‘Man of La Mancha’ Review: Maddest of all, to see Life as it is and not as it Should be.

Posted in The Screening Room by - September 12, 2015

For my second written review of Singin’ September, I was tasked with critiquing the 1972 film Man of La Mancha. It’s based off the musical play of the same name, which is based off of a small portion of the book Don Quixote that I was actually about halfway through reading at the time of my viewing. The story, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is about an aging Spanish nobleman who becomes so enamored with tales of knights errant and chivalry that he decides to become one himself, wandering the Spanish countryside in search of vile wizards, giants, and knaves. The book is a classic, often cited on lists of must read literature, and is an engrossing example of classical humor despite it’s extreme length. As I prepared to watch the film, I wondered how faithful the movie would be in both content and style to the novel, and hoped it would maintain some semblance of similarity. Luckily for me, the movie managed to provide interesting visuals while keeping up with the wit and word play of the old school written comedy.

Man of La Mancha begins with the author, Miguel, played by Peter O’Toole, a playwright and traveling stage actor, being arrested for subversive writing. He is taken to the nearest stronghold of the Inquisition and thrown in to the holding cells with a large number of thieves, murderers, and traitors to the crown. When they take all of his possessions and threaten to burn a precious manuscript, he begs them to hear his case for its value, convincing the prisoners to assist him in the portrayal of the tale of Don Quixote. Once the play in the dungeons begins, the movie transports itself in to this imaginary land, and shows the story from within, as Miguel plays the part of the misguided knight errant. Meanwhile his assistant, portrayed by James Coco, plays the part of Sancho Panza, the hapless, sane squire drawn along by his lord’s insanity.

As for the music, it takes nineteen minutes for the first song to occur, but the music is interesting and entertaining, managing to mix the feel and message of the play with 1970s style choreography. Some of the vocal performances aren’t entirely on key, but because of the style of the story, it actually functions to better show the absurdity and insanity of the primary character and the tale itself. The best song by far is titled “Dulcinea”. It begins as a love song from Don Quixote to the serving wench Dulcinea, a role taken by the lovely Sophia Loren, who Quixote sees as a beautiful princess. However, when the Don is led away to his room, the rest of the patrons of the inn, all hard, poor men, take up a chorus making fun of the crazy noble, and their chorus and choreography is some of the most entertaining of the film. The most famous song has got to be “The Impossible Dream”. It’s a song that many may not know by name, but will probably recognize when they hear it sung. It’s been covered many times by all kinds of artists, from Frank Sinatra, to Christopher Lee, to The Bosstones. It’s also been affiliated with the 1967 Boston Red Sox pennant-winning season. It’s been features in Pinky and the Brain, Quantum Leap, and Touched by an Angel. It’s even been referenced in presidential campaigns

The format of the film is excellent for its depiction of the written work off of which it is based. At times, it even feels as though you are watching a play, with the camera staying in the world of the dungeon as the prisoners wholeheartedly take on the roles given to them by Miguel. I assume that this creative decision assisted in limiting the cost of the piece, as it required no change in set or full costume, and yet it functions so perfectly within the world of the story that it one might believe it was chosen solely for it’s visual values.

All things considered, Man of La Mancha is an acceptable, if not respectable, film adaption of not only the stage play but also the original novel. It’s wit and humor are subdued and subtle compared to the comedies of the modern day, its music is interesting and earnest, and its performances are committed to the roles. It’s also notable to discuss the message of the film, which says that it is madness to view the world as it is instead of how we would wish it to be, when accepting life as it is only leads to apathy and the acceptance of pain as a way of life. The finale, in which the prisoners sing their support for Cervantes as he is led toward his interrogation by the inquisition is enough to move even a stubborn cynic such as myself to feel a twinge of emotion. If you’re a fan of the classic novel, musical stage plays turned movies, old school comedies, or musicals with an uplifting message, check out Man of La Mancha.

Final Say: Watch it

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Born in Arizona, he currently resides in Denton, Texas. When he isn't watching movies he's playing board games and drinking whatever he can get his hands on. John watches Djimon Honsou movies because he likes Spawn, which had Michael Jai White.
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