Directed By: Arthur Hiller
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren, James Coco
Tag line: "Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and James Coco dream 'The Impossible Dream' in..."
Trivia: Simon Gilbert dubbed Peter O'Toole's singing voice
Lawrence of Arabia. Becket. The Lion in Winter. The Ruling Class. My Favorite Year. These are the films that feature Peter O’Toole at his absolute best. An actor of incredible range, O’Toole was one of the greats, and in most cases, his presence alone was enough to raise the quality of a movie. I say “most cases” because even a performer as gifted as O'Toole made the occasional misstep. His role in Caligula (albeit brief) added nothing to the film, and he couldn’t prevent 1984’s Supergirl from spiraling into mediocrity.
Unfortunately, I can now add the 1972 musical Man of La Mancha to the very short list of bad movies he appeared in over the years.
Set during the days of Spanish Inquisition, Man of La Mancha opens with Miguel de Cervantes (O'Toole), an actor, being arrested for crimes against the church. Thrown into prison, he and his assistant (James Coco) are put “on trial” by his fellow inmates, during which Cervantes acts out his newest play, the story of Alonso Quijana (also O’Toole), the delusional elderly Spaniard who leaves his family behind to ride across the land, posing as the noble knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. With his loyal subject, Sancho Panza (Coco), at his side, Quixote battles giant windmills, scuffles with the patrons at a dilapidated Inn, and defends the honor of the prostitute Aldonza (Sophia Loren), who he insists is actually a woman of superior birth named Dulcinea. But even as he continues to perform his opus, Cervantes knows his days are numbered, and awaits the call of the “judges” of the Inquisition, who will surely demand that he answer for his crimes.
The major issue I have with Man of La Mancha is its pacing; the entire movie just kind of sits there, plodding along one very slow step at a time. Even the opening scene, set inside the prison, failed to keep my interest, though it did feature the title song, "Man of La Mancha", which I enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for the rest of the film’s music, almost all of which falls flat on its face. Even its most popular tune, "The Impossible Dream", is poorly handled, and generates no drama or excitement whatsoever. It isn’t until the movie’s final 5 minutes that it soars to the heights I wanted it to reach much earlier, and by that point, it’s far too late to make any sort of difference.
As for O’Toole, he’s not bad, and does occasionally spring to life (like in the scene where Don Quixote fights the windmill). But when you think of how terrific he was in so many of his other films, saying Peter O’Toole was “not bad” in Man of La Mancha is itself a slap in the face.