Juan Cobos on Orson Welles’s “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO FINISH DON QUIXOTE?”
Here lies the noble fearless knight,
Whose valor rose to such a height;
When Death at last did strike him down,
His was the victory and renown.
He reck’d the world of little prize,
And was a bugbear in men’s eyes;
But had the fortune in his age
To live a fool and die a sage.
—Inscription by Sansón Carrasco on the tomb of Don Quixote
Juan Cobos delightful history of the trials and tribulations Orson Welles faced while making his movie version of Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, provides us with some truly fascinating insights on why Welles never actually finished the film. In 1981, Welles gave his own simple explanation, in Filming The Trial, saying: “Don Quixote was a private exercise of mine, and it will be finished as an author would finish it—in my own good time, when I feel like it. It is not unfinished because of financial reasons. And when it is released, its title is going to be When are you Going to Finish Don Quixote?”
Of course, that was only part of the story, as Welles told Juan Cobos in 1964, he felt very “nervous” about releasing Don Quixote. ”I know the film will please no one,” explained Welles. “It will be an execrated film. I need a big success before putting it into circulation.” Of course, that success never came, and finally in March of 1969, Francisco Reiguera died in Mexico, which made any additional shooting or dubbing with him impossible. Then, in 1972, Akim Tamiroff also passed away.
In 1965, Akim Tamiroff spoke to the American Military Newspaper, Stars and Stripes in Naples, Italy and revealed his great admiration for Welles and his hope that the film would be finished later that same year. “I’ve been at work for four years on Don Quixote with Orson,” said Tamiroff. “He gets a little money, we shoot some more, he runs out, he stops and does something else. Now he's got the money and we're going to finish it this fall. What a movie! What talent that man has. An unlimited imagination! With Welles I'm a better actor than I actually am; I become hypnotized by his admiration. With him I always jump higher. Sancho is my greatest part ever. And you know one of the reasons Welles is so great? He's also one of the greatest photographers alive. He opens actors up, just like (Vittorio) De Sica does. He concentrates on images; he doesn't talk too much, which is no good in films. I just hope he finishes it this fall before something goes wrong."
Many thanks to Juan Cobos for revising his article for Wellesnet, which originally appeared in the wonderful Spanish film magazine Juan edited, Nickel Odeon. Thanks also to Lucy who provided the English translation which Juan corrected. Let’s hope that Juan Cobos finishes his book on working with Orson Welles soon, and that it is eventually translated into English!
...Please understand that Don Quixote has now, for me, much greater importance. I must be able to finish it at all cost, and with the utmost care. If not, you may understand very seriously that I will go and leave forever directing movies.
—Orson Welles in a letter to Akim Tamiroff
UNFORTUNATE STORIES ABOUT A NOBLEMAN FROM WISCONSIN
(Historias Desafortunadas de un Hidalgo de Wisconsin)
By JUAN COBOS
Having been asked the question so many times by journalists, Orson Welles decided as a kind of joke to nickname his unfinished work, When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote? Yet of all his unfinished films, this is without doubt the one that his public—that discerning minority inside the great multitude that decides what succeeds or flops in the movie business—would have actually loved to have seen. In reality, it was always due in great measure to Welles uncompromising nature, that this other public remained so elusive. From the 1960’s on, those of us who were in touch with Welles daily knew that there was one fundamental premise by which Don Quixote would make it to movie screens: that another film of his would be a great success, of the kind that Welles had never known as a director and above all, that its success would happen in the country where he most desired it: The United States.
Of course, there were the usual economic problems, although the money needed for actually completing Don Quixote was perfectly accessible to him by just acting in three or four bad roles in usually nonsensical films, as Orson once mentioned at a business lunch I had arranged on his behalf with Alessandro Tasca and the Spanish producers Jose Vicuña, Paco Molero and myself attending.
At the funeral oration that Welles was invited to give by the family of Darryl F. Zanuck, his good friend and the long time boss of 20th Century-Fox, he mentioned an inexorable law of Hollywood: “You’re only as good as your last film.” From Citizen Kane onward, Welles was marked by an adverse destiny at the box office. Life Magazine which had predicted that Citizen Kane would make between two and three million dollars, eventually reported it making 17% less than it cost, which was $850,000. Of course, the Hearst press had a hand in that movie’s economic failure.
