Sadly, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's Don Quixote was never finished.
"Fortunate the century that lacked these hateful instruments whose inventor, I believe, is in hell—yes, in hell, paying the price of his diabolical ingenuity."—Don Quixote, ranting about movie cameras
Orson Welles' Don Quixote is indescribable. Nonetheless, I'm going to try. Talk about tilting at windmills.
What you see here is an unfinished movie. Orson Welles started work on it in 1955; it was finished in 1992, seven years after Welles' death, by assistant director Jess Franco, whose string of cult movies like Snakewoman and Incubus continues to this day.
It's based, of course, on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes about a would-be knight errant whose dreams of chivalry keep running into this reality thing.
A trivia note on IMDb says that at least one film critic was skeptical of Franco's claim that this is Welles' vision on the screen. With a lot of patchwork—drawings and stills are used occasionally to fill gaps—and spoiled film, it's clear that a perfect represenation would have been impossible. IMDb also notes that Welles simply put Don Quixote aside; even finishing it might not have been his intention.
I'd tackled a Welles restoration once before—The Complete Mr. Arkadin—so I was intrigued by the chance to see another posthumous attempt to preserve the output of Welles' unique mind.
Facts of the Case
Don Quixote and servant Sancho Panza set off across Spain on Quixote's quest for adventure and riches. Quixote's still vanquishing windmills as in the novel, but it turns out the Spain he and Sancho are wandering through isn't the same old Spain. It's modern, with motorcycles, cars, and television. It's also got director Orson Welles, who's filming a movie called Don Quixote. When Sancho sees Welles on "the little box" talking about the movie, he's got a quest of his own.
Orson Welles should have finished this movie; its conceit of the characters realizing they're in a movie foreshadows The Truman Show and reality TV. Rather than lay it out immediately, Don Quixote starts out in the characters' "real" world before shifting over to the "reel" world. Separated from Quixote, Sancho wanders into a shop and sees the news of the production on television.
Until that point, Don Quixote plays out as broad comedy. Quixote speechifies as his servant reminds him, "Don't forget our empty stomachs." Quixote attacks a Vespa, crying out to its female driver, "My lady, I will free you from this evil machine," and waving his lance; she vanquishes Quixote by pulling his donkey to the side of the road and driving away. People attack Quixote—and his hapless second—with regularity.
Oddly, village dweller Sancho has as many troubles with the real world of urban 1950s Spain as Quixote does. He stares wide-eyed at the TV with its news of missile tests and movies, having never seen one of those radios with pictures before. Searching for Quixote, he finds himself unwittingly caught up in the Running of the Bulls.
On screen, Francisco Reiguera (Major Dundee) is seen as the withered Don Quixote, with Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil) as Sancho Panza. New voices are added later. A voice for Quixote that just doesn't sound right is one of the biggest flaws of this movie. It doesn't help that the dubbing is poor, even with the number of distanced shots that should have hidden any problems with it.
As for the acting we see, Reiguera has the right appearance of foolish grandeur for Quixote. Tamiroff's Sancho at first considers Quixote foolish, but is later revealed to have a great affection for the old fool. Tamiroff's gestures create a character who's moved by material needs rather than lofty goals, but becomes a dreamer himself by the end, as Quixote points out.
One of my favorite scenes sets up their relationship well: Quixote's fasting for honor, but a hungry Sancho kills a bird for dinner. Sancho tempts Quixote with the aroma of the cooked meat and, after a struggle, the knight errant reluctantly takes a couple of bites.
If picture quality is a major factor in your movie enjoyment, you'll be driven crazy by the black-and-white footage here, at times too bright or too dark, with flaws and blemishes of every sort. If you're open to an imperfect experience, the flaws actually enhance the surrealistic nature of Welles' work. Although the dubbing's bad, the natural sound comes across reasonably well.
Extras are sadly lacking here. A commentary, written or spoken, by Jess Franco on his thoughts as he assembled this work-in-progress should have been a given. Essays and any leftover footage would have been even better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Welles' ideas are clever, this examination of the borders between film and reality might have annoyed 1950s audiences rather than attracted them. Rather than a classic film, what you get is an interesting experiment, something that will appeal to your intellect as a film buff more than it does your gut-level inner movie lover.
Am I glad I checked out Orson Welles' Don Quixote? Yes, I am. It's a great glimpse at Welles' prescient ideas. Beyond the gap between movies and reality, it tilts at the windmills of the modern world, from motorcycles to missiles.
Even if it had been finished, the subject's been explored a lot more by now. Many viewers will find it dated and superfluous. However, if you're a Welles fan, his diabolical ingenuity is welcome indeed. You may want to wait for a Criterion edition, though.
Jess Franco is commended for bringing a worthy lost film to the court's attention; however, Image Entertainment gets a warning for its barebones release.
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