Simon Hoggart

Buffeted by unkind fates

The most affecting programme of the week was Lost in La Mancha, a film shown as part of the Storyville series on BBC 2 (Sunday). It was about Terry Gilliam, who used to do the cartoons for Monty Python and who now has a reputation for being a ‘maverick’ director. This means that sometimes he works outside the Hollywood system successfully (Brazil) and sometimes disastrously (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). He often refers to the catastrophe of Munchausen. We all have events that define our sense of ourselves; how awful it must be when the central incident in your life was a devastating failure.

But Gilliam can never do anything the easy way. He wanted to make a film of Don Quixote but he couldn’t let even this huge story speak for itself. The movie was titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and the Sancho Panza figure was to be played by Johnny Depp as a time traveller from the present day. The budget was so small it allowed for nothing to go wrong, yet the film was to be packed with stunts and special effects. What gave this documentary its resonance was the similarity between the crazed old knight and Gilliam himself — both deluded, the object of simultaneous affection and pity from those around them (‘Captain Chaos’ was one crew member’s description of their director), both buffeted by unkind fates.

And the fates were horribly unkind. Jean Rochefort, the actor playing Quixote, suffered from a double hernia and a pain in the prostate, both of which made riding a horse unpleasant if not impossible. Military jets flew overhead while important scenes were being filmed. The saddest moment came when hail and floods swept through the set and took off much of the equipment.

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