Home > Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Musical > Man of La Mancha (1972)

Man of La Mancha (1972)

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To be with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love, pure and chaste, from afar
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!

Man of La Mancha is a film adaptation of Daniel Wasserman’s Broadway musical of the same name, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. It was inspired by Wasserman’s non-musical teleplay I, Don Quixote, which in turn was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Directed by Arthur Hiller, this movie stars Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren, and James Coco.

It is the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are imprisoned after putting on a play making fun of said inquisition. Their fellow prisoners rifle through the trunk containing Cervantes belongings, which include stage props, costumes, and a manuscript of which Cervantes is very protective, as it represents his life’s work. The prisoners seize the manuscript and hold a mock trial to see whether Cervantes should get the manuscript back, and the playwright presents an impromptu play as his defense, telling the story of Alonso Quijana, a daft old man who has decided to live out his days as a knight-errant named Don Quixote de la Mancha, seeking out advantures with his “squire”, Sancho Panza, who privately agrees that Quijana is crazy but sticks around because it’s a likeable sort of crazy. And, either despite or because he is out of his gourd, Quijana/Quixote leaves a lasting impression on a number of people in the small town that hosts him, particularly a jaded whore named Aldonza whom he takes for the fair maiden Dulcinea, treating her like a queen when everyone else treats her like trash.

I don’t watch many musicals. I don’t know why. However, I enjoyed the hell out of Man of La Mancha. It was made during a time when Hollywood actors first had to claw their way up from the stage, and thus many of them were expected to sing and dance as well as act. Peter O’Toole is an obvious alumnus of this school of acting, but surprisingly so is the beautiful Sophia Loren (whose looks still hold up twenty-mumble years later). O’Toole is charming as both Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote, with both preferring to see the world as it should be rather than as it is. Loren’s portrayal as Aldonza initially rails against Quixote’s sweet romanticisms, having lived her adult life as a plaything for travelers, but even he brings her hope in the end, a spark of promise that perhaps she can be more than the lowly Aldonza, that perhaps Dulcinea lives within her after all. Running interference between madness and sanity is Sancho, who doesn’t believe in his master’s delusions but does consider him a loyal friend and is willing to defend him if need be (though he is not stupid – he hangs back and watches Quixote’s disastrous and iconic charge against the four-armed giants unsuspecting windmills).

While the source novel was intended as a satire of chivalrous fiction popular in the day, here Quixote’s madness is an allegory for idealism, for following your dreams, and for reaching for the stars even as life pushes you down into the mud. The fact that this clearly delusional knight is able to affect the “sane” people around him to the point that he does demonstrates the need for dreams, and it is heartbreaking to watch Quijana’s well-meaning family turn his own delusions against him, confronting him with a shattering dose of reality that nearly breaks his spirit entirely.

If you’ve ever wondered how important dreams and fantasies were an age of cold facts and harsh reality, watch Man of La Mancha. It’s an older classic that still holds up well today, and the tale of Don Quixote’s quest for humble greatness (if only in his own mind) is likely to inspire even modern audiences to reach for the stars.

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