ORSON WELLES documentary IN THE LAND OF DON QUIXOTE — In the words of Tennessee Williams, “Welles rings the bell of pure poetry”
Having visited Spain twice in the last two years and had the most wonderful time there, my comments here may be considered a bit biased, because I imagine if you haven't actually been to Spain, you probably will not be quite so excited about Orson Welles wonderful documentary, In the Land of Don Quixote.
The first episode, "Andalusian Itinerary" was posted on You Tube, but was removed after only a week.
However, having never seen this television show by Welles, I quite enjoyed getting to see the Spanish locations for several of Orson Welles films. Of course, Welles loved Spain and I must say, so do I. One of the most magical spots I've ever been to, was Tossa Del Mar, a short drive north of Barcelona, on the Costa Brava. It was the location for the Ava Gardner-James Mason movie, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Jack Cardiff. Well, believe me, when I say even Jack Cardiff's cinematography can't do the town of Tossa Del Mar photographic justice. The light there, the castle, the ocean... it's all simply enchanting.
Anyway, to get back to the topic at hand, after seeing the first episode of Welles masterful In the Land of Don Quixote, I think it is quite possibly the best travel documentary I've ever seen!
It's certainly far better than the two segments of Welles previous documentary TV show set in Spain, Around the World with Orson Welles, made in 1955.
Here we get to see brief shots of Welles, his wife, Paola Mori and Welles 9-year old daughter, Beatrice, as they tour Spain in a black Mercedes, but all of these shots are quite brief. What we get to see much more of, is the Spanish landscape, which has been so important to so many of Welles own films. There are many shots of windmills, which Welles himself might have wanted to include in his film of Don Quixote. And since the Jess Franco version of Don Quixote used some of the footage from In the Land of Don Quixote, we can now actually see just how badly he screwed-up! From just seeing the 30 minutes available for viewing here, it is quite evident that any competent film editor could make a far better version of Don Quixote than what Jess Franco assembled for his truly awful version of the film. Why any Welles fan would want to see that shameful version released is quite beyond me!
In any case, Welles also visits many other famous Spanish locations, several that he would end up using for his upcoming films shot in Spain, such as the the walled city of Avila, that appeared in Chimes at Midnight. There are also shots of many locations Welles had already used in Spain, such as the imposing "Arkadin Castle" at Segovia, and the Roman aqueduct in Segovia that was also featured in Mr. Arkadin. Then, most prophetically, Welles shows us shots of the magnificent cliffs and streets of Ronda, the town in Spain where bullfighting was born, and where he would eventually be buried.
Although In the Land of Don Quixote is essential a travel documentary about Spain, it's done by a film artist, and as such, I think it's one of the best and most poetic documentaries I've yet to see on any country. Seeing it today, years later, it still seems quite unique. So ironically, it's no surprise that it was never widely seen in 1964, except on Italian TV, and they insisted on adding a narration over the images.
Unfortunately, nothing could be worse then hearing a voice-over against these simple but powerful images, even if it was the voice of Orson Welles (and it wasn't). The score here is also quite wonderful... a simple Spanish guitar theme, by Juan Serrano, without any distracting narration serves the material just fine. But the editing of the images it where the poetry of the film comes into full flower. I think it would be quite enough to carry this wonderful portrait of Spain, even if there were no score at all!
The film apparently didn't get shown in America until 1986, as part of the AFI's National video festival, which offered a comprehensive survey of most of the work Welles made for television. Kevin Thomas who reviewed it for The L A Times had this to say:
"In The Land of Don Quixote should not be confused with Welles Don Quixote, a film he worked on for 30 years and came close to completing before his death last year. In The Land of Don Quixote is essentially a travelogue of Spain, in which Welles, his wife and daughter occasionally appear in a dark Mercedes. It was never intended to be seen all in one sitting, and in this format it frankly grows tedious (There are 9 episodes of about 25 minutes each.)
Yet how stunningly everything has been shot, in a high-contrast black and white, punctuated with recurring shots of the windmills with which Welles himself tilted as nobly as Quixote. It's quite likely that no one has caught the danger and excitment of the running of the bulls at Pamplona so vividly; Welles viewed the bullfights themselves as rituals of life and death and not at all romantically, sparing us none of the blood. (There's a busy Italian narration, which hasn't been translated because Welles disavowed it.)
RELATED: See Jeff's review of the Jess Franco Don Quixote DVD here, including frame grabs of the Spanish windmills Franco used, which look far better in Welles own documentary: