Author: Tony Grisoni and Terry Gilliam
Writer’s Potential: 7
While shooting a commercial in Spain, a burned-out director meets a man who may be Don Quixote.
Grainy black-and-white footage shows a dying DON QUIXOTE in the Spanish desert. ANGELICA, a beautiful young girl, carries water to him. The shadows of windmill blades pass over them. The film shifts to color as a “fake, too-polished Don Quixote” and his partner, SANCHO PANZA, attempts to do battle with a windmill. As he smashes his lance into the blade, it gets stuck and carries him skyward. Fake Quixote freaks out, and as a special effects supervisor barks orders to his crew, it’s revealed that this is a commercial for an electric company. TOBY, the commercial’s director, expresses his dissatisfaction to executive RUPERT and the PRODUCER. He can’t put his finger on what’s wrong with the commercial, but he knows he doesn’t like it and wants to rethink the whole concept.
That night, Toby dines with several other ad executives and the client’s rep, who doesn’t understand the concept of the commercial. Eventually, THE BOSS shows up with his gorgeous trophy wife, JACQUI. The Boss reassures everyone about Toby’s competence, even though he’s on edge and verbally abusing waiters. The Boss tells Toby he just needs some inspiration. He calls over a mysterious GYPSY selling DVDs out of a box and buys the lone VHS—which just happens to be an old copy of a film Toby made years ago about Don Quixote. Toby goes upstairs with Jacqui, and they attempt to have sex, but he’s having problems getting an erection. Jacqui is infuriated. He goes to the bathroom to try to work out his troubles, and when he reemerges, Jacqui is playing the video of Toby’s film. They’re both so entranced, they don’t notice when The Boss returns to the room. The Boss drunkenly mistakes Toby for the Gypsy. Toby returns to his room and watches the remainder of his film. In a village square, a madonna statue comes to life, resembling Angelica. Toby calls out to her, then wakes up, realizing he dreamed it all. He never watched the film.
Uninspired, Toby convinces the Producer to set up a complicated shot that could take all day. The Boss shows up to tell him they’ll get a vodka account if they go to a castle the company owner bought in Nice. After Toby spots Jacqui with a black eye, he decides to go for a ride on Rupert’s motorcycle. He speeds through the countryside, to the tiny village where he shot his film a decade ago. He goes to the village’s bar, where he’s recognized as the filmmaker who breezed through town, promising to make them all stars. He learns the actor who played Sancho Panza died, but the man who played Quixote died. A brutish drunk accuses Toby of ruining his daughter’s life—he’s Angelica’s father. Toby learns that Angelica became so obsessed with acting and movie stardom, she ended up as a broken, depressed whore. Once Toby flees the bar, an OLD CRONE agrees to lead him to Don Quixote. She takes him to an old wagon, where his Don Quixote film is projected against a sheet waving in the wind. The Old Crone pushes Toby toward a split in the sheet, beyond which is the real Don Quixote (identical to the one in the film), speaking in sync with the film’s dialogue. Toby is shocked, especially when Don Quixote confuses Toby with Sancho and insists they must escape the evil enchanters. The Old Crone suddenly rushes in, poking Quixote with a pig prodder. Toby shoves her away, causing her to knock over the projector, which sets the hay in the cart on fire.
Toby flees the scene, getting to the motorcycle and riding off. When Toby returns to the commercial shoot, everyone’s annoyed by how late he is. The police are there for unrelated reasons, but they want to know about the motorcycle, which matches the fire report. They arrest Toby, who finds the Gypsy in the back of the car. The police car is confronted by Don Quixote, on horseback. They laugh at him. Toby realizes Don Quixote is reciting dialogue from his film, not from Cervantes’s novel. Quixote orders the police to release “Sancho,” and when they get out of the car to arrest him, he attacks. He smashes one cop with his lance, which causes him to inadvertently shoot the other officer. Terrified, Toby flees into the woods. Hiding, he tries to make a phone call, but his phone is dead. Quixote comes after Toby, admiring his bravery. Toby tries to convince Quixote he’s just an actor, an old man he cast in a film years ago. Quixote interprets this as Toby rescuing him from an enchanter. Quixote is intent on finding his lost love, Lady Dulcinea, but he gets distracted when he sees a “peasant girl” being attacked by “giants” (actually an ordinary woman maintaining a windmill). He viciously attacks the windmill, using up so much energy he passes out. Toby asks to use the woman’s telephone. She leads him to her family’s farm, where there is no phone. Toby notices a large group of Arabs hiding in the barn, illegal immigrants who want work.
