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This Russian language version of Cervantess classic novel, Don Quixote, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, is the best film adaptation of the story ever made. It was also the last piece of the cultural exchange program between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s before the worsening tensions leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the exchange to an abrupt halt. There is an irony in a film about the issue of idealism vs. pragmatism and cynicism becoming the victim of Cold War hostilities. The brilliant performances by the two leads, Nikolai Cherkasov and Yuri Tolubeyev, make this the definitive version of the story and a cinematic masterpiece.
Historical Background: This 1957 Russian film was obviously based on the great Spanish novel of the same name written by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), one of the greatest writers in Spanish history. Cervantes was a military man and did not even attend a university. He was an avid reader, however, illustrating the contribution that extensive reading makes to the development of a writer. Cervantes joined the army when he was just twenty-one and fought in the naval battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. While sailing for Spain in 1575, his ship was captured by pirates and he was taken slave to Algiers, where he spent five years before being ransomed by his family. Finally reaching Madrid in 1580, Cervantes took various menial jobs in order to earn the money to repay his ransom. He worked as a messenger and a grain collector. In 1585, he produced his first extensive literary work, La Galatea, a pastoral romance. During most of the next twenty years, Cervantes wrote mostly long plays which were rarely produced and not among his best works. In 1605, he published the first part of the novel Don Quixote and became famous almost immediately. During the next decade, he wrote most of the works for which he is best known, although none were published until 1613, when the Exemplary Novels appeared. That was followed by Journey to Parnassus (1614), a long poem, and the second part of Don Quixote (1615). The latter work was accompanied by Eight Comedies and Eight Entremeses, which were mostly one-act plays and a good deal more highly regarded than his earlier longer theater pieces.
Don Quixote was his premiere work and the one on which his reputation most rests today. It had a major influence on the development of the novel. It was viewed almost entirely as a comedy until about 1800, but today it is taken as a story about an idealistic hero who did not conform to the practical cynicism of his time.
The Story: A mentally unstable middle-aged Spanish landowner, Alonso Quixano (Nikolai Cherkasov), reads romantic novels extensively to enliven the monotony of his dull life. He is so absorbed in what he reads that he believes in the absolute truth of the stories, such as the stories of knights-errant who fight for truth and justice and to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden. His mental status is of great concern to his devoted niece (Svetlana Grigoryeva) and housekeeper (Seraphima Birman) as well as the local priest (Vladimir Maksimov) and barber (Viktor Kolpakov). Driven by unbounded idealism, Quixano takes the name Don Quixote de La Mancha, dresses himself in armor, and sets out with his trusty companion Sancho Panza (Yuri Tolubeyev) to perform heroic deeds. The two make an amusing pair partly because Don Quixote is tall, thin, and lanky and rides an equally emaciated horse while Sancho is short and squat and rides on a donkey.
Don Quixote is sufficiently delusional that he sees demons and injustices wherever they travel. When he falls off his horse as it crosses a rut, it is no ordinary rut in Don Quixotes eyes. It has been placed there by the evil sorcerer, Freston. One of his first acts is to save a shepherd boy, Andres (S. Tsomayev), from a flogging by his master (Aleksandr Beniaminov), forcing the cruel man to release the boy and to promise to pay him the money due to him. The boy is full of gratitude to Don Quixote and pleads to travel with him, but is turned down.
Later, Don Quixote encounters and attacks a flock of sheep that he imagines to be an invading army of giants. Later he sees the Lady Altisidora (Tamilla Agamirova) riding in her carriage with her servants but assumes that she is being abducted and rides to her rescue. The Lady is so amused by Don Quixote earnest lunacy that she plays along with his delusion, for entertainment. Only after he has sent all the servants scurrying off does she tell him the truth of the situation. She then mockingly tries to seduce Don Quixote, but he is unbending in his devotion to a romantic ideal of his imagination whom he calls Dulcinea del Toboso, the fairest maiden who ever lived. He tells Lady Altisidora, Until my death I shall be true to Dulcinea del Toboso. Dulcinea del Toboso has no reality except that Don Quixote sometimes mistakes a sweet and comely local milkmaid, Aldonsa (Lyudmila Kasyanova), as his Dulcinea under a spell cast by the wicked Freston. Lady Altisidora is so amused that it occurs to her that Don Quixote would make great sport and entertainment for the cynical courtiers at the court of The Duke (Bruno Frejndlikh) and The Dutchess (Bruno Freyndlikh). The Duke will be glad of such a splendid jester, she says.
On another occasion, Don Quixote and Sancho come across a chain gang being led to the gallows. He demands to know from each what sin he had committed, but each pleads to be a victim of injustice. Dutifully, Don Quixote demands that the prisoners be set free and challenges the guard. His distraction of the guard allows the prisoners to overwhelm the poor man, seize the keys, and free themselves. Lacking gratitude, they then turn on Don Quixote, stoning him and breaking his lance.
