Lost in La Mancha & The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: A Particularly Interesting Double Bill

There are lots of aspects of a film that you can pick up on when putting a double bill together. The most common one is to play consecutive films in a series next to each other, as has happened recently in cinemas with The Avengers, Fast & Furious and Star Wars. This make sense but it is a little too obvious for the discerning nerd. The classic idea is to choose two movies with the same lead actor, as you might if you wanted to watch Grease and Saturday Night Fever or maybe Baywatch and Moana, but you can also link by theme as you would with something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Arrival, or Jaws and Mega Shark verses Crocosaurus.

Here’s an interesting double bill though; one being a documentary and one a fantasy adventure (not unheard of, you could do An Inconvenient Truth and Geostorm). In this particular pairing the first is a factual film about how director Terry Gilliam failed to make a Don Quixote movie back in 2000 and the second is the Don Quixote movie he succeeded in making almost twenty years later. Admittedly these are asking to be watched together but they do sit next to one another in a way quite unlike anything else.

Even at the beginning of the millennium, Terry Gilliam had been trying to make a Don Quixote film for about a decade. Lost in La Mancha shows how the erstwhile Python’s long cherished, ambitious plan was finished off through a combination of lead actor Jean Rochefort’s failing health, terrible weather conditions, clashes with European producers not used to big projects of this nature, limited financing and uncharitable insurance policies. It was originally meant to be a making of doc but became more about the unmaking of Gilliam’s passion project. It’s about the what killed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Within all of this though there are clear snapshots of what the film would have been and now that it has been successfully resurrected, it is interesting to see the two movies together. Lost in La Mancha opens with a storyboarded description of the opening of the anticipated final movie that does match the actual final movie, for example. It is interesting to see how the plans stayed the same across two decades and equally fascinating to see how they changed. Take the scene in where Don Quixote saves his squire from the hands of two arresting officers, which features in both the 2000 non-version and the 2020 version but differs in quite surprising ways (even beyond the fact that one features a thirty something Johnny Depp and the other a thirty something Adam Driver). Sometimes it is unclear yet still intriguing as to why and how artistic decisions evolved. At other times it is fun to join the dots as with how it was hard for Gilliam to find a trusted actor of the right age and look to play Quixote back then but how it wasn’t now after his Brazil, Baron Munchausen and Brothers Grimm star Jonathan Pryce had grown twenty years older.

It is also amusing to note that the protagonist of the final movie (who in this version at least is Driver’s Toby, not the legendary knight-errant) is now a struggling film maker, frustrated in not being able to realise his great vision. I wonder how much the events surrounding the movie’s long history shaped this.

Perhaps the biggest question going in to the completed movie is born of the fact that all the way throughout Lost in La Mancha they keep talking about how epic the film was to be and how it would be the peak of Gilliam’s career as a master of storytelling and imagination. As it is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote actually feels quite small. This isn’t to say that there aren’t wonderful flights of fantasy in it but it doesn’t live up to the talk and the wait. Of course, it could just be that what constituted epic a couple of decades ago isn’t quite what we’d class as such now but I suspect that Gilliam has deliberately dialled things down. I mean there are still mysterious and formidable knights, the like of which he’s given us before in Holy Grail and The Fisher King but this is essentially a character piece about a deluded old man and a confounded younger one. Of course they are obsessed with one woman or another because Gilliam’s heroes generally are but the relationship between the two of them is the focus of the movie.

If I’m honest, that focus is occasionally lost because again, this is a Gilliam trait. Perhaps this is particularly inevitable in this case though, what with Terry having had this thing bouncing around in his head since Pretty Woman, Home Alone and Nelson Mandela were released. I’m reminded of a wedding I once went to where the bride was getting married for the first time in her fifties and her father gave the longest speech I’ve ever heard because one suspects he’d just kept adding a bit more each year. So too has this director put a lot in this long gestating film and not all of the elements are explored as much as they should be.

Still, judged on its own merits The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has good performances and characterisation and some amusing twists. As a double bill it is fascinating. Besides, isn’t every great quest more about the journey than the destination?

Lost in La Mancha and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote are both available on iTunes

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