In a very sincere letter to a critic who had defended Othello against the insults of certain English and American periodicals, Welles lamented his thankless destiny: to be unpopular in an art form that was so immensely popular. None of his other films had lost that much money, and it is certain that over the years they have produced modestly and consistently. Except a Welles film has never had a resounding success on its first release, either. If he succeeded only modestly with his Hollywood films, his European adventures had even worse results.
It is well known that Don Quixote began as a segment of a Frank Sinatra television show. This was in 1956, and Welles, after adapting, interpreting, and directing a theatre production of Moby Dick Rehearsed in London, was in America shooting some movies as actor and mounting a production of King Lear (which he had played on TV, under Peter Brooks’ direction in 1953) at the New York City Center.
The amount budgeted for the Don Quixote TV adventure was $25,000, of which $2,000 went to Patty McCormack, to play the little Dulcie. Patty had been a hit in Mervyn Leroy´s The Bad Seed made in 1955. Welles himself would appear on-screen to make certain remarks to McCormack during the movie, as well as to introduce and explain the various adventures of the nobleman and his squire, Sancho Panza. Since there was so little money, the production was very Spartan, almost like a home movie, and the equipment was very minimal. Akim Tamiroff, with whom Welles had just finished shooting Touch of Evil, was to play Sancho Panza, and Francisco Reiguera, who had played a few small roles in Mexican movies, was cast as Don Quixote. Reiguera was like Luis Buñuel, an exiled Republican, at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Paola Mori, the star of Mr. Arkadin, now Mrs. Welles, was is in charge of providing sandwiches for the small troupe. Buñuel´s eldest son, Juan Luis, had his first job in movies as Welles´s assistant.
Welles liked to joke that, like Cervantes, he had started out to make just a short piece of work, but that the personalities of the characters had seized him. In a letter to one critic, writing for The Village Voice, Welles corrected some of his information: “Although Don Quixote was filmed in Mexico, the setting is Spain. There are no flashbacks and the financing is not Mexican. I have sole economic responsibility, as happened with Othello. Although there is much dialogue which has been taken from the novel, the majority of the script is absolutely new. If I had to put a subtitle after Don Quixote, it could be ‘Variations on a theme of Cervantes’.” When Welles asked me for a Spanish translation of his script, I had found in Cervantes most of the classic dialogue, but Welles had a special gift cutting and pasting words to write dialogue and narration that had a dramatic sense, but with a rather different context than the original one.
When writing these notes, he had already spent the initial money from the television production for Frank Sinatra (and the truth is that he had calculated each expenditure and reviewed it meticulously, to the point of including the purchase of three chickens, a small tip for a native child and the expense of the burial of an old donkey that had died during the filming in Mexico). Of course, when Welles did not have the segment that Sinatra needed for his TV show, his lawyers insisted that he return the money. Years later, in 1975, at the American Film Institute Tribute to Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, acting as a gala host, paid a very friendly homage to Orson.
However, the main problem was that Welles had expanded the project with a feverish love, against the winds and tides and now wanted to shoot a doubly audacious film, but one that would also remain faithful to Cervantes in portraying the characters clash with the modern world, demonstrating their immortality when they came in contact with the 20th Century. Welles began filming Don Quixote just as the giant CinemaScope screens were proliferating in movie houses, with their variegated colors and stereophonic sound that surrounded viewers; it was Hollywood’s defense against those small boxes that were providing so much free entertainment in people’s own homes.
Thus, Welles decided to go on shooting Don Quixote with great simplicity, and in the humble purity of black and white. Welles also had upset all of his romanticism, by making a simple film without marquee stars, and to top it off, without a sufficient amount of money to finish the shooting and allow for the experimentation he wished to accomplish. Quite often he compared his shooting of the film to the early Hollywood movies of Mack Sennett, whom he admired the most.
Every morning, the actors, the crew and I met in front of the hotel, and we took off and invented the film in the street, like Mack Sennett. This is why it is so exciting, because it is a real improvisation; the story, the little incidents, everything was improvised. They are things that we found in a second, in a flash of inspiration, but after having rehearsed Cervantes for four weeks. We rehearsed all the scenes of Cervantes, as if we were going to play them, so that the actors would know their characters; then we went out into the street and we played, not Cervantes, but an improvisation backed up by these rehearsals, by the memory of the characters.
