Convoluted circumstances worked against the makers of Man of La Mancha, a troubled film adaptation of the enduring stage musical that premiered in 1964, so it’s no surprise the picture earned enmity during its original release and has failed to curry much favor during the ensuing years. Bloated, grim, miscast, old-fashioned, and over-plotted, the picture seems utterly bereft of whatever charms have captivated fans of the stage version throughout decades of revivals. Even the picture’s magnificent look, courtesy of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s painterly images and enough production-design eye candy to make Terry Gilliam jealous, is insufficient to hold the viewer’s attention as Man of La Mancha lumbers through 132 very long minutes.
Reviewing some of the tortured history behind the project reveals why it was doomed to mediocrity, if not outright failure. In 1959, CBS broadcast a dramatic play for television titled I, Don Quixote, written by Dale Wasserman. In the story, which is set during the Spanish Inquisition, author Miguel de Cervantes gets thrown in jail and put on “trial” by his fellow inmates. Then he defends himself by describing his in-progress novel, Don Quixote, about a madman who thinks he’s a knight. All of this material, of course, was a riff on the real book Don Quixote, written by the real Cervantes. After the TV broadcast, Wasserman was invited to transform the play into a musical. Hence Man of La Mancha. A trip to the big screen seemed inevitable, given the success of the musical and the ubiquity of the musical’s theme song, “The Impossible Dream.” (Everyone from Cher to Frank Sinatra to the Temptations had a go at the song while Man of La Mancha was still on Broadway, and it briefly became a staple of Elvis Presley’s act.) Actors, directors, and producers dropped in and out of the project while debates raged about whether or not to include the music.
When the dust settled, journeyman director Arthur Hiller inherited a cast featuring James Coco (as Cervantes/Quixote’s sidekick), Sophia Loren (as the hero’s love interest), and Peter O’Toole (as Cervantes/Quixote). O’Toole was many things, but a singer was not one of them, so the die was pretty much cast when he was given the lead role. O’Toole is potent in the film’s dramatic scenes, speechifying gloriously about dreams and honor, but it’s irritating to watch him lip-sync while John Gilbert’s voice flows on the soundtrack. Equally frustrating is watching Loren struggle with her singing chores, since her voice lacks beauty and singularity.
And then there’s the jumbled storyline. The sequences in the dungeon require much suspension of disbelief, and the play-within-a-play bits are weirdly stylized—some exterior scenes were filmed on location, while others were shot on a soundstage with glaringly fake backdrops. Once the play-within-a-play gets mired in messy subplots during the middle of the movie, Man of La Mancha goes off the rails completely, resulting in tedium. The filmmakers would have been better served by a bolder choice—either diving wholeheartedly into musical terrain by presenting something as chipper and treacly as the music, or veering all the way back to Wasserman’s dramatic source material. Hell, even making a straightforward film of Don Quixote, with the same cast, would have been preferable. Man of La Mancha isn’t an excruciating mess, like so many other overwrought musicals of the same era, but it’s a mess nonetheless.
Man of La Mancha: FUNKY