Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Musical Watch: The Man of La Mancha (1972)

artwork by the remarkable Ted CoConis

Watched:  02/26/2022
Format:  Amazon Prime
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's
Director:  Arthur Hiller

In high school I saw a college production of Man of La Mancha, and loved the show.  But somehow I never got around to watching the film.  By end of high school, I was familiar with O'Toole and Loren, so that wasn't a deterrent, and even back then, I didn't blink at watching movies from decades past.  I did plan to read Don Quixote on the heels of seeing the play, but never got to it.*  What has shocked me over the years is that the music from the show and the general spirit of a show I saw once at age 17 have stuck with me.

Even if you've never read Cervantes (and I have not) The Man of La Mancha (1972) is absolutely a worthwhile watch.  It's a strange movie, following the show's format, it's a play within a play.  Layer of illusion upon layer of illusion.  Cervantes is an actor performing the play he's written of Man of La Mancha in a town square when the Spanish Inquisition appears and, charging him with heresy, hauls him off to stand trial.  While waiting for his show trial, he cools his heels in a large, open dungeon with a multitude of fellow prisoners who decide to hold their own kangaroo court for him - and in order to explain himself, he sets about using the prisoners to portray a version of his play.

O'Toole barely looks himself as Cervantes, but he dons a false face to play the part of Don Quixote.  And, as he tells his story, the movie switches to the world of this play within the play.  And yet, we're immediately told Don Quixote himself is viewing a completely different world.  We see the barren plains of Spain and he sees a fantastical land of castles and dragons.  A windmill becomes a giant for him to tilt at with his lance.

We'll all have seen a million things which borrow from Don Quixote, of the ennobled soul who is mad. but his madness is preferable to reality.  I'm reminded of The Fisher King, and one of my favorite films and plays, Harvey.  Hell, Ted Lasso.

Where Man of La Mancha stands a bit differently is the context of the world in which we find first Cervantes and then Don Quixote.  There are very real threats to both, and still both insist on their ideals.  Some of the best stories feel shockingly relevant to our times, no matter what those times are.   And a man who has *chosen* madness, nobility and a fantasy version of a knight's chivalry and adheres to the codes and conduct of a great knight in the face of everyday disappointment is life should feel cloying.  It does not.

Instead, in focusing on Sophia Loren (made up to look like a scullery made, but a scullery made that is Sophia Loren) we get how others might be sparked to nobility in the face of nobility.  While maybe not woke, Quixote's view of Loren and renaming her Dulcinea (and refusing to call her by her name, Aldonza - that of a lowly working girl) and seeing only an amazing woman before him.  But it also gives him a chance to explain himself without ever losing a beat in his illusions.  It is preferable to let others think whatever they might as you strive for your best - so why not choose a world better than our own?  Where it is assumed good will prevail?  Why not be a part of that?

Of course there are those who would take the illusion from Don Quixote, as there always are.  

The family of Don Quixote wishes to dispel him of his embarrassing fantasies, and goes to extreme measures, which - frankly - do him harm.  And, we do not know Cervantes' fate as he ascends from the dungeon to stand before the Inquisition.  But, even in death, knowing one lived their ideals - that's not nothing.

Stylistically, the movie plays with the notion of illusion and it's collapsing between what is real and what is not.  As Quixote, O'toole is clearly a man in make-up, applied like stage make-up, not film make-up.  We see not just Aldonza's transformation to the Dulcinea she wishes to be, but we also see the prisoner recruited into playing the part - more miserable than Aldonza - finding herself along the way.  

Of course it's a musical and it's the got the show stoppers you know.  The Impossible Dream and Dulcinea.  But all of the music holds up - and has happily avoided feeling dated, in some part because those showstoppers are staples.  There's some interesting use of O'Toole and Loren in singing parts - and neither is a singer, so voice doubles were employed.  But there's some interesting stuff I'd need to bring someone else in to look at, as the singing seems wobbly until the characters are in bloom with their illusions.

There's... a lot more to say.  The movie/ musical play is not short of making sexual assault of Aldonza a key and frequent occurrence (it's understood she's a prostitute as well as a kitchen hand).  YMMV here, and it seems a bit much in the film after a point.  The role of medicine and the church is worth digging into quite a bit (with the church getting at least more even treatment).  And plenty more.

It had really been too long since I revisited the show as play or movie, and I was pleased the movie didn't disappoint.  I don't think it's for everyone, and many will view some of what I liked as mistakes or handled awkwardly - but I was kinda there for it.

*I feel there's some heavy irony in that the two novels I keep intending to read and do not are Moby Dick and Don Quixote.

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