—Orson Welles to Andre Bazin, 1958
Nevertheless, he had such enthusiasm that when he went to Louisiana to play as Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s book with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, he wrote to Francisco Reiguera praising him, saying he found his acting as Don Quixote had succeeded in something he thought was almost impossible: “Combining high comedy with a tragic meaning. …Your interpretation is not lacking an apex of dignity or the poetic. The whole concept is an absolute achievement that I think we’d dare to say that even Cervantes himself would have approved of it.”
Welles last film as director, Touch of Evil, had greatly depressed him, since the editing had been altered to include some small additional scenes he was not allowed to shoot. In a certain sense, The Magnificent Ambersons story had happened to him. once again. In a letter Welles sent to Akim Tamiroff he revealed some of his bitterness: “20 years being in the cinema, and I’m not left alone to finish my last two pictures. I don’t believe I can reproach you, if you sense that I am fed up. Please understand that Don Quixote has now, for me, much greater importance. I must be able to finish it at all cost, and with the utmost care. If not, you may understand very seriously that I will go and leave forever directing movies.”
In 1959, Welles spent several months in Hong Kong, where he was cast in Lewis Gilbert’s Ferry to Hong Kong. Welles had visited China in his youth, in the company of his father but this time he began studying the language and later on he even filmed documentary material about China with his own money. He then travelled back to Europe and settled with his Italian wife in Fregene, a town about twenty miles north of Rome.
While in Italy, he appeared in a series of films as an actor, collecting as much money as he could, in order to bring his two leading actors to Italy, to continue shooting on Don Quixote.
In his list of locations he sought that summer, Welles wrote he needed a plain and desert-like landscape, with sparse vegetation; a rather rocky mountain; a small city that had a very rural environment; a peasant house; the interior of a record store, a pompous antique building, some kind of construction machinery of a very bizarre nature, and an industrial space that could appear both very modern, as well as very de-humanizing.
His idea was to finish the shooting in the summer of 1959, while he lived on a weekly series of television programs made for the BBC, consisting of filmed fragments, with comments recorded by Welles, along with other interviews and anecdotes.
Welles ordered a search for a house near his own where Francisco Reiguera could live, while Akim Tamiroff would be a guest at his home. For two weeks they will have to shoot and live as cheaply as possible.
The crew was minimal: a cinematographer who also operated the camera, a focus puller, a sound technician, a mechanist with his assistant, and an electrician. The lighting equipment was also quite minimal, and Welles ordered rigging one screen reflector with silver paper to avoid paying a small rental fee. Only days when they were shooting with extras, they would have a wardrobe person for the costumes. They carried Rocinante (Quixote’s horse) and Sancho´s donkey in a truck, which was also practical for carrying some of the camera equipment. Welles could also rig a platform on the cabin of the truck, getting on top of it to shoot at times. But his final written orders were that the filming caravan could have only three vehicles: the truck, a large van and his own car.
In one note Welles requested 20 scrawny starving dogs, in another, two flocks of forty sheep. They had so little money that Welles even asked his crew what would be cheaper: to go and shoot where sheep had been found or to take the sheep in a truck to their filming location.
Time and again in August of 1959 he refined an itinerary for filming in Roman fields with the intention of reproducing scenes that would appear to be set in Spain, as well as searching for locations that would make it possible to bring together some of the sequences he had already started in Mexico, but were now being completed around Fregene.
One of the more splendid of the modern adventures of Don Quixote was the irruption of Alonso Quijano in a modest provincial movie house, and Quixote’s deep irritation by the action he sees on the screen when a bad guy ill-treats the heroine. (Alonso Quijano was Cervantes name for his character in daily life.)
The only thing that worried Welles was the exterior of the theatre: “The street the cinema was on could be described as antique, with a Latin air and painterly, but not a village street.” The interior of the movie house was filmed in Mexico. Dulcie and Sancho Panza are among the filmgoers.