Badly beaten, Don Quixote and Sancho make their way to an inn which Don Quixote sees as a medieval castle. When two local wenches appear hoping for paying customers, Don Quixote imagines them as fair Senoritas sent to welcome him. He swears to defend their innocence, of which they unfortunately have none. The patrons of the inn decide on a plan to amuse themselves at the expense of the unwitting pair of travelers. Don Quixote staggers into the castle barely able to walk but with a verbal flourish: I greet you my friends. Are there any wretched, oppressed, or unjustly condemned in this castle? Ill restore justice! They arrange a bed for him, but it is the bed of a peasant woman, Maritornes (Galina Volchek), who has a notoriously jealous husband. This leads inevitably to an altercation. Don Quixote is further humiliated by a viciously placed trip wire, a bucket of feathers dropped on his head, and a pit trap that dumps him into the wine cellar where he attacks the wine vats, imagining them as demons.
Back home, Don Quixotes niece has sought the help of a young physician, Sanson Carrasco (Georgi Vitsin), fresh from taking his degree in medicine. His job is to cure Don Quixote from his obsession with wandering and playing the knight-errant. His science proves of little use, however, and he is reduced to guarding the ladder by which Don Quixote tries to make his escapes. Theres nothing Carrasco can do, however when Don Quixote and Sancho are sought out by Lady Altisidora and couriers from the Duke for a command appearance at the Dukes court. Ostensibly to honor the great knight, the real intent is to mock and scorn him. On the way, Don Quixote is invited to battle a lion. He opens the cage door and talks soothingly to the lion while the others scatter in utter fear. Ultimately, the lion simply lies down docilely in the cage and Don Quixote has, in fact, proven his courage if not his sanity. Among other activities, the courtiers stage a mock funeral for Lady Altisidora who, they say, has died of unrequited love for Don Quixote. She rises from the dead in the middle of Don Quixotes heartfelt soliloquy to the great amusement of the courtiers, The Duke, and The Dutchess. The Duke, who epitomizes cynicism, states, You have proven to us beyond doubt that virtue is absurd, fidelity is ridiculous, and love is the fruit of a fevered imagination.
Sancho, meanwhile, is granted his wish to be governor of an island if only in jest. He arrives in his new domain amid the gay laughter of his populace, but insists on interpreting their amusement as a friendly welcoming. He is confronted with a conflict between a man and a woman. She claims that he tried to force himself on her. He claims that she demanded that he give her his money (he had just sold some pigs) or she would make trouble for him. It is up to Sancho to resolve the dispute and discover the truth. Sancho mulls it over and tells the man to turn over his purse to the woman. After the woman walks away contentedly, Sancho tells the man to retrieve his purse from the woman. The man chases after her but she is a good deal stronger and bulkier than he and the man is unable to take the purse from her. Sancho then demands that she return the purse to the man, saying had she defended her honor as she defended the purse, the man could not have forced himself on her. The populace is impressed by the ingenuity of Sanchos justice. He instructs them in great wisdom, The trouble is that if I ordered you all flogged, Id find helpers at once. But if I ordered mercy for all, thered be no one to help. (This remains as true of the world today as that of 1605.) Later, however, the joke runs its course and Sancho is summarily run out of town.
Don Quixote and Sancho reunite, both having been scorned unmercifully, and set out once again, Don Quixote declaring, Justice will destroy greed and prejudice. Onward, onward! Forever forward! They encounter some giant windmills in the fields, one of which Don Quixote imagines to be Freston himself. Attacking, Don Quixote leaps onto one of the wings of the windmill and spins up into the atmosphere as if riding on a ferris wheel, clinging to the apparatus as if battling his arch foe, I wont believe in you, you scoundrel! No matter how much you twist me around! I know that love, fidelity, and mercy will triumph in the end! You creak with fury, but I laugh at you! Long live man. Down with evil sorcerers! Ultimately, Don Quixote falls to the ground.
Immediately, a mysterious knight approaches, introducing himself as the Knight of the White Moon, and challenges Don Quixote to a dual. Don Quixote is barely able to mount his horse and completely unable to sit upright. The young knight, however, is fresh and strong and his horse fast as the wind. Don Quixote is easily defeated and the young knight reveals himself to be Dr. Carrasco, who now demands, under the laws of chivalry, that Don Quixote agree to return home and remain there for all his days. The clever doctor has confronted Don Quixote on the basis of his own delusions and fashioned a solution. While returning to La Mancha, the trio come across the shepherd boy that Don Quixote had earlier saved from a beating. Don Quixote momentarily imagines that his travels were worthwhile after all, for that one heroic deed, but the boy informs him, You angered my master. He beat me so hard I can still feel it. Back in La Mancha, the chastened knight sinks into a deep melancholy, briefly regaining his senses before passing away.
