Terry Gilliam: At least if we’re going to be fucked, let’s know we’re fucked ahead of time.
I’m very glad that I did not watch this movie in the theater. While it is a worthwhile film to watch, structured and edited competently, it never quite achieves a scope beyond “best DVD extra ever” and, as such, belongs on the DVD format as surely as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly belongs on the big screen.
I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like it. I did. It’s an honest and rich post-mortem of a film that was seemingly doomed to be incomplete from the start, pushed into its inevitable fate by the Gods. It’s refreshingly blunt, showing the hardship of making a movie the way few of these behind-the-scenes pieces do. The story of the piece is also a compelling tragedy, in which the hubris of Terry Gilliam, trying to make a dream film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is punished by rain, disease, and insurance people.
Like any good tragedy where men defy the Gods, the movie is full of ominous premonitions. At the start, all involved worry about repeating the mistakes of a previous Gilliam film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, that went out of control and exorbitantly over budget. Don Quixote, we’re told, is a film too ambitious for its budget. Director Gilliam asks his crew to tell him immediately when he asks for something that can not be done. Then, as the production date draws near, the assistant director is asked what worries him the most. He replies in a deadpan, “Pre-production.” He speaks of their first shooting location. It’s near a NATO base where he’s assured jets fly over for only an hour or so. The crew tours a studio where they’ll be filming and it’s basically just a warehouse with terrible acoustics. Gilliam admonishes members of his crew, insisting on the importance of good sound. Jean Rochefort, the actor who would be Quixote, comes down with strange pains just before shooting will commence. Most ominously, though, is a moment when, as clouds gather on the horizon at a remote shooting location, Rochefort says, “…strange weather today.”
And like all such tragedies, these premonitions are ignored due to the hubris of the people in power. The NATO jets fly over at the worst times and Gilliam, under the pressure of time and budgetary concerns, contradicts his earlier statement that sound is very important. “I don’t care about sound,” he says, and, so, the cameras roll. Storm clouds gather in the distance, and Gilliam assures his Director of Photography that blue skies surely lay on the other side of the storm. The torrential rains that follow flood the location and, along with it, the production’s equipment. Rocheport becomes increasingly ill to the point that he requires two people to help him off of his horse. He is flown back to his doctors in France and his return seems unlikely. Gilliam continues shooting, despite the fact that every one around him seems to know that, without a Quixote, the project is doomed. And then the insurance company comes in to check up on their claims and everything comes to a stop.
There are passing references to Gilliam embodying Quixote, ignoring reality for the sake of his own purposes. It’s not an unfair comparison. It’s obvious, at least from the movie’s perspective, that Gilliam is complicit in the disaster, unable to compromise on his vision despite his earlier plea that his crew members warn him when he’s asked for too much. When disaster strikes, he just wants to shoot something, anything, to salvage the day, plunging heedlessly into the making of the film. However, as things get increasingly hairy, Gilliam shrinks away from the project, not ready to wash his hands of the movie, but lacking the strength to fight for its survival.
All of this is well-wrought and candidly displayed. What the movie misses, I think, is a sense that there is a very fine line between this disaster laden production resulting in an incomplete film and a similar production that results in an absolutely brilliant film. Gilliam has, reportedly, been involved in more than one troubled production that had fine results, but the only movie discussed in relation to Quixote is Baron Munchausen. My memory of Munchausen is spotty, at best, but I doubt anyone would hold it up as an unqualified success in the face of so many difficulties. (I type that knowing that someone will contradict me in the comments, so have at it!) I think a wider focus would have taken this from feeling like a very good DVD supplement to feeling like an actual movie.