Arthur Hiller and Man of La Mancha

By Steven LaVigne

Like many directors who worked during its early years, Arthur Hiller (1923-2016) got his start in television. His first film, The Americanization of Emily (1964) gave Julie Andrews both the opportunity to show off her acting chops by playing a non-musical role as well as her first chance out of three to work with James Garner. Over the years, Hiller’s work included such popular hits as The Hospital, The Out-of-Towners, Plaza Suite and Silver Streak. Possibly though, his most successful film was the film he made from Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story. Released when I was a Senior in High School, this romantic movie was, for my generation, what Titanic would be for high schoolers almost three decades ago.  

Hiller’s only musical was Man of La Mancha.

Among the most popular Broadway hits of the 1960s, Man of La Mancha opened at Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village before transferring to the  Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld) Theater on 45th Street, where it played 2,328 performances, winning the Tony for Best Musical against such competition as Mame and Sweet Charity

When United Artists brought Man of La Mancha to the screen, Peter O’Toole was cast as Cervantes/Don Quixote. O’Toole had done his own singing in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but it was decided that Simon Gilbert would dub his vocals and the dubbing is blatantly obvious. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, O’Toole is the right actor for this role!

The original plan was to use the Broadway team: librettist Dale Wasserman, director Albert Marre and stars Richard Kiley and Joan Diener. However, Marre was fired due to his lack of filmmaking experience. Peter Glenville, who’d directed O’Toole in Becket, was brought in, but he wanted to eliminate much of the score. After he was fired, the job went to Hiller. Gillian Lynne was hired as choreographer and the supporting cast included James Coco, Sophia Loren, Gino Conforti, Ian Richardson and Brian Blessed. Marilyn Horne was signed to dub for Loren, but wanted equal billing, so Loren did her own singing (and surprisingly well, too).

The Source Material

To begin with, Don Quixote is a philosophical novel, and no matter how good the material may be, philosophy never translates well to either stage or screen. There’s never been a successful production of this novel (not even the stage version). Rudolf Nureyev was cast as Basilio in a balletic film version and his performance overshadowed that of Robert Helpmann in the title role. For almost 15 years, Orson Welles tried to make his version, but it was never finished, although a semi-documentary DVD is available.  Terry Gilliam had similar difficulty and documented his progress in Lost in La Mancha, which examines how, for 30 years, he tried to put the novel onscreen.While it remains a Community Theater staple. Man of La Mancha is a terrible movie.

Set during the Spanish Inquisition, the film opens with titles done by a poor man’s Saul Bass in black, white and blue. During a surprisingly low-key and poorly attended street performance that the Spanish Inquisition considers blasphemous. Miguel de Cervantes and his servant, Sancho Panza are arrested (none of the other players go with them). They’re led to a hilltop prison and down a circular staircase to a dungeon lit only by a ceiling grid and torches. (Hiller spends a lot of time focusing on gears and detailed ancient equipment). They’re seized on by the inmates who claw through a wicker trunk and confiscate the manuscript for Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. Cervantes demands a trial to get it back and the plot swings into action.

Cervantes turns this trial into a play that follows Alonso Quijano, an elderly man who believes he’s a knight-errant named Don Quixote de La Mancha and sets forth with his squire to save the world. Hiller then moves the story onto the Spanish Plain. Rather than the Andalucian Plain near Seville and Gibraltar, where the story is set, scenes were, instead, shot near Rome. First things first: Cervantes has his ill-fated battle with the windmill, and then notices a nearby inn, where he meets Aldonza, the serving wench who must consistently fighting off the male customers. An unconvincing subplot involves the Quijano family and their shallow concerns over their father’s mental health, but are more concerned about their father’s will and who will inherit what.

In this film, Hiller (like many directors who aren’t sure of what they’re doing), largely ignores the script, hardly developing any chemistry between the characters, who go through their paces. Instead, they merely say lines. There’s never any excitement as the story moves along. Even scenes like the battle with the windmill, which should be a comic highlight, is poorly realized and unmemorable. It’s almost as if everyone on screen is dead.

Man of La Mancha does have one redeeming quality that makes the movie tolerable: Sophia Loren’s Aldonza/Dulcinea. She’s the absolutely right actress for the role of an angry, illegitimate servant and prostitute who’s so astounded when she’s treated gallantly by Quixote that she falls in love with him.

Some moments begin pleasantly, almost looking as if they belong in another movie, such as the “Dulcinea” sequence. The moment is ruined, however, the minute O’Toole opens his mouth and Simon Gilbert’s voice comes out.

I saw this movie when it was first released and I wanted to see everything related to the theater. When I watched it for the purposed of this article, I couldn’t get through it. As I said in my piece on A Chorus Line, anyone who hasn’t seen a spectacular stage production of this musical (I haven’t) and only knows the show from the cast recording and this movie should question why this it’s so popular.

On a personal note, while I admire the scores for many musicals, Man of La Mancha, Anything Goes and Camelot are three shows I personally don’t like, largely because of their scripts. As stated above, La Mancha is philosophy and doesn’t work on stage or screen. I think the script for Anything Goes is intolerably stupid, and Camelot is too long with the second act terribly unfocused. During the original production, director Moss Hart was hospitalized after a near-fatal heart attack. Rather than bring someone else in, librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner took over as director, so he never had time to revise his own work. Unless you saw it at Lincoln Center last Spring, who knows what Aaron Sorkin did with the script for its revival.