Man of La Mancha

Man Of La Mancha. United Artists 1972.

Before watching the movie:

I think this is the way most people have experienced Don Quixote.  I’ve read some of the book, but despite the new translation I was using, the stilted nature of it still sometimes overpowered the comedy, which itself sometimes felt a little too much like “mental illness is funny!” It’s at the same time amazing how modern it feels at over 400 years old and yet how basic the storytelling can be at times, because it’s had 400 years to become part of the way we always tell stories.

But the grandeur of the way Man of La Mancha interprets the book is enticing and accessible. Everyone has heard at least a few bars of “The Impossible Dream”. It’s a classic showtune ballad. The romance is probably more feel-good in this take as well.

After watching the movie:

Arrested by the Inquisition for staging plays critical of the Inquisition, Miguel De Cervantes is left overnight in a dungeon with violent criminals. The inmates, hostile toward his status as a nobleman, dismiss Cervantes’ profession of poetry and stagecraft as deceit that blinds people to reality. To defend himself to the jailed mob, Cervantes tells them the story of Don Quixote, an old man so overwhelmed with his passion to right the wrongs of the world and his love of books of knight errantry that he begins to believe himself a knight on a quest. Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, a local peasant, arrive at an inn that Quixote believes to be a castle, where Quixote mistakes the brutal gang of mule-riding thugs for knights and declares the inn’s kitchen servant and whore Aldonza to be the fair, beautiful, and chaste Dulcinea, the lady for whom all his grand deeds will be dedicated. Throughout the story, the question of whether the good Quixote sees in the world is not more cruel than the real state of it is examined.

The novel is structured very episodically, and it’s so long that a lot of it necessarily gets cut in adaptations. But I was still a little surprised to find how much restructuring has been done to fit the story into a musical. Most of the action takes place at an inn that features early in the book, and several incidents from later on are rearranged so that they happen during the one night Quixote is there. In the book, Dulcinea is a woman from the next village that Quixote saw once or twice years ago that might never appear in person (I seem to recall that she eventually hears that there’s a madman in the countryside doing things in her name, but it’s not her real name, so I don’t know if that’s possible), but here, the effect of Quixote’s veneration upon her is the heart of the plot. She seems to have been merged with a few different women of minor importance, but none of the whores Quixote encountered in the book were ever victims of sexual violence, which is something the movie makes exceedingly clear without explicit depictions.

Between being removed from the central conflict and having his motivations cleaned up a lot, Sancho suffers for story focus. One of my favorite things about the book was the tension between Quixote’s delusions and Sancho’s realities, and how dedicated Sancho was to his master’s promises of the wealth and glory they would win. Here, he’s a friend who can’t explain his actions beyond “I like him”. If this was a story about the bond of friendship, that would be interesting, but the story isn’t very concerned about friendship, and Sancho’s presence seems almost as obligatory as the windmill scene.

While the message about hope and goodness in an evil reality is a fine one, the music is much better than the execution of the story.  The songs are beautiful, but they seem too grand for the events they take place in. O’Toole also has a strange way of standing still with his arms at his sides while singing, which I don’t know if it was his choice or the director’s. Even singers recording at a microphone in a studio will gesture with their hands, and O’Toole can certainly use his body in other scenes, but when he’s singing, it’s like he’s focusing so much on getting the vocal performance right that he’s neglecting to use his body for anything.

I don’t want to say that it’s because of the look of the picture, but I wasn’t very impressed by the action. The movie opens up the setting with outdoor scenes and expansive sets, but it still doesn’t move much. Things happen for a day and then they stop happening. There’s not much grandeur about that. I’d rather just listen to the soundtrack.

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