics begin to murmur about his own quixotic like relationship to the project.
Finally, with Adam Driver (Star Wars, Patterson) joining the project as the lead Toby Grisoni (now a cynical Hollywood filmmaker as opposed to Johnny Depp’s original marketing man) the pieces began to fall into place in 2016. For a project that’s pre-production dates back to 1989 and that principal photography began on 17 years prior, after Driver’s casting Johnathan Pryce was announced as the title character and principal photography began on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in March of 2017, it seemed almost too good to be true. No one could believe the film would ever be finished. To everyone’s surprise just a few short months later, principal photography wrapped on a film that had been twenty seven years in the making and would take Terry Gilliam another two years to get to a wide audience: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote had been shot.
So how is it? Was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote worth the wait since 2000 (when most of movie fans began to know of its existence)? I would have to say a resounding yes. This new version Terry Gilliam has made incorporates so many elements from his actual. Gilliam puts his own failures making the film into Quixote itself. Toby (Adam Drive) is a rich cynical Hollywood director who is more than a little bit of an asshole egomaniac. Shooting a commercial on location in Spain within the film, Toby realizes he isn’t far from the location where he once shot his student film as a young film student with dreams of becoming an artist. He found Johnathan Pryce’s character (Don Quixote/shoemaker) in a small village and made a short film called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” within the film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Toby has a breakdown on the set of his commercial due to lack of inspiration (and getting caught having sex with his bosses’ wife) so he flees off into the Spanish desert to check out the village where he shot his student film. Expecting to find everything the way it was and villagers there to greet him, he finds that his film only made these people’s lives worse. Johnathan Pryce’s village shoemaker now actually thinks he’s Don Quixote. A young starry-eyed beautiful village teenage girl leaves home to a life of prostitution after Toby filled her head with stories of “making it” in the business during his initial shoot. “Don Quixote” (Johnathan Pryce) sees Toby and mistakes him for his noble squire, Sancho.
All of this is set up, and the plot isn’t really that important. This is a Terry Gilliam film through and through. There will always be plenty of detractors that claim Gilliam either lost is ‘magic’ somewhere along the way or was never more than style over substance. I prefer to think he’s aesthetic over ideology which I’ll take any day. On that front, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote excels, and is really like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Terry Gilliam is known for weaving fairytales out of thrown out garbage, disposable relics of forgotten people and Don Quixote is the ultimate fool’s fairytale. So who better to tell the story, even if it damn near killed him, than Terry Gilliam; cinema’s Pagliacci himself.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a sweeping majestic fantasy that is really for the true believers. The shots of Don Quixote (Johnathan Pryce) and Toby/Sancho (Adam Driver) riding through the Spanish desert are worth the price of admission alone. But there are so many classic Gilliam trademark moments done well that create beautiful lasting images in your mind: I put the image of Don Quixote (Johnathan Pryce) in full conquistador armor reciting Cervantes inside some carnival looking roadside attraction in front of a beautiful Italian renaissance painting against any shot I be I see all year. And in a celebration, much like the actual Fallas Celebration, Spanish villagers bring objects they don’t need to build a shrine to burn, a way of releasing the past and embracing whatever comes next in life.
In the end Toby (Adam Driver) finds himself falling into the same mind space that many accused Terry Gilliam of doing all those years: that in his “quest” to make his film he had himself turned into Don Quixote. Toby may indeed by the titular man who killed don Quixote, but he finds out the hard way that Quixote is an idea, and ideas never die. They live on, waiting for those foolhardy enough to take up arms and film cameras at giants and windmills for however long it takes, so that the rest of us can sit back at marvel at the story’s splendor.