If I haven’t mentioned it before, my gateway drug into classic film was the movie musical. My Father, a trained psychologist, used them to entice his daughters away from a glut of cartoons and into the world of “live-action.” I admit, with all honesty, that I was once terrified by this prospect. I’m not sure precisely what traumatized me about non-animated cinema (I suspect I glimpsed something that I shouldn’t have and my young brain just kind of shut down on the matter), but for years any film that occupied more than two-dimensions gave me a deep sense of unease.
My Father, however, was undaunted by the challenge, determined to share with us the (age-appropriate) films he loved. A clever man (I learned early-on the significance of Dr. Jeffrey’s Ph.D.), Dad noticed how I relished my Disney Sing-Alongs. Music then (no-imminent-pun-intended), was the key to getting little-Meg to watch something other than Aladdin for the ninth time. We started with Singin’ in the Rain, then Hello Dolly!, and then moved on to the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection. By the time I left my single-digit years behind, I had fallen in love with cinema’s song-and-dance-men (and women).
One afternoon, I recall Papa telling my sister and I to go to our rooms and see what was on our beds. Scurrying down the hallway, I discovered the double-VHS version of Camelot, while my sister, who was a devoted fan of Wishbone, in particular the episode entitled “The Impawssible Dream,” found Man of La Mancha (1972) propped up on her pillow. As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “The story of a mad, but kind and chivalrous, elderly nobleman, who, aided by his squire Sancho Panza, fights windmills to save his Dulcinea.”
Man of La Mancha was unlike any other movie musical I had seen. Contrary to the technicolor explosions of light and cheer to which I had grown accustomed, Man of La Mancha’s world is one of browns: dirt plains, soiled canvas, filthy clothes, and rusted metal. It is, as I now recognize it, a quintessential 70s movie. When re-watching it through more-knowing eyes, I recognize the grainy quality of the film, its realism, and the ugliness that it never attempts to conceal. However, even as a child, this dearth of visual splendor did not repel me. Instead, it drew me deeper into the film’s narrative. The movie opens with the arrest of playwright, performer, and poet, Miguel de Cervantes (Peter O’Toole), who is then “welcomed” into the jails of the Spanish Inquisition. A few scenes later, after Cervantes launches into his tale of the dauntless Don Quixote, rather than entering some richly-hued and whimsical fantasyland, the camera pans to the dull yellow and dry fields of La Mancha; the audience remains firmly and physically outside of Quixote’s dreamworld for the entire film. This make it even more impressive, in my opinion, when we inevitably find ourselves believing in his quest. What the movie shows us, the dust and grime of reality, compels us to empathize with Quixote’s desire for something better and more beautiful.
In a film, therefore, that does not rely on dazzling visuals to enchant its audience, an engaging cast is paramount. Here again, Man of La Mancha makes some odd, but ultimately effective, choices. As in the play upon which it is based, many of the film’s actors are tasked with playing triple roles: as prisoners of the Inquisition, then as Cervantes’ characters, and finally as figures within Quixote’s fantasy. In my opinion, the best example of this triple-character is “The Duke,” played by British character actor, John Castle. “The Duke” is Cervantes’ antagonist in all three “worlds”: he is the “prosecutor” of the jail’s kangaroo court, he is the doctor tasked with “curing” Alonso Quijana, and he is the fiendish “Knight of the Mirrors,” Don Quixote’s nemesis. Over the course of the film, Castle’s consistency across all three roles grounds the audience in a strange reality, while at the same time illustrating how easily fantasy mirrors (and augments) our true natures.
Equally wonderful, of course, is the magnificently magnetic, Peter O’Toole… who can’t sing. “The Impossible Dream,” Quixote’s showstopping ballad, is the musical’s most beloved number. This ode to man’s resilience has been performed by dozens of artists, ranging from Elvis to contemporary broadway legend, Brian Stokes Mitchell. However, Peter O’Toole’s version was the first I ever heard, and it is still pretty terrible (even though it’s dubbed)! However, those shaky vocals buried themselves deep in my bones, and Quixote has since become the internal voice that rallies me to fight on when things seem, well, impossible. This is because, despite his lack of musical ability, O’Toole was a damn fine actor; his sincerity in this film convinces me, every time, to believe in this Irishman as a tortured Spanish genius and his mad knight. And if any one remains skeptical of O’Toole’s talent after watching this brief, but powerful speech on the nature of madness… I’m afraid I can’t help you. As concerns Sophia Loren’s Aldonza… although she acts her heart out, I still have to agree with this observation from Pinky and the Brain:
“BRAIN: Are you pondering what I’m pondering?
PINKY: Um, I think so, Don Cerebro, but, um, why would Sophia Loren do a musical?”
In closing… someone might read this post and think: according to Meg, Man of La Mancha is an ugly film, with a few good actors, who in spite of their talents, couldn’t hit a note even if it was a giant windmill and they went charging straight for it! To which I’d reply: that last line was a little on the nose, don’t you think?
Despite its shortcomings, this film is absolutely worth watching because of what is has to say about our need for fantasy. Take, for example, the friendship between Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza (an adorable James Coco). In reality, Panza is Quijana’s hapless neighbor. Quixote persuades him to join his “glorious quest,” not through any promises of a big payday, but through exhilarating tales of good versus evil in strange, new lands. At the film’s conclusion, Panza then tries to rouse a dying Quijana by appealing to their shared longing for adventure; Panza, through his friendship with Quixote, has seen that there is more to life than daily drudgeries, and he wants to go back! Moreover, although I jest about Sophia Loren’s work in this film, I still find Aldonza’s transformation very moving; she is a woman who has (often literally) been beaten down all her life, but her relationship with Quixote empowers her to believe in a better world. The film’s final scene, featuring the chorus of prisoners raising their voices in an emotional encore of “Impossible Dream,” never fails to make my eyes mist, especially as I have grown older and learned how difficult it can be to keep dreaming.
Head’s Up: This is a film best viewed with older children. As I mentioned above, it features the Spanish Inquisition, prostitutes, madness, and a few brief scenes of violence (although other than one fight, the violence is mostly implied). There is also some swearing and adult language, but it is still tamer than most modern films (no f-bombs or anything like that). However, as I also stated above, there is much to recommend Man of La Mancha, and it deserves to be seen (largely for its score and Peter O’Toole’s stirring performance).
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”