Quixote orders Toby a healing salve for him. Toby decides to make his escape, and finds the farmer praying to Mecca. He denies this at first, then quietly admits his faith, confessing to Toby that he fears the Inquisition will kill him if they find out. Toby’s baffled by this, but he slowly realizes the farmhouse and the man’s clothes are all right out of the 17th century. Before long, The HOLY BROTHERHOOD—a gang of terrifying Christian inquisitors—arrive, ordering the Muslims out of their dwellings. The Holy Brothers spot chicken blood on Toby and assume they’ve found a murderer. Hidden, Quixote launches a surprise attack on the Holy Brothers, calling them enchanters. Toby spots the Gypsy from the police car at the farm. He blames the Gypsy for everything, so the Holy Brothers chase him through the countryside. Toby wakes in the attic of the farmhouse. Quixote is gone, as are any signs of last night’s attacks. Outside, Toby realizes he’s back in the modern world. He decides it must have been a dream—but Quixote remembers the things Toby dreamed about. Frustrated, Toby refuses to leave with Quixote—but immigration police show up at the farm. Toby races to catch up to Quixote.
They come upon the rotting corpse of a mule, saddle bags packed to the brim with old Spanish gold. Toby steals a few handfuls. Later, they come upon a waterfall, where a beautiful girl is singing a haunting melody prominently featured in Toby’s Quixote film. She reveals herself as Angelica—the girl from his film, grown up and bitter. She recognizes Toby immediately. The more Angelica talks, the more he realizes he ruined her life. Angelica plays it off, saying she’s found a rich man to take care of her. Toby spots bruises on her body, which she shrugs off. Toby feels awful. When Quixote talks, Angelica plays along, to Toby’s confusion and annoyance. She also joins Quixote in insulting “Sancho,” but she makes a mistake when she sarcastically calls Toby “enchanting.” Quixote flips out, terrified that Toby is an enchanter and not Sancho. Toby desperately tries to convince Quixote otherwise. Once he’s reassured, Quixote offers to escort Angelica. She refuses, then spots a photographer in the distance. She goes off to yell at him. Toby tells Quixote he thinks Angelica is in trouble. Quixote thinks she’s fallen in love with him. They try to follow her, but lose her pretty quickly.
Quixote leads Toby to an old, worn-out castle. Here, they find a MONK and the KNIGHT OF THE MIRRORS, who insists that he killed the real Quixote. This leads Quixote to duel with the man. Toby tries to talk Quixote out of it, but he fails. They joust, and Quixote is victorious. He terrifies the knight by coming after him and pressing his sword to the knight’s throat. The knight’s SQUIRE pleads with Toby to stop him, removing a hat to reveal it’s the Old Crone from Quixote’s village, and the Knight is the village bartender. When Toby fails to calm Quixote, the villagers plead with him, insisting he needs help. He calls them “enchanters” and rides off. The villagers accuse Toby of destroying Quixote’s life. They attack him, knocking him out.
Toby wakes in a 17th century cathedral square, where the Holy Brotherhood has erected an execution platform. He sees a number of nightmarish figures—Angelica being burned at the stake, her sinister father, the other villagers, and a terrified Don Quixote imprisoned in a cage. This melts into Toby’s memory of making the film, entranced by the youthful Angelica, who before long transforms into the adult Angelica, whom Toby immediately kisses. Toby wakes in the ruined castle, kissing a sheep. Time has passed, and everybody’s gone save for a Moroccan shepherd. Toby frantically questions the man, who simply grins. Toby rushes through the woods and hears the grunts and groans of Quixote and his horse. Terrified that Quixote has been attacked, Toby approaches carefully—and finds the old man is beating himself senseless with branches from a thorn bush, calling it penance. Toby stops him and tends to his wounds.
