MOVIE REVIEW: “Orson Welles’ Don Quixote” (1992)

Orson Welles’ Don Quixote

This is a damn-near unwatchable movie. On my first viewing, I immediately fell asleep. On my second attempt, I immediately fell asleep. I awoke, ate a taco, and tried again, assuming I was all slept out by that point.  I made it through that time, but I admit I had to fast-forward through vast tracts of this thing.  I had kind of the same problem with “It’s All True,” and that was only 30 minutes long, but this, this, hoo boy,  this is a two-hour turd.
 It’s hard for me to say that, since I’m a huge fan of Orson Welles, but at the same time this is really not an Orson Welles film.
I should explain. the explanation is actually more interesting than the film itself:
Back in 1955 CBS or ABC or whomever approached Welles about doing a half-hour TV show. He jumped at the chance. He pitched an evidently off-the-cuff idea about Don Quixote somehow traveling through time and ending up in modern-day Mexico. The network loved the idea, and shot a few scenes on location, but then, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart. The network abandoned it, and that was that.
Welles re-tooled the idea, and decided to do a retelling of Don Quixote set in modern-day (late 1950s) Spain. There was no time travel involved. Quixote was simply a modern-day Spaniard who went nuts reading stories about the knights of old, decides he is a knight, enlists the aid of a local moron, and goes around having comedic adventures generally culminating with him getting the shit kicked out of him. But then, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart.
The concept may sound silly, but it’s actually very clever. See, the hook about the novel, which we tend to miss nowadays as the novel is so damn old, is that knights and chivalry and all that stuff had already gone extinct by Quixote’s own time. The old man was crazy. Welles wanted to emphasize this by basically telling the identical story in present day. Pretty clever, right? If Orson wiped his nose on his sleeve, the stain would be more creative than anything I could ever come up with in my whole life. The problem was, of course, that he wasn’t a closer, and, as I said, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart.
In Spain he filmed most of the movie around 1957. He does not appear to have had a finished script, and made up a lot of stuff on the fly. He did not feel the need to do a directly literal representation of the story because we all know the story, and much of it is cliche. For instance, his film lacked a “Tilting at Windmills” sequence. Its analog had the Don going to a movie, and being confused by the epic battle onscreen. Confused, he jumps up on the stage and starts fighting back, hacking the screen to bits, terrifying the audience, who go stampeding out, while the kids in the audience cheer.
The actor playing Quixote was clearly not healthy, so he asked Orson if he could please film all his scenes in a block. Obligingly Orson did so. The script thing didn’t matter too much as Orson generally worked without sound in the second half of his career, dubbing most of the dialog after the fact. This allowed him to change his semi-nonexistent script whenever the whim struck him.  (For an example of how well this works, check out “The Trial” starring Anthony Perkins sometime)  Then, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart.
The actor playing Quixote died.
Rather than recast or reshoot, it appears to have become a puzzle for Welles. How to complete the film? He had all of Quixote’s scenes, or near enough as to make no difference, so he appears to have expanded Sancho’s role, rewriting around stuff he had in the can. It’s like Ed Wood writing “Plan 9 from Outer Space” around the two or three minutes of Bella Lugosi he had in the can, only on a massive (And presumably competent) scale.  It stopped being a normal film, per se, and became what Orson called “something like a novel, done for my own amusement, and to be taken out and worked on in my own good time. And when it is done, I will call it ‘When are you going to finish Don Quixote?'”  He shot more scenes in Spain, a few some years later in Italy, possibly some more in the ’70s, and he continued to tinker with the thing up until he died in 1985 when, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart.
What was the plot? Well, basically an elderly lunatic and his pet village idiot get the shit kicked out of them repeatedly for acting anachronously. What was the point? Dunno, but clearly there was one. In one iteration, the story ended with Sancho and the Don going to the moon. “Then we actually went to the moon, and that ruined things for me.” At another point it ended with them blowing up in an atomic explosion.  What was his vision in 1975 or 1981? No clue, but probably quite a bit diferent.
If I had to guess – which of course I do – I’m going to assume the point of it all was a study of people’s willingness to go along with violent insanity, which was kind of a major theme in the middle half of the 20th century for very obvious reasons. Not a message – Welles hated making ‘statements’ in films – but more an exploration of how far someone will go to ignore the madness of another.
You know, or not. It’s not like he told me.
In fact, it’s not like he told anyone. He made offhand comments like the ones I quoted above, but they changed quite a bit over the years after rewrites and re-rewrites and more shoots and a couple bottles of wine and a year off to try to find financing for some unrelated project or another that inevitably fell apart because, it being an Orson Welles project, it falls apart.
Given that people kept taking his movies away from him and editing them without his say (The Magnificent Ambersons, A Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin and….ah, go look it up yourself. The list goes on and on), he deliberately mislabeled film cans, and misnumbered the reels and stashed them in his houses and with friends all over the world. When he died, he was the only one who knew where they were, and what sequence the stuff was supposed to go in.
His long-term girlfriend/muse, Oja Kodar (Not her real name. He just made it up one day when filming The Trial) decided to try to assemble the film. Using her own stash of footage, and what she could scour from storage units and boxes in the basement,  she combined this with other footage other people had in a noble (And possibly cash-grabbing) attempt to finish “When are you going to finish Don Quixote.”
Problem #1 – the footage was shot at random times in 35mm, 16mm, and possibly 8mm. Whatever Orson had handy at the time. Hence wildly inconsistent picture quality