With an indomitable will, Welles achieved a considerable amount in a very short time, and near the completion of the summer shooting of Don Quixote he accepted a series of compromises, among them acting in Richard Pottier´s David and Goliath, stipulating that he get paid daily for each day he was shooting, just as others often did in the scrambled world of Italian film production (including Vittorio DeSica who unhappily was a gambler.) Furthermore, Welles insisted on filming only at night, which allowed him to spend his days editing Don Quixote, the phase he regarded as the most important and creative in the making of his films. Considering the speed of his shooting schedule, Welles felt he could employ considerable time on the editing, joking about directors who were eternally filming. He made jokes, for example about David Lean´s long months of shooting scenes for Lawrence of Arabia in Spain (and who was filming Dr. Zhivago in Spain when Welles was shooting Chimes at Midnight there.) Then, while all this was happening, Welles was approached by Alexander and Michel Salkind about making a film from one of the hundreds of novels that were in the public domain. The Salkinds later would produce Christopher Columbus (1992) as well as the rather silly biography film, Cervantes (1967) that starred Horst Buchholz and Gina Lollobrigida (originally it was to be helmed by King Vidor, who visited Orson while he was filming Chimes at Midnight. Some of us were to be on his crew, advising Vidor, until the Salkinds replaced him with Vincent Sherman.) Welles could not convince the Salkind’s to finance his own original script, so he chose to adapt Franz Kafka’s The Trial. However, the finances of the Salkinds were quite precarious, and the project was delayed, allowing Welles to return with a renewed strength to his work on his Cervantes adaptation.
In fact, when the Salkinds visited Welles at an Austrian mountain resort, Orson laughingly told us, “They came to make me an offer for a million dollar movie, but I had to pay the taxi from the railway station to the mountain resort.”
In the beginning of 1961, the Italian TV Studio RAI expressed an interest in the documentary material Welles had shot in Hong Kong while he was acting in Ferry to Hong Kong. Welles made them a counter-proposal, offering to do a documentary series about Spain, punctuated by the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This series of nine episodes was broadcast in Italy in 1964 under the title Orson Welles in the Land of Don Quixote and was quite different from the project its author had first proposed. However, what was more important was that for one of the first episodes, made in 1961, Beatrice, Paola and Orson Welles were all in Seville. Maybe Don Quixote would finally come to an end.
Welles had skillfully presented RAI with the nine documentary episodes, and he accompanied the project with a fragment of the film he now titled Don Quixote Goes to the Moon (another of the titles that paid homage to Cervantes), saying that the portrait in-depth he wished to do about Spain would be seasoned with images from his new film that was still in the editing phase. It was at this time, four or five days later, that Welles sent a letter to his two Don Quixote actors, explaining after much reflection at the editing table, how he very much wanted to finish the film.
The letters about Don Quixote are quite similar, but the one sent to Akim Tamiroff contained a much more personal paragraph:
I have an idea to raise money with a small role and recording some narration. I’m very happy and optimistic these days about Don Quixote. Your interpretation is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I know what I’m saying. Reviewing it over and over during the editing, I’ve made a very surprising discovery: the long hotel material with little Dulcie is important to the movie on a superficial level, and in themselves these scenes are very good, pleasing and simple. But they were also written and filmed before the full dimension of the work revealed itself. It must also be considered that this material was going to be shown in two or three TV shows of half an hour. I’m sorry to say, that me thinking of TV is reflected in the scenes of Dulcie, in that they speak personally to a great distant public, those soap and detergent consumers that inevitably get targeted by TV. The anachronism of Don Quixote and Sancho in modern times has to be justified and even apologize for itself again and again…
The movie narrated by Welles at the time was King of Kings, a blockbuster helmed by one of his great admirers, Nicholas Ray. Samuel Bronston paid Welles $25,000 for recording the narration in one morning at a London studio. Later, in his letter to Tamiroff, Welles stated that he was willing to be very demanding and uncompromising with a good portion of the scenes:
“Clearly we have to find something to substitute, a setting that maintains the tone of the film reality. Furthermore, the movie lacks a great sequence that is certain to be spectacular. I have discovered a solution to both problems: incorporating the encounter with The Duke (as it was in Cervantes). The Duke hosts a masked ball in the Spain of today, where everyone invited is dressed up as famous characters of literary fiction. In this palace we bump into two fictitious personages who are real, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
Soon I will go to Spain to shoot a few half-hour shows for TV. With this quick scheme, I’ll be able to come up with a few general scenes with doubles, yours and Don Quixote’s. The need to add and embellish an authentically Spanish finale is something we’ve spoken of before. I’m very happy to have found a system that allows me to film this material and be able to afford it.”
