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Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha
1972 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 128 132 min. / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren, James Coco, Harry Andrews, John Castle, Brian Blessed, Ian Richardson, Julie Gregg
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editor Robert C. Jones
Original Music Mitch Leigh, Laurence Rosenthal
Written by Dale Wasserman from his play and television play from the novel Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi, Arthur Hiller
Directed by Arthur Hiller

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The bellyflop of Man of La Mancha hitting screens in 1972 could be heard all the way to Madrid. The acclaimed musical simply didn't survive the translation to the screen. The reason why can be argued with any number of criticisms too obvious to belabor, but the ultimate culprit is a lack of inspiration. Don Quixote is about the dreams and illusions that can raise us from our humble and compromised lives, but this film musical never finds the right tone, and its performances never touch us as they should.


Miguel de Cervantes (Peter O'Toole) awaits his trial before the holy office in a dungeon where "The Governor" (Harry Andrews) puts him on a secondary trial before the other inmates. Miguel and his assistant (James Coco) stage a play in their defense, explaining the tattered manuscript he carries (you know, the first "novel"). The book and the play are about about Alonso Quijana, a deranged Spaniard who leaves his family and as the noble knight Don Quixote de la Mancha wanders Spain in search of glory with his squire Sancho Panza (Coco). Quixote insists that windmills are giants, a decrepit inn a castle, muledrivers knights, and the scullion maid Aldonza (Sophia Loren) a great lady named Dulcinea. He's taken as insane but also as inspired - and the downtrodden Aldonza begins to believe in his magic just as much as Sancho does.

The musical genre was really falling apart in the late 60s. Star! fell victim to the idea that its talent couldn't make a bad movie, and Half a Sixpence was just limp. By the early 70s the musical movie seemed to dry up completely. Lost Horizon was an embarrassment and The Little Prince an insubstantial effort. Only Cabaret had the invention and power to invigorate the genre.

Man of La Mancha's sins have been written up too many times. The film begins with an uninteresting stagebound wraparound scene in a dungeon of the Inquisition. The entire context of the Inquisition is a plot device (was Miguel de Cervantes really harassed by the Holy Office?) that will mean nothing to uninformed audiences. Text that plays okay for an audience fifty feet away seems rather cut and dried up close. We know the dungeon's inmates are really harmless and that Cervantes will win them over with his theatrics. The staging is rather mechanical.

When the play opens up to tell Cervantes' tale there's no stylistic change. Quixote and Sancho ride over dull hills and tilt at an unremarkable windmill that's not even interesting in its plainness. The Inn he confuses for a castle is another stagey-looking set without any particular dramatic flavor, Spanish or otherwise.

I'm not saying the movie is miscast, but Peter O'Toole's makeup in the "real" Quixote section looks terribly phony, with big marks across his face. He also never seems particularly demented, just aloof and stubborn. Not enough seems to happen to motivate his extreme reactions to his surroundings. This leaves the good songs to do the job on their own. The camera records the actors standing still and pretending to sing them (Simon Gilbert provides a convincing singing voice for O'Toole). James Coco comes off best with his touching I really like him song, but even the big number The Impossible Dream lacks uplift.

Sophia Loren is too glamorous of an icon - she's so intimidatingly beautiful, we just don't accept that the louts at the inn would treat her as they do. The Italian cast of muledrivers jump around in lifelessly choreographed taunting and menace. There's nothing remotely Spanish about them, kind of the same odd effect given by some of the "American" Italian extras in the movie Popeye.

The artificiality of Aldonza's crudeness (the chaste rape scene) isn't redeemed by Quixote's delirious faith. They win a silly fight that's supposed to prove something but doesn't. The song Pale Knight of the Woeful Countenance should have a legendary spirit, but with Arthur Hiller's film treatment, it just sits there.

The disillusion, defeat and final resurrection of Quixote at Alonson Quijana's deathbed is also inert, even though the three leads give it their best shot. There's no single mistake here, the movie just isn't done well enough in general.

MGM's DVD of Man of La Mancha is probably a better experience than the 1972 film release, which even in 70mm was repeatedly trounced for being the ugliest, greyest musical ever made. The color here is a bit livelier. There's also the benefit of skipping among the individual songs, which remain the big draw and far overshadow the musical itself. I saw Richard Kiley do the musical on stage in LA for a high school field trip back in the late 60s ... and remember only the big stair in the dungeon and Kiley's ability to fill the house with his voice on the big solo of The Impossible Dream.

The transfer is 16:9 enhanced at 1:85, a welcome surprise after MGM's announcement that the disc would be flat.

A photo montage covers the overture which is added as an extra. The overture probably accounts for the time difference between this DVD and the original theatrical run. There's also a trailer, that in 1972 looked completely gray and drab.

Man of La Mancha was nominated for an Oscar for best score. How does that work, when the score preexists the movie and is really an accomplishment for the stage? 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Man of La Mancha rates:
Movie: Fair -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (5.1 surround)
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2004


1. Correction from Longtime Correspondent "B"Dear Glenn:

Well, MAN OF LA MANCHA wasn't nominated for "an Oscar for best score." The movie was actually nominated for an Oscar for, well, "Best Song Score."

The Academy's Music Branch changes its rules with some frequency. Back in '72, there were two different scoring categories: one for "Original Dramatic Score," the other for "Original Song Score and/or Adaptation." The first is self- explanatory (1972, by the way, was the year that the then twenty year old LIMELIGHT won this award); the other is a category that AMPAS tends to use in years when a number of musicals (whether adaptations or originals) and/ or pictures with scores substantially adapted from existing material are in release.

In 1972, the nominees in this "Original Song Score and/or Adaptation" category were LA MANCHA (adapted by Rosenthal [and Saul Chaplin, uncredited], from the Mitch Leigh/ Joe Darion score), LADY SINGS THE BLUES (adapted by Gil Askey, from a variety of standards associated with Billie Holiday) and CABARET (adapted by Ralph Burns, from the John Kander/ Fred Ebb score), which won.

Hope you're well. Some terrific pieces lately, pal.

Best, Always.-- B.


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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