Toby desperately explains to Quixote that he is not Sancho, there is no Dulcinea, and he is not Quixote. Quixote believes the enchanters have duped Toby. As he condescendingly explains “reality” to Toby, Quixote is distracted by an aristocratic medieval hunting party approaching in the distance. Among them is Lady Dulcinea. As they get closer, Toby comes to realize that it’s actually Jacqui, along with a bunch of other modern people inexplicably dressed in period costume. Toby tells her he’s in trouble with the police, but she tells him ALEXEI, the vodka magnate, owns the police, so he has nothing to worry about. She’s impressed to see Toby has found his old Quixote, and they’re dragged to Alexei’s palace. Inside, everyone’s dressed in period costume, including Alexei (dressed as the king), but they’re all talking on cell phones and headsets. Toby sees the Gypsy in the palace courtyard, but more importantly, he sees Angelica acting as Alexei’s “courtier.” Angelica looks unhappy with Toby “exploiting” Quixote, but Toby has taken leave of his senses—he’s not sure why he’s here or what’s happening. Alexei unhappily witnesses their glances.
When Toby and Angelica get a moment alone, they confront each other. Toby urges her to leave this life and return to her village. Angelica pathetically tells him she hoped he’d rescue her from this. Toby tries to convince her he did come to rescue her, but she sees through his lies. While Toby is dragged off to be put into costume, Alexei shows The Boss photos of Toby and Angelica together. He is not happy, but The Boss tries to reassure him. Everyone gathers in the ballroom. Alexei is sort of amused by how “in character” Quixote is. The other people all read from scripts, but Quixote knows his part. An effects team brings a huge, wooden horse into the ballroom. Toby starts to realize what’s happening and warns Quixote, but Quixote responds positively when the actors ask who is brave enough to attempt the horse. Quixote goes for it, and once they blindfold him (citing “atmospheric” conditions) he becomes convinced he’s riding this mechanical horse to the moon. The effects team blast him with wind machines and simulated lightning and thunder to complete the illusion—they all think he’s acting, but Quixote doesn’t seem to realize he’s not even moving. Rupert acts the part of Quixote’s nemesis, insisting he’ll make it to the moon first.
The joke becomes too much for Alexei, who bursts out laughing and announces that they’ve earned his vodka account. Quixote realizes this was all a hoax. Feeling pathetic, he tells Toby he should have listened. Toby confronts Angelica about the gag. She assumed he knew what he was doing and deflects any blame by saying he could have stopped her from taking part but didn’t. He chases her through elaborate floats constructed for a costume ball—many of which resemble set pieces from Toby’s nightmares, such as the execution platform—and their insults turn to romance as he forces her to dance and kisses her. Angelica warns that Alexei will kill them, but Toby doesn’t care. Toby and Angelica wake Quixote, planning to escape. Quixote refuses, so Toby drags him onto the horse, warning of the enchanters. This stirs nothing in Quixote, who has decided he likes it here because everyone is happy. Guards arrive and drag Angelica off. They knock Toby unconscious.
Toby wakes to find Jacqui and Quixote tending to him. Alexei and The Boss are there, too. Toby lunges at him, demanding to know what he’s done with Angelica. All but Quixote leave Toby, sad and annoyed. Quixote admires Toby’s spirit, but he says it’s time to go home. Toby is puzzled, but Quixote admits he’s just an old man, not insane, just Javier the shoemaker, someone who wanted to find a little joy and happiness in his twilight years. He passes his sword to Toby and leaves. Toby runs through the festival crowd in search of Angelica. Instead, he finds the Gypsy, who insists he’ll take Toby to Angelica. Toby finds her weeping, hands buried in her face, and when he goes to comfort her, he learns it’s Jacqui. She pounces, and Toby hears a distant scream. He rushes out on the balcony and finds Angelica on the execution platform, tied to a massive iron grill, paper flames surrounding her. The flames turn real before Toby’s eyes. The Boss comes to the door, sword in hand, ready for a fight. Toby grabs an old club and yanks the door open, whacking The Boss before he can stab him—but it’s not The Boss, it’s Quixote, who stumbles and tumbles over the balcony, into the courtyard. Dead.