Themes: The brilliance of the story of Don Quixote is that it posits an issue reality and cynicism vs. fantasy and idealism and then explores it even-handedly from both sides of the argument. Much of the novel involves the conversations between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza during their travels, with Sancho representing reality and Don Quixote delusional idealism. Cervantes deals fairly with the potential for excesses of idealism, showing how Don Quixotes ideals are too often misplaced and lead only to the worsening of problems or creation of problems where none existed. The shepherd boys situation is worsened by Don Quixotes intervention. The prisoners of the chain gang are let loose and have to be rounded up again, probably committing numerous crimes while on the run. Lady Altisidoras servants are sent running to no good purpose.
At the same time, Don Quixote can be seen as a breath of fresh air and a bastion of ideals in an overly cynical and often mean-spirited world. We are invited to wonder, who is the more lost to their humanity the mad or those who mock the mad for mere amusement? Who leads more recklessly the leader steeped in cynicism or the hopeless idealist? Don Quixote will always remain true to himself and that is what makes him so ridiculous. The Duke remains true to nothing no ideal which makes him ridiculous as well. Sancho Panzas words of wisdom during his short stint as mock-governor were no doubt truer than anything provided by the real political leadership.
Idealists dont make effective leaders because of lack of pragmatism but, unfortunately, the larger problem is the opposite one. Political systems are such that only cynical liars can rise to positions of power and influence. It is amazing that a book published in 1605/1615 remains as apt a description of leadership as it exists today as it was in the early 17th century. Sancho points out to his subjects how easily he could recruit helpers to share in violent retribution, but how difficult it would be to incite them to mercy. The American President is similarly easily able to incite about 50% of Americans to support a violent, offensive action responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, on the basis of misinformation appealing to prejudices and anger. Like the Duke, the American President appeals to the worst and most cynical qualities of his populace. One of our political parties here in America has virtually built its constituency by blatant appeals to greed and prejudice a coalition of the wealthy and people of prejudice. The Republican National Committee, for example, published a campaign flyer in pivotal states showing on one side a bible overlaid with a red circle with a diagonal slash and the caption Banned. In the adjacent pane, a man is depicted kneeling down in front of another, obviously proposing marriage, with the caption Not Banned. These are blatant, cynical appeals to sheer prejudice.
Like many of you, I am invested in the outcome of the election next Tuesday. I dont pretend to know how it will turn out. I am cautiously hopeful but also resigned to the possibility that the result will be a continuation of the current cynicism and aggressive disregard for innocent lives. For those of you who share my concerns, let me pass on some of the comfort that I took from viewing Don Quixote. Like Don Quixote, I believe that justice will destroy greed and prejudice in the end. Like Don Quixote, I believe that love, fidelity, and mercy will triumph in the end, though it may yet be many decades or centuries before the fight for justice can be substantially won. The election of 2004 is only one battle in an ongoing war a war for which we must continue to have faith in the ultimate outcome. Like Don Quixote, I say that I wont believe in scoundrels no matter how much they twist public opinion with lies and innuendo. We need to believe that mankind taken collectively, in the end, will face down the scoundrels and stand up for truth and justice. The alternative is destruction of life on earth as we know it. Whether the election of 2004 turns out to be a mark of progress in that direction or a setback is only part of a much larger story. The day will come when moral leadership will be understood to encompass tolerance, international cooperation, strength with compassion, and economic opportunity rather than pseudo-moral, fundamentalist pieties, flagrant excesses in class disparities, and disregard for the plights of the needy. Onward, onward! Forever forward!
Production Values: Even the opening credits are creatively done in this fine production from Russia. The slow sweep of the arm of a giant windmill wipes each successive credit line onto the screen. This is especially apropos because of the role that windmills ultimately play in the story.
Filmed in the Russia Crimea, Kozintsev was able to effectively depict the barren landscape of the Spanish plateau. In one magnificent shot, Don Quixote and Sancho are silhouetted against a backdrop of purple storm clouds. The cinematography provided by longtime Kozintsev associate, Andrey Moskvin, is superlative throughout the film, the color palette emphasizing browns, and tans and other earthy hues. The sets are excellent, from the village of La Mancha, to the country inn, to the Dukes court, to the various natural settings along the trail.
I cant say enough about the performance by the great Nikolai Cherkasov. Ive seen Don Quixote in at least one other version but was never moved by the story as I was on this occasion. Cherkasov strikes the perfect balance between the profundities of the story and the comedy. The other work of this great Russian actor includes Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, parts I and II (see Eisenstein: The Sound Years).
Bottom-Line: Don Quixote is a great story that brilliantly raises fundamental questions about the place of ideals in a world of pragmatism. The issues are as important today as they were four-hundred years ago, perhaps more so. The universality of the issues is part of Cervantess brilliance. I highly recommend this little known film masterpiece from the Soviet Union. My VHS copy is in Russian with English subtitles. There is apparently also an English dubbed version, but the dubbing is described as woeful. The running time is a brisk 110 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Russia and the U.S.S.R.:
Ballad of a Soldier
Burnt By the Sun
Come and See
The Cranes Are Flying
Ivan the Terrible
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
War and Peace
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Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12