Lost in La Mancha (15)
This is the incredible, heartbreaking horror story of a film that never was: Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
What it proves, more than anything is that, in the movies at least, luck is the deciding factor in whether a film will rise or fall, and sometimes all the money (and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can’t put a disaster together again.
And what a disaster. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a chaos theorist’s dream, in that everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and with frightening regularity.
In September 2000 Gilliam and his crew descend on Navarre in Spain to begin shooting the Quixote script. On board are Johnny Depp as a modern, time-travelling Sancho Panza and the veteran French star Jean Rochefort as Quixote.
Yet, within days, things start to go terribly awry. An arid desert location is transformed thanks to a flash flood. The same storm that caused it carries off and ruins vital pieces of equipment. Rochefort is invalided off the film and never returns, Depp is distracted and, to cap it all, F16 fighters from a nearby NATO base buzz the set in the hope of spotting the American heartthrob at work.
Throughout it all, as Jeff Bridges narrates, Gilliam rages against the dying of the light. Most peculiarly, he allows the documentary crew behind what was to become Lost in La Mancha utter and unprecedented access to the debacle that is unfolding.
In that respect Lost in La Mancha traces the ten-year gestation of Gilliam’s pet project to reality, and then bears wide-eyed witness as his dream slowly becomes a nightmare and the movie inexorably implodes with only a few minutes of footage in the can.
More importantly, it illustrates how luck can create a phenomenon. It was complete fortuity that directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe happened upon a disaster. In any other circumstances Lost in La Mancha would probably have emerged as just another ‘making of’ documentary. Instead Fulton and Pepe found themselves witnessing cinematic death on a grand scale. Could they resist quietly cheering…?
In truth there is no fun in watching Gilliam’s film founder. Instead there is an almost hypnotic delight in witnessing his schoolboyish enthusiasm evaporate as all around him bicker and point fingers. And while there are undoubtedly lazy parallels to be made between Gilliam and his screen hero, they are nonetheless relevant. Gilliam is in giggling, mad-eyed denial until the poignant moment in a car park when right-hand man Phil Patterson, Quixote’s hapless first assistant director, tells him the game is up. The film dies then and there – and until that point Gilliam had never really admitted defeat, even privately.
Lost in La Mancha is a magnificent document of how films come to be made against the odds. In this case events conspired to ensure the film died.
There was no jinx against The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, even though there are those that would add up inclement weather, sick stars, missing leading ladies (Depp’s partner Vanessa Paradis never materialised) and bizarre fly-pasts by air force fighters and come up with a rather odd equation where d = disaster. In reality any movie could go the same way.
In Gilliam’s case the sadness is watching the light die from his eyes as the days wear on, though hope springs eternal when, in the closing minutes, he announces that he intends to resurrect the picture with a new cast.
Or is he being Quixotic…?