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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2018

GoCritic! Feature: Terry Gilliam and his Don Quixote


- Susanne Gottlieb explores how The Man Who Killed Don Quixote fits and fares within Terry Gilliam's filmmaking career

GoCritic! Feature: Terry Gilliam and his Don Quixote

‘Don’t be a film director,’ Terry Gilliam warns. ‘Unless you are so passionate about the work, unless you have something important to say for the world, some incredible talent that won’t let you go.’

Not letting go is something Gilliam should know a thing or two about. Two months after its world premiere at Cannes, the British filmmaker presented The Man Who Killed Don Quixote [+see also:
film review
interview: Terry Gilliam
film profile
at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF). The project has not only haunted him for 25 years but is also represented in every article ranking the most hellish film productions in history, and it even spawned its own documentary, Lost in La Mancha (2002). Now available for the world to see in its final form, it is a movie about a young successful film director who has lost his pure spirit, vision and soul, and who sets out on a quest to reclaim them.

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Knowing the typical Gilliam hero, this quest is of course foredoomed. But unlike the protagonists of previous works—Dennis in Jabberwocky (1977), Sam Lowry in Brazil (1985) or James Cole in Twelve Monkeys (1995)—Gilliam’s latest hero, Toby (Adam Driver), is difficult to connect with as a viewer. His dreamlike illusions and fantasies, through which Gilliam usually sets the tone and develops the plot, do not advance the story as much as they rip through the world that his delusional companion Javier (Jonathan Pryce) is locked in, portraying him as a noble but pitiful fool. The fantastic dreams of Gilliam’s universe may have always been filled with illusions and frenzy. Here, though, they often seem like a medical condition that asks for pity, a sterile drop of ‘Gilliamism’ here and there on a blank canvas.

What has gone wrong? The prolonged production history may have taken its toll, but Gilliam is no stranger to obstacles during the shooting process. Brazil is famous for being delayed by the studio, while The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) was stalled by budgetary problems, destroyed sets, shooting delays and animosities among the cast and crew. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [+see also:
film profile
(2009) fell into trouble when its star, Heath Ledger, died some way into filming.

Production hells haven’t always been fatal, as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) proved. After 18 years of setbacks, Miller’s movie became the highest-grossing film in the Mad Max franchise, winning six Academy Awards and becoming critically acclaimed as one of the greatest action films of all time. Gilliam has a natural aversion to awards and the big limelight. In Karlovy Vary, he jokingly pushed the narrative that he achieved something that the legendary Orson Welles couldn’t. Welles, whose films also got caught up in production complications, was opting for an adaption of the Don Quixote material that never materialised in its final form. But while Gilliam is a fine director, none of his work reaches Welles’ cultural legacy. The comparison is a bit farfetched.

Has the master of fantastic worlds simply grown too bitter with the business? Gilliam hopes he hasn’t become Toby. ‘There are so many talented filmmakers that make their first film and then they get dragged into the seductive world of commercials,’ he says. ‘They never come back, so this movie is a warning to young filmmakers.’ Having himself shot commercials, Gilliam is familiar with the instant financial gratification of the money paid in that sector. In an early scene in the director’s latest feature, Toby’s loss of vision and purpose as a filmmaker becomes apparent when he watches the student version of his own Don Quixote, a piece of art with an aura he is trying to replicate in a big budget production. Glued to the DVD Player, he gets lost in the film, dissecting its soul but coming up empty.

If that was the warning that would reach the young filmmakers in Gilliam’s own audience loud and clear, one might cherish the lesson learned and move on, even if it took a very uneven movie to get there. Unfortunately, that is not the only lesson Gilliam’s film advances. The convoluted mess that is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a miscellaneous mix of ideas, sends out another warning even clearer: sometimes, it is better to kill your darlings.

The problems of the constant rewrites and the shifts in narrative focus over the years already start with the characterisation of the protagonist. Similar to Jabberwocky, which was based on a poem by Lewis Carroll, Don Quixote is grounded in a fantastic realm. The old eponymous hero escapes reality by dipping into the romanticised world of knighthood, an institution that had already died out by the 17th Century. Riding off for adventure, he battles giants who are actually windmills and rescues damsels who, in reality, are ordinary prostitutes. It is not hard to sense the appeal for Gilliam to make a movie about this wanderer of worlds. But ultimately the movie is not about him but Toby, his ‘loyal Sancho’. We only see Quixote through Toby’s eyes, as he does the dreamlike sequences. His phantasms are not the real deal but knockoffs of the fantastical world of Javier, making Quixote seem more like a cheap joke than a fugitive escaping real life.


In Jabberwocky, Dennis (Michael Palin) only wants an ordinary life with the fat cruel Griselda. Instead he is thrown into a situation of fighting the Jabberwocky and marrying a princess he doesn’t want. Dennis’ success is the luck of the stupid, his fate defined by bad luck or the shortcomings of the establishment. Religious fanatics love the experience of pain so much they voluntarily kill themselves, sparing Dennis, or he has to join the chosen knight in battling the monster after being mistaken for his knave. It is a grotesque world, in which only the dumb succeed and the upper classes fail.

