This is one for the OSR: it’s heart is in the right place but it’s production values are terrible. I was lured into watching this movie originally by hearing a sample on the Vanishing Point song A Day of Difference, and thought it must be a great movie on the basis of Peter O’Toole’s effort therein. Unfortunately, the movie is based on a musical, which is in turn based on a play. This is a tragicomedy in action. Everything that needs to be said about plays has been said by the Daily Mash; musicals are of course the worst art form ever invented; and 70s TV can be very hit and miss at the best of times, let alone if it’s projecting a projection of a projection. The result of this farcical combination can be seen in this clip, which jerks from Peter O’Toole’s superb prose, which is delivered with that strained grace one gets used to in theatre, to a truly terrible moment of song in such a jarring way as to spoil the effect of the original speech completely. In fact, I had to watch this movie over a series of 30 minute viewings, and was regularly distracted during the worst of the songs.
The basic story concerns the imprisonment of a travelling playwright called Don Miguel de Cervantes, who is captured by the Inquisition and thrown in a shared oubliette with a bunch of petty criminals along with his servant, a fat stupid American. They plan to steal his belongings and destroy his life’s work, which is some kind of book, but he demands the right to a trial before they do so. His defense at this trial is the dramatic presentation of one of his stories, which concerns itself chiefly with the importance of seeing the world as it should be, rather than as it is. The central character of the play is a mad old man who thinks he is a Knight and sees all around him glory and beauty where there is only rot and decay. In the presentation of this moral tale, he is foiled principally by the prisoner who plays the role of prosecutor, a cynical and sarcastic wit; and a debased young woman who plays the part of the prostitute he exalts as a noblewoman. The former tries constantly to find fault with his moral lesson, while the latter denies that there is any goodness to be seen in the world.
The central idea of this story is a powerful moral story about always aiming to see things as they ought to be, rather than being dragged down by the bonds of ordinary mortality, told by someone who is doomed to be tortured by the Inquisition for speaking out against the church; the story is delivered in a manner that parallels one of the tales of Don Quixote, I think, and is perhaps meant to represent one stage in the life of the author of that book. The acting is brilliant and the script combines wit, classical references and some brilliantly crafted English to produce some very powerful dialogue. Unfortunately, the whole thing is spoiled irrevocably by the absolutely awful music, and the terrible soundtrack. Consider, for example a comparison of O’Toole’s speech:
I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” I don’t think they were wondering why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.
with some lyrics from the song The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, which is probably (shudder) one of the better ones in the tale:
Fare to the foe,
They will quail at the sight
Of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance!
Oh valorous Knight,
Go and fight for the right,
And battle all villains that be,
But oh, when you do,
What will happen to you
Thank God I won’t be there to see!
What was the person who wrote the former thinking when they penned the latter? Or, perhaps, what was the person who adapted the former from the stage thinking when they were so foolish as to think they could do any justice to it by penning the latter? This movie is an exercise in lining up beautifully crafted, carefully developed prose and then destroying it with awful, pantomime-standard music. Like all musicals ever made, it is good in spite of the terrible job that was done with the music. The director really should have been told not to proceed with this diabolical plan.
I can’t help but recommend it though because if you can bear the music, the acting and the speech in between are at times close to perfection. Have a book, and possibly a bucket, on hand and you may have a chance to enjoy an elegant presentation of an interesting moral tale, sadly interrupted every 5-10 minutes by a pack of squawking fools. There should be laws against this sort of travesty but, sadly, there aren’t, so one just has to show some fortitude and bear it. Good luck!