The idea of a spectacular masked ball was in Welles mind after the Bestigui ball that took place in Venice around 1950. Before Mr. Arkadin was filmed in Spain, the action occurred in Venice, the French Riviera, Tangiers, Mexico and Munich. You could read about the Venice ball in the original script. When the film was shot in Spain, Welles changed this spectacular masked ball to a new one with masks and costumes inspired by drawings and paintings of Goya. The ball was filmed in a marvellous setting, The National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid. Other Venetian locations in the original script of Mr. Arkadin were the Grand Canal, the Hotel Excelsior on the Lido, Florian´s Café in Piazza San Marco and even a favorite of Hemingway´s, Harry´s bar. When Welles’s was filming Othello in Venice, he even scouted locations there for Mr. Arkadin.
Given that Francisco Reiguera was a Spanish republican exile, Welles took advantage of his long documentary filming in Spain, by only having Sancho appear. This was done by means of a skillful strategy he squeezed into the screenplay: Sancho gets momentarily lost on the trail of his master at the uproar surrounding the running of the bulls at the Pamplona Bull Festival. Then, for the Duke’s ball, Welles was thinking of using local palaces in Italy, so that Francisco Reiguera could also be present during the filming.
Akim Tamiroff played a trick on Welles in Pamplona’s bullring that left the director speechless. Instead of doing the scene in close-ups so that a stunt double could film Sancho’s adventure with the young cows, Tamiroff jumped between the bulls himself, running between the animals and finally jumping in front of the camera, as if it had been planned that way all along. Welles pointed out in a letter written to Tamara Shayne, Tamiroff’s wife: “I think it would be wise to keep Akim away from countries where they have corridas. He undoubtedly possesses secret dreams of being a matador, and you know as well as I do, that that is not what his maestro in Moscow, Stanislavski, ever intended for him.”
Incidentally, in the early filming in Mexico, Tamara Shayne acted as a severe and brusque German governess in charge of Dulcie. In Mr. Arkadin she plays the lady living in the same ruined building where Tamiroff takes refuge after leaving prison. Van Stratten hides Tamiroff in her bed trying to save him from Mr. Arkadin.
In its time–and to the regret of its creator–Don Quixote contained images that are examples of what the young directors of the 1960’s were trying to experiment with. Quietly, without exhibiting one meter of the film, Welles had experimented for years. For example, a sequence in Alonso Quijano´s library with his books on cavalry. Eventually the images evolved into the adventure of the mills, and related to that sequence, we have the testimony of a letter written by Welles to an artist in Italy explaining what he would like to do with it: “My plan was to set up an encounter between Don Quixote and the mills. Putting together shots for Don Quixote and the mill, I was going to let the draftsman do most of the work. The problem with this idea was that coming from the library, in the middle of a transition between drawings and photograph, we should be very far ahead in the photography. But that’s not the best time to depend too much on the work of the artist. This sequence begins purely with drawings, in the style of (Gustave) Dore… We add then a small layer of shade and then the photographs underneath slowly start coming to the surface, slowly superimposed until we have more photograph than drawing and in the end just photographs. The last step is when these are put into motion.”
“The drawings have to be made from still photos printed either on drawing-paper or on strips of celluloid. The only space where the artist can display his creative skills is in the background and in the surrounding landscapes, as in adding details like Don Quixote’s armour or the plow of Sancho Panza, etc…”
Welles encounter with a Spanish cameraman, Juan Manuel de la Chica, whom he quickly came to trust completely, allowed him to make his Roman escapades for the editing of Don Quixote, without interrupting the filming of his RAI TV series. Furthermore, the possibility of filming The Trial became concrete and he began to prepare for that movie at the beginning of 1962.
The Trial was to be filmed in Yugoslavia–separating him from Cervantes–and Welles also began to think about the possibility of filming Chimes at Midnight in that country, which he had recently directed in a theatre in Belfast, Ireland in 1960, shortly before mounting Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in London with Laurence Olivier. The version of Falstaff presented in Belfast was a edited reduction of his famous production of Five Kings, which he was forced to premiere in Boston in 1938 when all of the mechanical problems of a revolving stage were still not functioning perfectly.