Horrified, the festival comes to an abrupt end. Angelica is released from the grill (which was apparently never really in flames), and released from Alexei’s charge. The Boss subtly admits he knew all about Jacqui’s affair with Toby but didn’t particularly care. Everyone knows exactly what happened and why, but they pretend it’s an unfortunate accident. Only Toby seems truly affected by the man’s death. He finds Quixote’s sword at his feet. Toby and Angelica leave on horseback, Toby carrying Quixote’s sword. They ride through the wilderness toward Angelica’s village. Now fully insane, Toby mistakes thunder for the loud footfalls of giants, and windmills for the giants themselves (each of whom resemble Alexei, The Boss, and Jacqui). Toby attempts to fight them for Angelica’s honor.
Toby, now an old man, sits in Quixote’s wagon, in Angelica’s village. He speaks directly to the camera, saying that he is Don Quixote, and he will live forever.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a challenging, frequently frustrating story that’s more about its themes (of reality versus fantasy, sanity versus insanity, and mortality) than its characters and source material. Despite being amusing and entertaining throughout, the story never jells into a cohesive whole and the characters feel more like chess pieces than believable people. As written, it merits a reluctant pass.
Throughout the script, scenes and set-pieces seem disconnected from each other. This is evident even in the first act. The writers struggle to portray Toby as a distressed, moderately obnoxious filmmaker, tossing “weird for the sake of weird” moments into the otherwise ordinary proceedings to mislead audiences. As a result, they never give a sense of how or why Toby feels so connected to the character of Don Quixote and the Cervantes novel. Yes, he made a film about him years ago; yes, he’s making a commercial about him now—but why is it that Toby feels such a special connection to this character? Despite attempts to portray struggles with inspiration, past regrets, and interfering executives (who don’t really interfere that much, allowing Toby carte blanche and kowtowing to his every whim, while Toby whines about how difficult they are), Toby never feels like a modern Don Quixote who’s set on the path of assuming his role.
Once he appears in the second act, the character of Quixote does enliven the script quite a bit. The small-scale adventures of the always-complaining Toby and comically heroic Quixote are always engaging and amusing, although the writers try a little too hard to inject surrealism into the storyline. The writers want the audience to ask questions about reality and fantasy: is this really happening, is it just a crazy old man, did Quixote travel through time, did Toby travel through time, is it all a dream, and so on. These surreal moments actually detract from the narrative, contributing to the fragmented feel, but they ironically don’t do much to enhance the themes, either. They seem to exist to disorient and alienate the audience more than anything else, and it preoccupies them with the wrong questions: if everything might just be a nightmare or the delusional fantasies of a madman, there’s no jeopardy and no suspense.
The only point where the surreal flights of fancy succeed—and only briefly—is in the third act, when Toby’s confusion about whether he’s dreaming or back in time is smashed together via the crazy commercial pitch to Alexei and ensuing festival. Unfortunately, the third act has a whole new set of problems. The Boss and Jacqui go from moderately ineffectual, mostly supportive people in Toby’s life to villains, with no real explanation (this includes not giving any insight into Toby’s increasing delusions, to give an idea of why he suddenly views them as villains). Similarly, Alexei enters the story to act as the real villain. The problem is, he only exists so the story has a villain. He serves no real purpose as a character, is generically evil, and is barely mentioned before his first appearance, well into the third act. This all barrels toward the mostly ineffective resolution, in which unsatisfying twists (Quixote knew what he was doing all along), inconsistent character motivations (suddenly Angelica is Toby’s one true love, which adds a layer of creepiness in light of the fact that she was literally a child when he last saw her), and Toby’s unconvincing descent into madness lead to Toby assuming the “role” of Quixote. Much of these problems could have been avoided if the writers established the connections between Toby and Quixote early in the script.
At the end of the day, this is a script that cares more about sumptuous visuals and willfully confusing the audience than telling a compelling story. It’s hard to say if this can succeed solely on the strength of its visuals and weird-for-weird’s-sake twists and turns, but considering the box-office receipts of previous Terry Gilliam films, it’s probably safe to say that only a small, niche audience will pay money to find out.
This will appeal primarily to Terry Gilliam’s relatively small but fiercely devoted fan base, but it may draw additional audience from those who know of the project’s notoriously troubled history. It’s likely to alienate moviegoers who haven’t read the source novel, and possibly moviegoers who have.