From the big screen to the stage

From film adaptations of Don Quixote to Nureyev’s ballet

By Paola Dicelli 16 December 2021

© Julien Benhamou / OnP

From the big screen to the stage

Engendered by the pen of Miguel de Cervantès between 1605 and 1615, the Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of la Mancha has been a mine of inspiration. His multiple facets have inspired numerous film makers and choreographers. Whilst Arthur Hiler and  Wilhelm  Pabst sent the hidalgo and his acolyte Sancho Panza on their travels, Rudolf Nureyev chose to refocus the intrigue on the love affairs of young Kitri and Basile, the barber. They have all brought new life to these hilarious heroes.

Having danced the ballet several times with Kirov ballet, in 1966, Rudolf Nureyev revisited Marius Petipa’s choreography for the Vienna Opera (it was to enter the Paris Opera repertoire in 1981). He complexified some of the steps and added others, respected the lines of the dancers, reduced the ballet to three acts and a prologue and combined the episodes of the windmills, the gypsies and the puppet theatre in a single tableau. The choreographer brought the old version up to date, transforming it into an athletic, lively and grandiloquent production. The most striking thing, however, is that at no point did Nureyev ever undermine Don Quixote. He portrayed the emblematic figure – convinced he is a knight errant whereas he is merely an old man with a passion for books about chivalry – as a touching and poetic hero. He never shows him as an object of pity. Don Quixote becomes a sort of disjointed puppet, straight out of the Commedia dell’arte, who even proves to be rather benevolent towards the central couple, Kitri and Basile.

This positive reading contrasts with that of numerous film directors. From the birth of cinema onwards, the hidalgo and his acolyte, Sancho Panza, have inspired film makers, many of whom have had a sterner view of their heroes. Amongst them, Wilhelm Pabst, in 1923. The Austrian director portrayed him as a pitiful creature, accentuating this through the viewpoints of local inhabitants who qualify him as “a madman”. In his film, the old man of la Mancha is a Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard” ahead of his time, living in his illusions. Thus, during the theatre scene, fascinated by an actor playing the role of a knight, Don Quixote climbs onto the stage and asks to be dubbed knight (in the novel, an inn-keeper simulates the dubbing). The spectators, who laugh at him, reinforce his humiliation. And to annihilate any form of heroism, Pabst has the hidalgo die whilst battling against the windmills (doubtless the cult scene of the novel par excellence). The parallel with the ballet is interesting because although Nureyev’s Don Quixote also collapses after his encounter with the windmills, he gets up straight afterwards in almost comic fashion.

Don Quichotte de Georg Wilhelm Pabst avec Fedor Chaliapine, 1933
Don Quichotte de Georg Wilhelm Pabst avec Fedor Chaliapine, 1933 © Rue des archives

Joviality is, then, at the heart of the ballet, the choreographer placing the love story between Kitri and Basile in the foreground, something that exists in no other adaptation (not even in Cervantes). In the course of the three acts, the knight errant is a secondary element, appearing only for the cult episodes. He serves only to reinforce the principal intrigue: that of Kitri and Basile, who do everything they can to pursue their romance in spite of obstacles. In Nureyev’s wake, one film maker used Don Quixote as the vehicle for another narrative.

Between 1955 and 1969, Orson Welles tried to adapt Cervantes’ novel. However, after numerous catastrophic episodes (including the death of the Spanish actor supposed to play the hero!), the film remained unfinished until 1992, when Jess Franco edited the rushes and added some visual effects. In this film, reminiscent of Pasolini in its direction, Don Quixote and Sancho fail in a modern world. As in the ballet, humour is quite widely present (Dulcinea rides a Vespa!) and, more importantly, the hero, entrenched in the past, provides a view point on contemporary Spain, thus becoming more or less of secondary importance. What counts for Welles, as for Nureyev, is that, underpinning the story of Don Quixote, “real life goes on”. This is illustrated notably in the ballet in the scene following the Prologue – a festive street scene contrasting with Don Quixote’s retreat into deliriums and illusions.

The same highly cinematic procedure is quite clearly found in the work of Arthur Hiller. In 1972, he adapted the musical The Man of la Mancha which, in 1966, had won five Tony Awards. Miguel de Cervantès, played by Peter O’Toole, is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition and recounts the story of Don Quixote to his fellow prisoners. With his back to the camera, as he pursues his narrative, he puts on make-up in order to get under his hero’s skin, like in the theatre. The scene is set, the other detainees hide beneath sheets to imitate the horses and it is only in the next scene that the illusion becomes complete with a veritable set and real horses.

L'Homme de la Manche (Man of la Mancha) d’Arthur Hiller avec Peter O'Toole et James Coco, 1972
L'Homme de la Manche (Man of la Mancha) d’Arthur Hiller avec Peter O'Toole et James Coco, 1972 © Rue des archives

A transition from reality to illusion, like in the prologue to the ballet, referred to above. After reading his umpteenth book on chivalry, Don Quixote falls asleep, drifts into his fantasies and dreams of the Dryads who are to appear later in the mist. On waking, he is no longer in the real world but in his own reality. It is doubtless for this reason, later in the ballet, that, with his sword, he destroys the puppet theatre that is playing his own story. Only his own reality counts, fiction does not exist.

Sometimes serious, at others pitiful, heroic or timeless, this mythical figure fascinates and transcends the arts. Alongside the ballet, a new film adaptation by Terry Gilliam (the shooting was so catastrophic that it went on for 20 years) will be released in 2018. The Man of la Mancha has not yet revealed all his secrets.

Don Quixote: the true/false story

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Don Quixote: the true/false story

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