It was in 1962 that Don Quixote began to run into the genuine risk of never being finished. While trying to make Falstaff, Welles received an offer which was very tempting economically, and could have been the most grandiose display of his imagination since he first started in the theatre of the thirties: writing the libretto and mounting a musical comedy version of Gone With The Wind on Broadway. But it would take a long period of time to establish and complete the special characteristics of the adaptation proposed by Welles. The negotiations were handled by Kay Brown, the same lady who had helped David O. Selznick negotiate the film rights to the book. Brown was now the literary agent for the Margaret Mitchell best seller.
Welles started to write a stage adaptation of Gone with the Wind in Rome and he continued working on it in Madrid, while the slow negotiations to make a film of his stage version of Chimes at Midnight were ongoing. Thanks to the enthusiasm and faith of producer Emiliano Piedra, Welles began shooting Chimes at Midnight on October 12th, 1964, the anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. This would be his last great feature, as The Immortal Story was originally part of an Isaac Dinesen triptych (along with The Heroine and A Country Tale, that were never filmed). The Deep (or Dead Calm) was shot in Yugoslavia, but was never finished and the same thing happened to The Other Side of the Wind filmed in Los Angeles and Carefree, Arizona with John Huston as leading actor.
Welles was working on the editing of Chimes at Midnight when the Mexican producer of Viridiana, Gustavo Alatriste, paid him a visit in Madrid. Alatriste had just produced Luis Buñuel´s Simon of the Desert, a 42-minute film, featuring Francisco Reiguera in a small role. The Spanish actor had told him about his work on Don Quixote with Welles. Alatriste was searching for a high quality film that would fill the normal length of a movie program, to go along with Simon of the Desert. Since Welles now saw Don Quixote as a feature film, the first idea he proposed to the Mexican producer to complement Simon of the Desert was a comedy. Then, he offered him his recently finished screenplay adaptation of The Immortal Story.
Alatriste read Welles’s three-story script entitled The Full Moon (A Country Tale, The Heroine and The Immortal Story) and was very enthusiastic. Unfortunately, his own financial difficulties didn’t allow him to co-produce either The Full Moon or the final phase of shooting and editing of Don Quixote as a feature film.
Still, Welles tried to find another way to finish the work he had begun eight years earlier in Mexico. I started negotiations with a close friend whose father was the Spanish Ambassador, Sabastian de Erice. On an unofficial level we checked with the Spanish Foreign Office and they didn’t see a problem on having Francisco Reiguera return to Spain to finish his role in Don Quixote, even though he had been exiled as an anti-Franco Republican.
With Welles’s advice, I tried to make a deal with Televisión Española (Spanish Public Television and the only TV channels available in Spain at the time). Adolfo Suarez, who would become the first democratic president of Spain after Franco, ran it at the time. The General Manager was Jesus Aparicio Bernal, also a conservative man, and the Minister of Information and Tourism was Manuel Fraga Iribarne, founder president of the Spanish Conservative Party after Franco’s dictatorship.
Welles’s offer would allow the broadcasting of his Italian documentary In The Land of Don Quixote (La Spagna di Don Chisciotte) after some re-editing and with a commentary read in Spanish by Welles who had the world rights to the series, except for Italy. Welles would get no payment for this job.
We acted as spokesmen on behalf of Welles, with a Spanish screenwriter and long time friend who had a high executive position in Spanish Television. It was a verbal agreement with no written document. The boxes with the reels were sent to Madrid from Rome via TWA.
The verbal agreement was that they would be delivered to Welles, so he could work on a TV version for a Spanish audience. But the cargo had a long delay at Madrid airport customs, even though all kinds of efforts were made, including a letter to the Spanish Minister of Tourism and some visits to Television Española´s General Manager. In the end, all our efforts proved to be useless. A member of the staff of the Film Department had read a negative note on the Welles’ series printed in L´Unità or Paese Sera, the Italy Communist Party dailies. It was a note linking Orson’s impressions of the Spain he loved to his leftist beliefs, but didn’t have anything to do with his nasty personal opinion of Franco. That simple-minded man didn’t think of Welles's long years defending democratic ideals and his attacks on any kind of totalitarian governments, including the Communist credo. (In 1991, Film Comment printed an article on Welles’s FBI file, which noted his leftist political leanings made him a man who should be closely watched.)
