Don Quixote (1957)

Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev, known for his adaptations of Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971), followed in the footsteps of G.W. Pabst and Rafael Gil in completing a film* of Miguel de Cervantes' legendary comic novel of the early 17th century, succeeding where the likes of Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam famously failed. Starring the great Russian actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played both Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevksy for Sergei Eisenstein, with Yuri Tolubeyev as his loyal but unfailingly cowardly squire Sancho Panza, Kozintsev's film captures Cervantes' mock-heroic tone to a tee, just as Gustave DorĂ©'s exquisite series of engravings did in the 1860s. The story, as if it needed recounting, tells of an aging Spanish nobleman who reads one too many chivalric romances and becomes so enraptured by their tales of heroic deeds and daring-do that he straps on some old kitchenware and a barber's basin for armour and sets out on his bony nag Rocinante to become a knight errant. Roaming the burnt hillsides of rural La Mancha with his plump peasant sidekick in tow, the Knight of the Rueful Countenance  searches for wrongs to right and damsels in distress to rescue from the clutches of evil sorcerers, much to the amusement of all he encounters. 

Kozintsev's was the first filmed version of Don Quixote to be shot in colour and CinemaScope and its palette does look a touch murky at times in the recent re-release from Mr Bongo while its widescreen vistas, which frequently silhouette the pair against the baking sun to great effect, might be best served on the big screen. However, these quibbles do nothing to detract from a wonderful achievement in which the arid deserts of the Crimea seamlessly stand in for central Spain. Screenwriter Yevgeni Shvarts cherrypicks many of the most celebrated episodes from Cervantes' two-volume tome, with our hero confusing a laundress for a countess, prostitutes for high-born maidens, flocks of sheep for armies and wine sacks for smirking gargoyles. The iconic moment in which Cherkasov's boggled hidalgo tilts at the windmill, mistaking its rotating blades for the swinging fists of his imagined magician nemesis Friston, doesn't disappoint, making the most of the actor's game but rangy physicality. Among the supporting cast, Tamila Agamirova is especially memorable as an amused and lively Lady Altisidora. A fitting tribute to Cervantes then, deftly capturing the wit and wisdom of a writer several centuries ahead of his time.

*A more recently completed Quixote is Albert Serra's "defiantly experimental" Honour Of The Knights (2006), which strips the tale of all comic incident and its madcap spirit to simply spend time with the two wanderers on their vague quest, occasionally chatting, bathing in a brook or dozing in a field. A naturalistic recreation of their journey, a dreamscape or an attempt to reinterpret the story in relation to later 20th century artists like Samuel Beckett or Pier Paolo Pasonlini? Either way, nothing whatsoever happens, quite literally, during its near two hour running time.


  1. I recall once seeing the early 30s Pabst version of Don Quixote, which was made in Britain with a British cast except for the title role, played by the great Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin. I remember that all the British actors played their roles as very "British"; eg, Sancho Panza (George Robey) was an English-peasant type. The effect was to make Chaliapin's stylized, 'big-effect' acting seem out of place, as though Quixote was a being from another place and time; even Chaliapin's rhythm was drastically different from the rest. Whether this was meant as a deliberate effect I couldn't say; thought I felt it diluted the relationship between Quixote and Panza.

  2. I've never seen the Pabst version GOM but it sounds fascinating, even if it isn't perfect. I will most definitely seek it out as I'm a huge fan of Cervantes - thanks very much for the recommendation.