Cervantes‘ Don Quixote is without peer as the foremost work in Spanish literature…it is considered without question to be the most influential work in the entire Spanish language literary canon❉. The general consensus among authorities in the field is that it was the primary manifestation (first pub. Vol I 1605) of the novel as we understand the development of that emerging literary form.
The Spanish proudly extol Cervantes’ name in the same reverential tone as the English speaking world bestows on Shakespeare. When it came to adaptations of Don Quixote to the cinema screen however, Cervantes’ great novel has not experienced the same good fortune as screen productions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays have had. While the story of the ageing knight-errant’s folly-filled forays in the campo of La Mancha has been a popular source material for the theatre, opera and both the big and small screen, it has not proved a rewarding experience for some of the leading filmmakers! There have been a number of attempts to bring the book to the cinema that have ended either in disarray or as incomplete projects…the mildly suspicious among us might easily convince themselves that the subject of Don Quixote is jinxed!
Disney: the animated feature’s arrested development
One of the early US attempts to produce a film of Don Quixote was as a feature-length cartoon by Walt Disney. The Disney team laboured for six decades commencing in the 1930s to make an animated version of Don Quixote. Studio artist Ferdinand Horvath produced project sketches of the Spanish knight-errant for Disney as early as 1929. Preparatory work for a film project during WWII using concepts inspired by 17th century artistic titan Diego Velázquez was jettisoned after Disney had two commercial failures in a row with Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940. The studio tried again, several times (1946, 1951, even as recent as the late 1990s). All of the projects were eventually aborted. Don Quixote thus far has evaded all attempts at being ‘Disneyfied’✫.
Orson’s never-ending project: Less than awesome
Orson Welles’ efforts to make a film of Don Quixote was an incredibly drawn-out saga that failed to bear fruit. Financing (habitually a millstone around Welles’ cervix) was partly to blame but procrastination by the former “boy wonder” director was taken to a new level. Starting off with test footage as early as 1955, Welles was still intermittently working on the unfinished picture (which he described as his “own personal project”) when he died (1985). By which time Welles had 300,000 feet of shot film in the can! Eventually a version completed by a Spanish director saw the light of screen in the 1990s (described as a “Spanish restoration”). However according to James Clarke, the “print (was) impoverished…the film lacked clarity… (and) Welles’ commentary and dialogue was ineffectively dubbed into Spanish”.
The jinx again!
Dynamic Hollywood producer of the 1950s, Mike Todd, was riding high on the back of the blockbuster success of the star-studded Around the World in 80 Days. Todd chose “Don Quixote” as the follow-up project to ’80 Days’ based on the Jules Verne novel. Having cast his new, glamour wife Elizabeth Taylor to star in a lavish production of the Cervantes classic, the hard-headed Todd’s plans for “Don Quixote” perished in the airplane crash that took the producer’s life in 1958.
Terry Gilliam, nearly 20 years worth of broken mirrors!
The award for the most ill-fated attempt to bring “Don Quixote” to the screen goes to Monty Python member and film director Terry Gilliam. Gilliam first conceptualised his project in 1991…pre-production got underway seven years later and production itself got rolling in 2000 in Navarre (Spain). Gilliam brought his own, very idiosyncratic take on the Man of La Mancha (very loosely based on the original story). He cast Johnny Depp as a 21st century time-traveller hurled back to engage with the perpetually confused 16th century “windmill-tilter”.
From the start obstacles and setbacks piled on top of each other – flash floods destroyed sets and equipment in the Spanish campo, as a result the filmmakers had problems securing insurance for the production; Jean Rochefort as Quixote took ill and had to leave the set and the movie altogether; it was discovered that one of the film sites was directly below a Spanish Air Force flight path; plus the production was hit with further financial problems – the net outcome was the cessation and cancellation of the production. Gilliam made several subsequent attempts to relaunch the movie, in all there were eight unsuccessful tilts at making “Don Quixote” over a period of 18-19 years with a succession of actors coming and going. In 2002 Gilliam, no doubt with cathartic intent, released a documentary Lost in La Mancha about the trials and tribulations of trying to realise the plagued ‘Quixote’ feature film.
The indefatigable American Python resurrected the project once more earlier this year with longtime collaborator Jonathan Pryce in the title role. Finally in June of this year Gilliam tweeted, rather sheepishly, that the filming was finally completed…The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is slated for release in 2018.
PostScript: ‘Don Quixote’, a mixed track record in the cinema
Notwithstanding the long trail of misfortunes and misadventures that has bedevilled the efforts of the above film-makers to make Don Quixote, it would be misleading to conclude that the subject has been universally cursed. A survey of Don Quixote’s cinematic history on the screen confirms that it has been far from unmakeable. First point to note is that there have been a considerable number of ‘DQ’ films churned out over the decades, many of which went through more or less without mishap, or at least with nothing like the obstacles and hurdles in the way of Gilliam and Welles and others.
From across the world of international cinema these productions include the 1957 Russian version filmed in the Crimea (Dir: Grigori Kozintsev); the 1972 Man of La Mancha (a musical/comedy with Peter O’Toole in the lead); a 2000 feature with John Lithgow as the chivalrous but hopelessly misguided hidalgo (country gentleman); Albert Serra’s modernised Spanish version, Honour of the Knights (2006); a 2015 version directed by James Franco’s USC students, Don Quixote: The Ingenuous Gentleman of La Mancha; and believe it or not, a 2007 Spanish/Italian computer animation comedy Donkey Xote (hee-haw!), a light-hearted retelling of the classic story from the perspective of his squire Sancho Panza’s Equus Africanus steed.
❉ its literary influence goes far beyond the Hispanic world…extending to his English contemporary Shakespeare who is widely thought to have collaborated with John Fletcher on a play (now lost), Cardenio, believed to be based on an episode in the Cervantes novel
✫ Disney still haven’t entirely let it go…the phenomenal box office triumph of the Pirates of the Caribbean series has prompted Disney to engage ‘gun’ screenwriter Billy Ray to write something similar in tone for Don Quixote, ‘Disney Developing a Don Quixote Movie’, (J Kroll) Variety, 13-Oct-2016, www.variety.com
 James Clarke, ‘The troubled history of Don Quixote on film’, BFI: Film Forever, 26-Apr-2016, www.bfi.org.uk
 ibid. ; ”Don Quixote (unfinished film), Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘My latest is a disaster movie’, The Guardian, 04-Feb-2001, www.theguardian.com
 “Sorry for the long silence…” (@TerryGilliam, tweeted 04-Jun-2017)
 in fact the tale of the muddled hidalgo with a penchant for charging at windmills has been a movie subject just about from the first dawn of the moving picture – as early as 1903 a silent film of Don Quixote was made by the French, ‘Don Quixote de La Mancha: DQ and Film’, (Barbara Robinson), USC Libraries (Research Guides), www.libguides.usc.edu