The negative report made the powerful fascist people on the staff of Television Española return the In The Land of Don Quixote material to Rome without looking at it. The American film director, Ira Wohl, (an Oscar-winner for his documentary, Best Boy) reported in the special Welles issue of Nickel Odeon that the reels eventually returned to Spain by smuggling them through the Spanish-French frontier, by Peter Parashelles and Wohl himself. Both men worked at the editing room in the basement of Welles Madrid home on Don Quixote, in order to bring a version full of subtlety and experimentation in the editing.
Welles mind was so haunted by Cervantes that in 1968 he wrote the following passage in his preface to Conchita Cintron’s Memoirs of A Bullfighter:
“We cannot leave this subject without some mention of the most famous Spaniard ever to wield a sword. Nothing truly indigenous to this country can evade some reference to Don Quixote. In the bullring we find that he has mounted Sancho Panza on Rosinante, and has himself thrown away his barber´s basin of a helmet and is using a cape for a shield. He is challenging real giants whom he treats as windmills. This is fine, as far as it goes, admirable, if it goes far enough. Towards ladies fair, however, his general attitude remains lunatic. Dulcinea is still supposed to live under guard in the family fortress, protected by men, protected from men.”
Aiming to finish his Don Quixote and planning to establish a permanent base of work in Spain, Welles looked forward to establishing Orson Welles Productions for filming a series of features in Spain, to be broadcast in America on prime time television, while in Europe and the rest of the world they would be shown in movie theaters. This project would be a deal with the very people we had introduced Welles to for the shooting of Don Quixote and would grant Spanish nationality to this long adventure.
Orson Welles Productions was established in Madrid to also facilitate the financing of other, more personal projects, but Welles could not get the American backing for the first TV pilot, The Survivors, by Irwin Shaw and Peter Viertel. The plot of the stage play happens in the United States after the Civil War. Deborah Kerr and Orson Welles were to star in the movie. The failure of this project made Orson think about producing the adventure Dead Calm or Dead Reckoning, based on Charles Williams novel. As he could not get production money in the USA or Europe to film it on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, there were talks about shooting it in Australia. At the time, the government was trying to launch a solid film industry there. Paradoxically, Welles adaptation was rejected because it was not “Australian” enough, although in 1989, Phillip Noyce shot Dead Calm there with Nicole Kidman as the leading actress.
The fact is, by the early 70’s Welles had finished most of the filming of Williams’s novel. Now re-titled The Deep it was shot off the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia with Jeanne Moreau, Oja Kodar, Lawrence Harvey and Welles, but was never completed.
Then, when Chimes at Midnight failed to reach the box-office success he had hoped for from the English speaking countries, it became a critical moment in the misfortunes of the unfinished Don Quixote.
Welles was very honest with his Spanish producer in the pre-production period of Chimes at Midnight. In a truly sincere letter, he admitted his Shakespearian films had never been hits. For that very reason, he proposed to shoot back-to-back with Chimes a new color version of a classic story that was sure to be a hit for the family audience, Treasure Island. Welles would star in the movie (as Long John Silver) with most of the cast taken from the actors also appearing in Chimes at Midnight. Treasure Island would balance any possible financial loses incurred by Chimes at Midnight.
Welles was so engaged with these two projects, that at the time he decided to postpone his Cervantes’s film. Jesus Franco would be the Spanish director for the Stevenson novel, while I was working on the two screenplays. In fact, Don Quixote was also a risky commercial adventure. It had no big names, was shot in black and white and still lacked a spectacular scene. Welles thought it would certainly engage the enthusiasm of an influential minority, but in the eyes of the big movie industry, it would be a negative note, when, after 30 years in the business, he was hoping to establish not only a reputation as a maker of personal films, but like many other directors, the chance to achieve good results at the box office. On one occasion he confessed to us how he envied Fellini´s success in the United States.
