The translation from theatrical musical to movie musical doesn't get much more disastrous than in Man of La Mancha, a cheap, muddled, and badly put-together debacle that resoundingly establishes Arthur Hiller (who directed Love Story and Silver Streak) as one of cinema's most hit-and-miss directors.
La Mancha adapts the stage play with Peter O'Toole in the lead as both Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes: Cervantes is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, finds his papers held ransom by his fellow inmates, and given a mock trial by them in order to determine whether they shall be returned. The trial takes the form of a reenactment of Don Quixote, Cervantes' adventurous tales of his alter ego. As the delusional Quixote, O'Toole jousts with a windmill and promptly rides to a nearby village, which he believes to be a castle holding his beloved Dulcinea (Sophia Loren). By his side is the lovable chubster Sancho Panza (James Coco), who sees the reality behind Quixote's grandiose delusions but finds himself taken in by them as well.
Too bad this comes across like the jumbled mess that it is. Where to start? For starters, the twin stories don't hang together at all. In trying to build shades of reality, Hiller fails at creating a single interesting tale. The epic Quixote is reduced to a one-note gag, with O'Toole's Quixote chasing around Dulcinea like a fool. He thinks she's a virtuous lady; in reality she's Aldonza, the local whore. O'Toole plays Quixote like a wide-eyed kid at Christmas, refusing to hear anything contrary to his skewed worldview, while everyone around him simply tells him he's an idiot. O'Toole doesn't fit the mold of his character at all (and his singing voice had to be dubbed over), and the ridiculous prosthetics applied to make him look older and/or Spanish are some of the worst in cinematic history.
O'Toole's supporting cast is equally at fault. Loren is fair enough playing a prostitute, but James Coco (playing Sancho) is about as Spanish as a plate of sashimi. He giggles his way through the movie with a New Jersey accent, looking like something between a guy ready to head out for a meatball sub at any moment and Frankenstein's Igor.
As for the music, La Mancha is hardly one of Broadway's musical milestones (how it played for nearly 3,000 showings is a mystery to me), and its centerpiece numbers -- "The Impossible Dream" and the title track -- are memorable ditties. Unfortunately the remainder of the songs vary from tepid to awful, with some tracks, like Coco's "Little Gossip" trimmed to three or four lines. Mercifully, if you ask me.
Finally, the whole movie looks embarassingly underproduced. Is Hiller making a statement about the gaudiness of big-budget musical contemporaries like Fiddler on the Roof? If he is, it isn't much of one.
Truly, an impossible dream.