Don Quixote is one of those never finished films that fascinates me. At one point, it was just a half hour show that Orson Welles was making for CBS called Don Quixote Passes By and it would have Quixote (originally Mischa Auer, to be replaced by Francisco Reiguera, Simon of the Desert) and Sancho Panza (Akim Tamiroff, who Welles called “the greatest of all screen actors”) being trapped in 1955. Welles would tell Peter Bogdanovich in a conversation printed in This is Orson Welles, “What interests me is the idea of these dated old virtues. And why they still seem to speak to us when, by all logic, they’re so hopelessly irrelevant. That’s why I’ve been obsessed for so long with Don Quixote, who can’t ever be contemporary — that’s really the idea. He never was. But he’s alive somehow, and he’s riding through Spain even now .” Welles saw Quixote and Panza as eternal ever wandering characters.
CBS disliked what they saw and ended the project, but thanks to money from acting and $25,000 from Frank Sinatra, Welles kept working. After he was removed from Touch of Evil, Welles began working on this story in earnest, even bringing Bad Seed Patty McCormack to Mexico to play a girl who would meet Welles — playing himself — and hear of Quixote and Panza before meeting them in person. By the time the film came back together in Spain — Welles ran out of money and did many projects as a mercenary to raise the funds needed to make the movies he cared about — McCormack was too old and that part of the story was cut.
Shot over the next decade — and more! — in Spain and Italy, the production took so long that a chronically sick Reiguera begged Welles to finish shooting his scenes before he died, which he was able to do before the actor passed in 1969. This ended the principal photography, but Welles never saw a need to finish the movie, saying that the film was “My own personal project, to be completed in my own time, as one might with a novel.” Then he changed gears and claimed it was going to be an essay like F for Fake, as well ideas of the heroes surviving a nuclear war or going to the Moon. Every time he went to Spain, he got new ideas and at one point had a thousand pages of script piled up. Even up until his death, he would discuss the film publically.
The year after Welles’ death — 1986 — 45 minutes of scenes and outtakes, assembled by the archivists from the Cinémathèque Française and supervised by the director Costa-Gavras, played Cannes. And it seemed like that’s all that would ever be seen of this.
Except that life is strange.
What was left of the film was split into several places. Oja Kodar (Welles’s companion and co-writer of F for Fake where she is presented as the daughter of an art forger; never forget “art is a lie that makes us see the truth”) had given some footage to the Munich Film Museum as well as also selling that footage to the Filmoteca Española in Madrid. Welles’ editor Mauro Bonanni had a negative and the two battled for decades until Italy’s Supreme Court forced Bonanni to give his negative to Kodar.
So where does Jess Franco come in?
Well, in 1992, Kodar had already spent years touring Europe in a camper van with the footage, trying to convince several notable directors to complete Don Quixote. All of them said no. Jess Franco said yes and maybe he was a better pick than it seems, seeing as how he was Welles’s second unit director on Chimes at Midnight.
Bonnani had all of the McCormack footage, including a windmill-fighting-style scene where Quixote would fight knights on a movie screen and cut it down, not understanding our modern life. Spanish producer Patxi Irigoyen and Franco had so much footage in so many aspect ratios and formats that the idea of combining all of it and making it not just work but feel like an Orson Welles film seems, well, quixotic.
So Franco wrote new script, hired voiceover actors to do impressions of Welles’s narration and the actor’s voices which don’t match up and then added Welles to the film — using footage from 1964’s Nella terra di Don Chisciotte — as well as windmill images, zooms and jump cuts. Those last two elements are totally Franco and point to his involvement. I wouldn’t be more sure if the film didn’t suddenly zoom into Lina Romay’s spread thighs.
Don Quixote de Orson Welles premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and everyone hated it. Welles had purposefully mislabeled reels and had no intention of anyone finishing this except for, well, Orson Welles finishing it.
It’s absolutely amazing to me that a movie by perhaps the greatest director of all time was finished by Franco, but that’s why I’m obsessed by his work.