Today is believed to be the birthday of the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. He was baptized on October 9, 1547 in the village of Alcalá de Henares, north of Madrid, and while the exact date of his birth is unrecorded, September 29 is the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel. In those days it was customary for the Spanish to name a child for the feast day of his birth.
Cervantes’ masterpiece, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, gave birth to the modern novel. Gustave Flaubert once said, “I can trace all my origins back to the book I knew by heart before knowing how to read: Don Quixote.” It’s the story of a middle-aged landowner who becomes so absorbed in romantic tales of chivalry that he believes them to be true. In full flight from reason, Quixote enlists Sancho Panza to be his “squire” and sets out on a heroic quest to restore the age of chivalry. The story inspired a new adjective, “quixotic,” to describe the extravagantly idealistic.
Four centuries later it would be hard to imagine a film director better suited to bring Don Quixote to the silver screen than the extravagantly idealistic Terry Gilliam, whose own work has helped to inspire the adjective “Pythonesque.” In 2000, Gilliam set out to realize his long-cherished vision of a freely adapted version of the story titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp as a time traveler from the 21st Century who meets up with Quixote, played by the French actor Jean Rochefort. Despite the complexity of the project, Gilliam was restricted to a bare-bones budget. During the first few days of filming, things began to go horribly awry. The situation only got worse from there, and like Orson Welles before him, Gilliam was unable to bring Don Quixote to the screen. He called it the “curse of Quixote.”
The unfolding disaster is documented by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe in Lost in La Mancha, presented above. The 89-minute film is narrated by Jeff Bridges, and is a must-see for Gilliam fans–and anyone even thinking about trying to make a movie. Woody Allen wryly described Lost in La Mancha as “an extremely entertaining and hilarious presentation of every film director’s worst nightmare.”
(NOTE: Since Lost in La Mancha‘s release in 2002, Gilliam has managed to buy back his script from insurers and has resumed the project–on an even tighter budget. Ewan McGregor is said to be filling Depp’s shoes, with Robert Duvall on board to play Quixote.)