It is important never to think that Orson Welles was ever lacking in projects, because whatever his skills as writer, narrator, man of the theatre, radio, television, or the movies, he was always working incessantly. Sometimes his calendar was so crowded with projects that he would even turn down new contracts as an actor, in order to be free with the hope of making some new film. However, in the end, he couldn’t realize his personal dreams.
This was the case with his musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind. The contract would have given him a large amount of money. He was promised a new theatre, to be built in Manhattan. The play would run for years and the musical would go on tour in the States and in quite a few countries, as usually happens with a big Broadway hit. However, his negative response to some very well paid projects was not at all unusual for Welles.
Back in the USA in the early 70´s, he was on various occasions very close to making a movie that would have given him the renewed status he had searched for. Unfortunately, despite all the hopes and promises, no one would finance one of his films. Not even The Big Brass Ring, a very interesting story located again in Spain, but none of the five big Hollywood stars he approached would agree to make it, and their names were to be the basis for the film’s financing. They all preferred to make easy commercial films that they hoped would do well at the box-office.
At the end of the 1966 documentary filmed by François Reichenbach, Portrait of Orson Welles, he said: “I’m not in a condition to permit much more defeat. I need to find the precise terrain where my possibilities of loss are not greater than my possibilities of gain.” That made it difficult to consider Don Quixote as one of his options in these delicate moments.
In the 1980´s—Welles died in 1985—he returned to Los Angeles with a work print of his Cervantes’ adventure, to do more work on it by inventing a new structure in the editing that he hoped would enable him to show it to the world so it wouldn’t be considered a film maudit. However, he couldn’t put his new version into effect, because, among other reasons, the French Government had just promised him a studio and enough financing to make King Lear in Paris, but later demanded compromises that caused the project to languish and finally disappear.
In the history of cinema, Orson Welles is unique for many reasons, but not the least important of these was his desire to give shape and to recreate, according to changing times, a single piece of work. If in the end, it eventually reached movie houses, it would give an exact idea of how, for almost 30 years, a great creator is challenged by a project, as his ideas kept changing and the surrounding environment influenced him—even to the point of abandoning, for long periods of time his quixotic dreams—in order to make other pictures, while still reflecting on his unfinished work-in-progress. His own creative life goes from his vital, young years to another phase, of long and mature reflection in which, from time to time, with just his own means, he lived his last years imagining pieces of work and thinking about experiments he did not have the means to turn into films. All his life, he was always at the center of various fields, from his brilliant childhood onwards.
At the 1975 AFI award ceremony, where he was honored for his great accomplishments as a filmmaker, he received praise for many names that attended the star-studded gala, including Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra and Ingrid Bergman. In his speech, Welles asked that in the cinema, there should be a small place reserved for non-conformist artists, such as himself.
If Welles had been listened to throughout his long career, our cultural heritage and the legacy of future generations would have such unforgettable masterpieces as Don Quixote, King Lear, The Odyssey, Julius Caesar, and the biblical stories of Jacob and Esau, Abraham, and Joseph and his Brothers (Welles wrote the screenplay for producer De Laurentiis, although this segment was going to be directed by Luchino Visconti). There’s also Welles’s own screen stories that would be a tragic testimony of the ambitions, vanity and hopes of the century he lived in. Unfortunately they were only “screened” with his unique vision, that was always present when he projected them, on the minds of those of us who were fortunate enough to be close to him.
We were witnesses of his marvelous power when he narrated his vision of King Lear, the drama of Abraham and his God, or the world of writers, movie people and lazy rich amateurs, following a famous matador during his bullfighting season, from Spring to Autumn, from one bullring to another, all over Spain.
We were lucky enough to be by his side at his editing-table while he was editing Don Quixote and then to view for two weeks his work, reel to reel, when he asked us to do for him while he was away in London.
We could say the work of Welles we have now is but the tip of the iceberg of what he was capable of doing. Each one of the pieces of work that we might have had would only cost a fraction of what is paid today for a great masterpiece by a great painter.
In his 1988 tribute to Welles at New York University, Professor Michael Denning of Yale University emphasized in his thesis that Orson Welles stands out as the great figure of modern American culture. Time and the great amount written on Welles in his days and afterwards, appears to confirm this conclusion.
Juan Cobos - Vejer de la Frontera (Spain ~ España)
September 17, 2008