Problem #2 – nobody knew the damn story.
Problem #3 – one of the guys who Orson entrusted some of the film to refused to let Oja have it. Specifically, he had the batch involving the movie theater sequence I told you about above.
They set about trying to polish a turd anyway, and here begins the actual movie review portion of this movie review. It’s also where it stops being interesting.
There is exactly one good scene in this: Don Quixote is riding along and sees a woman on a Vespa (It’s actually Orson’s then-wife). He goes batshit and attacks it, while Sancho keeps trying to explain what it is, and the woman fights him off.  “Say, this isn’t so bad,” I though.
nope. Nope, nope, it’s terrible. virtually unwatchable. Definitely unwatchable at normal speed. It is so bad that everyone who’s seen it who knew Orson has said that it is *not* his movie.
You want proof? Ok: there’s a Tilting At Windmills sequence.
Yeah, that’s right. Since they couldn’t use the Movie Theater sequence, they went ahead and put in the only sequence Orson specifically said he didn’t want in his movie. It’s worse yet: they actually sent out a second unit to get footage of windmills, dubbed some dialog about them turning in to giants, did a cheesy CGI-manipulated image of a windmill growing and starting to change shape, threw in some cheezy stills.  Ugh. It’s just terrible.
Gross Gott im himmel, this is just an awful film. How does it fail? Let me count the ways:
1) Picture quality is just all over the place, owing to the random film stock used. Much of it appears somewhat degraded.
2) The dubbing his hilariously bad. Some of it was done by Orson himself (As I said, he tended to work silent), but most is done by random talentless goofuses who often don’t even come close to synching up with the lips. It’s actually worse when Orson shows up voicing Sancho for a scene or two, because, well, partially it’s awful because Sancho randomly changes voices, but it’s also terrible because a few moments of good dubbing only serve as seasoning to point out the flavor of the bad dubbing.  The same is true of the somewhat random and intrusive narration.
3) The film is too freakin’ long by half. I’m not exaggerating. You probably could have made an interesting – but not really *good* – hour long film out of the available material. Padding it up to 90 minutes might be acceptable, but Good Lord, two hours? Two Hours?
They used EVERY SCRAP of second unit footage they had to pad this misbegotten bastard out. There are endless long shots of horses and riders moving slowly along the horizon, with voiceover dialog. There’s a sequence of Quixote attacking some creepy Catholic ceremony involving priests or whatever that look like KKK members at a rally. It sets up forever, and then pays off instantly and embarasingly like a 16 year old on prom night. There is a sequence that goes on for more than ten minutes in which Sancho wanders around a festival, attempting to ask where he can find a TV.
Everyone here who thinks Orson intended between ten and fifteen minutes of his movie to be about a halfwit trying to find a TV, raise their hands.
No? I didn’t think so.  Obviously it was intended for a montage or something. But they whole megila is in here. As such
4) it is really, really boring. It took me three tries to stay awake.
5) There’s no real soundtrack beyond the badly dubbed dialog. No music, little foley or sound effects. It sounds antiseptic.
6) In order to connect scenes that weren’t intended to go together, much of the dialog was obviously made up by whomever assembled this mess, and isn’t authentic to the project.
7) The editing is choppy as hell. It feels like it was done by a first year communications major, or a Public Access TV tech who’s on his first solo flying the editing board. Having been both a first year communications major AND the director of a Public Access show, I know what I’m talking about there. It sucks. If it’s Orson Welles, but it looks like something I could have chopped together, then it sucks. Remember: I’m a guy who hosted and produced a local TV show where a Barney impersonator slaughtered a child on TV.
Ah, the 90s.
But I digress:
As if all this isn’t bad enough, they STILL don’t have enough material. Thus they created a film-within-a-film subplot in which Orson Welles himself turns up, making a movie about Don Quixote. This is composed entirely of archive footage of Orson from various different periods in his life (Seriously: His girth changes massively between shots), but it comes to nothing. And it makes no logical sense.  And one of the things we know for a fact is that Orson had no intention of appearing in this film. They may as well have shot a short feature about Battlestar Galactica and crammed it in the second act, and it would hve fit just about as well.
Finally, one of the intriguing things in both versions of the film (The TV script, and the extant footage of the movie) was Dulcinea. In the novel, she’s the town whore, but Quixote is convinced she’s some noble, virtuous lady to whom he owes his heart and gallantry and that kind of hoo-hah. In Welles’ versions she’s a young girl. There’s nothing romantic about it in this version, she’s just a child, and he’s child-like with senility and Sancho is child-like in his idiocy, so they form a sort of heroic and innocent trio. Well, since the movie theater sequence was cut, Oja (or whomever) decided to cut every single scene involving the girl. Hence one of the major characters is gone, and in her place we have the Don going on about his love for a character we never see, and Sancho repeatedly implying that she’s the town whore.
The script *appears* to be mostly from the “Go to the moon” phase. I base that on the moon turning up in dialog a lot, and Sancho buying a telescope at one point. The final line of dialog is Quixote saying “There’s nothing wrong with technology, just with people allowing themselves to be governed by it.”  Where did that come from? Then the movie abruptly stops, we get some more random second unit footage, the narrator tells us that Orson’s ashes were scattered over Spain, and, being an Orson Welles project, it fell apart.
The end.


2 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW: “Orson Welles’ Don Quixote” (1992)

  1. You wrote above: “I’m a guy who hosted and produced a local TV show where a Barney impersonator slaughtered a child on TV.”

    I’m pretty sure you meant to put the word “pretended” or “seemed to” or similar in that sentence. I just assume you did not actually kill some kid for comedy. 🙂

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