In Don Quixote, Toby is part of the establishment as the arrogant corrupted director, and most of the movie is seen through his eyes with that particular kind of mindset. After realising he ruined everybody’s life in the little village he shot his student film in, including then 15-year old Angelica (Joana Ribeiro)—who, we learn, became an escort after not making it as a movie star—Toby encounters his main character Javier again, who is caught up in a delusion that he is the actual Don Quixote. The reason he is caught up in that fantasy, besides the script demanding it, remains vague; since Gilliam doesn’t offer further elaboration on his character’s state of mind, Javier remains more of a lost misfit on the road than a failed crusader of chivalry.

This is further demonstrated when Javier is locked in trailer as a tourist attraction by a local woman—or when he is ridiculed by a group of filmmakers at an extravagant party. This latter troupe stages a whole show around him, with actors and set-pieces, to mock his determination to save ‘fair maidens’. Once Javier, unaware of the fake setup, is confronted with their laughter, he shamefully fades into the background—but only because he feels he has failed in his chivalrous aims, not because he saw through the trap. This is not fun, this is not Gilliam’s smart criticism of the establishment: it is clubbing an old man—Javier, as played by Pryce—over the head. Although Toby finally overcomes his aversion for his companion and tries to help him, the showdown is not dedicated to the older man, but the most typical, by-the-numbers resolution out there: he sets out to get the girl.

It is not only the hero that offers little to connect with. Gilliam’s typical visual style seems to have diminished too. Gilliam’s ‘broken brain’, as he calls the source for his surreal inspirations, seems to have been fixed. The marker is at 45 minutes into the film when we finally see the protagonists encountering a fantastic reality. A trashy ruin in the Spanish plains with a gang of rundown inhabitants, partially in rags and deprived of much modern technology, is a typical Gilliam set design. He pushes this scenario even further with Toby’s dream, a 17th Century nightmare of a Spanish village being raided for the Don. This is Gilliam at his finest: fast edits, a busy set design and elements from reality chipping in, like the mysterious gypsy that seems to reappear to Toby on a regular basis. But those are just bits that pop up occasionally. Most of the narrative is set in the contemporary world.

That in itself wouldn’t be a problem. Gilliam has mixed reality and dreams before, but the Spanish wasteland Toby and Javier pass is just that. Waste, empty and deprived of any meaning. When Time Bandits (1981) shows everyday reality before setting off to a fantastic quest that may or may not be a dream, it is a child’s subjective view of the world surrounding him. His materialistic parents live in a world eaten up by consumerism, a caricature in its pure form. His mother is all dressed in pink and mixes pink drinks, the TV is showing a show called Your Money or Your Life. It depicts a daily life in which Kevin, who is mostly ignored by his parents, does not feel comfortable.

Time Bandits

In comparison, the world of luxury and entitlement in Gilliam’s Quixote is already overbearing. The constant massages Toby receives from his assistant, the white board peppered with diverse characters he needs to cast in order to fulfil a certain quota, or even his fancy outfits: all of this leaves very little to be depicted in a caricatural way. It looks real and Toby for the most part seems to relish in that luxury, not accuse it. The missing symbolism is also evident when he and Javier ride through the area or run from the police after blowing up his captor’s trailer. It is not until the final showdown at the costume ball of a rich Russian investor, that the medieval setting slowly fades into another fantasy of Toby, the world becoming more grotesque, the editing speeding up and the camera angles becoming more skewed.

But Gilliam doesn’t fully embrace that world, making it seem more like a failed anachronism. A fantastic world in which people have cell phones and bodyguards in tuxedos exist. Another half-hearted attempt is the knight Javier has to battle in an earlier scene, a call back from movies like Jabberwocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or The Fisher King (1991). Unlike its predecessors, Don Quixote doesn’t seem very intimidating but more like a dispatched creature in the nothingness, his armour shining with blinking mirrors or broken DVD discs, depending on the angle.

For the rest of the movie, Gilliam’s typical appliance of skewed horizons and wide-angle lenses may still be present, but there is no complexity in the picture. Gilliam is renowned for loading his frames with references, quotes and associations that the viewer simply cannot decipher in one viewing. His infamous “hamster problem” in Twelve Monkeys sums up his obsession: the blurry shadow of a hamster, that refused to spin in its wheel while James Cole (Bruce Willis) was drawing blood in the foreground, delayed production for several hours as Gilliam insisted on that scene as he had envisioned it. An uninformed viewer would easily miss it, as the hamster is placed very subtly within the arrangement of the shot.

But it is those details that always gave Gilliam’s work complexity. In Don Quixote, they are few and far apart. You do see the shadow of a couple kissing as Toby and Angelica talk for the first time in 10 years, foreshadowing their romantic relationship. But since he is the main character and she takes up the roleof romantic interest, it is an obvious conclusion straight from the start. If there is any complexity to the scenery, then it is the question of how Javier and Toby manage to pass from sandy dunes to lush vegetation and waterfalls to deep forest settings within minutes of time.

The ultimate effort of Gilliam finishing his pet project results in him proving again, after movies like The Brothers Grimm [+see also:
film profile
(2005) and Doctor Parnassus, that he hasn’t been at the top of his game for quite a while. Quixote further underscores this, by being a crammed conglomerate of several stages of his life as a filmmaker, inserting too many different ideas without connecting the dots in between. Don Quixote is less of a corruption warning to young filmmakers, but a reminder that for every Mad Max: Fury Road and George Miller, there will be a Man who Killed Don Quixote and Terry Gilliam.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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