I Was Born to Be an Example of Misfortune: Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”

Written by Film

“If you asked a random person what their most anticipated release of April 2019 was, they likely said Avengers: Endgame. Yet I picked The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam’s long gestating film about the foolish hidalgo and his adventures.

Quixote was in development for 30 years. Along the way, Gilliam had one of the most famous false starts in history, as captured in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Since then, he fought insurance companies, producers, and even different casts in order to get the film made. Every film he’s made since 1998 has felt like Gilliam’s Kagemusha – a “practice” film for the epic he really cared about. And when it finally premiered at Cannes last year, Gilliam finally had an opportunity to discuss what it was about the material that made him determined to see it through. It was an opportunity to get inside someone who created some of the best fantasy visions of the 20th century.

And despite some negative reviews, I wasn’t disappointed. This was the best film Gilliam’s made since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yes, it was unconventional and weird at times. The ending is a touch too ambiguous and I could tell there were times Gilliam was being constrained. But it felt like a culmination of everything Gilliam’s said throughout his career. If he never makes another film, he can be satisfied knowing he has the perfect bookend to his career.

But which Quixote are we talking about?

Gilliam said in interviews that he didn’t use the same script that he used back in 2000. This was primarily to bring the budget down so he could find producers willing to finance it. But what does that mean for the vision he fought so hard to bring to the screen?

To my knowledge, the original script has never leaked, but we do get an idea of what Gilliam had in mind in Lost in La Mancha and in some script reviews I’ve managed to locate. Hopefully they will let us know how much of the finished product is what Gilliam had in mind.

Plot

2000 Production: The original concept would have owed just as much to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as the original Cervantes novel. Advertising director Toby (Johnny Depp) finds an old man in a castle who claims to be the real Don Quixote. He doesn’t believe Quixote, until he winds up back in 1605. The film would have had just as many fantasy elements (including characters showing up in both locations) but part of the mystery would have been figuring out whether Toby had met Quixote or whether this was a hallucination – and Toby having to decide which he preferred.

Today: It’s pretty identical despite Gilliam’s insistence of script changes. However, it’s not as straightforward as outlined. An advertising director (Adam Driver) finds a man who is convinced he is Quixote (Johnathan Pryce) and is taken on random adventures, including a visit to a castle inhabited by Muslim travelers and the fight with the windmills. Yet in the original concept, both individuals find themselves in the 16th century. That doesn’t happen here – but what does happen is just as bizarre. Toby seemingly finds himself in Quixote’s hallucination, seeing the world as Quixote sees it no matter how nonsensical it is. There’s never a suggestion that anyone has gone back in time, which makes what’s happening all the stranger. Finally, there’s never any ambiguity that Don Quixote is actually Don Quixote. He’s simply a crazy old man. But that does nothing to distract from the boundary between reality and fantasy Gilliam wished to create.

Characters

2000 Production: I can’t find any information beyond the two leads Toby and Don Quixote. We know Gilliam cast others, including Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston, Miranda Richardson, and Rossy de Palma. There are references to a filming crew and actors playing the same role in the past and present.

Today: There doesn’t seem to be much difference in the characters between the different versions. Toby still has the same job. Quixote’s “backstory” is expanded upon for this film. He’s not just Don Quixote, but a cobbler named Javier who has spent his life as an anonymous man in a remote Spanish village. Taking on the Quixote role allowed him to have meaning in his life. That aspect helped the film and helped us understand what motivated him to live with the fantasy – and why Gilliam kept the character in mind for 30 years.

Cast

2000 Production: What matters more than the characters is how the roles are cast. I’d like to focus on the two leads for the project – Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. Depp was at the stage in his career where he was known for working with odd ball directors. Not just Tim Burton, but people like Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, The Hughes Brothers, and Gilliam. Rochefort was a prestige actor in Europe who would bring prestige to Gilliam’s producers. Gilliam has always been a fish out of water, riding the line between American and European cinema. He can use elements from both for each of his films but depended increasingly on his European connections after several battles in Hollywood. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was intended to be Gilliam severing his Hollywood past while acknowledging the people he worked with. The fact that the American actor is the antagonist who doubts Quixote is symbolic of how often Hollywood didn’t quite understand Gilliam.

Today: The strangest element of the cast is how Gilliam reversed the roles. Whereas Rochefort was mostly unknown to an American audience and Johnny Depp had worked with Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the final film has Gilliam working in reverse. Frequent Gilliam collaborator Johnathan Pryce (who was cast in a smaller role in the original production) is Quixote while Gilliam newcomer Adam Driver is Toby. This works to the film’s advantage. While Depp would have been a comfortable audience surrogate, we’ve seen him in Gilliam’s world, and it wouldn’t feel as strange. Here, Adam Driver is us. He’s the person trying to make sense of Gilliam’s ideas. Pryce’s jumping into Gilliam’s world is to be expected. Adam Driver is more reluctant, and the fact he hasn’t worked with Gilliam emphasizes how it’s the people like Toby that don’t fit into Quixote’s world.

Themes

2000 Production: Don Quixote was written as a parody of fantasy works from medieval literature. No character could understand why Quixote was obsessed with values from centuries earlier. And now, Gilliam was asking us to look at a Quixote who was even more outdated. Toby finds himself at the same place Quixote was – rich and bored. Quixote is meant to bring out something in Toby – not chivalry, but the idea that Toby’s cynicism was just as much of a shield as Quixote’s madness. Toby doesn’t want to examine his world, so he slowly retreats into Quixote’s.  And, of course, we can’t ignore the original production, where Gilliam’s fantasy was destroyed by the modern world.

Today: The most interesting difference in the finished version is the theme of regret. Toby wants to recapture his past in order to get over his writer’s block. But that romantic idea he had of his past, like Quixote’s, left behind a lot of wreckage. Besides driving Javier to madness, Toby wrecked the village he made his student film in. A young woman named Angelica was promised stardom by Toby but ended up becoming a hooker while trying to break into the entertainment industry. Finally, another big addition has to do with Quixote’s immortality. He is not physically immortal, but an idea that is going to be carried on by dreamers looking for something more in the world.