With initial funds from CBS-TV to create a thirty-minute television drama, Welles began shooting Don Quixote in Spain and Mexico in the mid-1950s. The noble-looking Mexican actor Francisco Reiguera would play Quixote and Akim Tamiroff his page. What is striking is the physical correctness of these two. Reiguera’s Quixote seems to have stepped out of the famous illustrations of the book. Indeed, there are framed Quixote engravings in doorways the Don rides by during the film, and the similarity, in every detail, is striking.
When a representative of CBS screened a small portion of the unedited film and was dissatisfied, Orson was refused any further monies to complete it. Actually, he was delighted with the rejection. This was no mere half-hour television drama he was creating; it was becoming a full-blown feature film.
He then transposed the focus of the idea into a longer film, framed by scenes of himself as narrator. As the film opens, he is seen reading Cervantes’ novel in a Mexican hotel. Child actress Patty McCormack, who plays a young American tourist visiting Mexico with her parents, asks Welles what he is reading: Orson has her sit on his lap and he begins to weave the tale, and the film progresses, his voice coming in from time to time to link the narrative flow with explanatory commentary.
Orson shot the film with only script fragments and sometimes without any written screenplay at all, going out into the streets as silent filmmakers used to do and working improvisationally. When he didn’t have sophisticated 35mm equipment, cameramen with hand-held 16mm cameras would be employed from time to time. He worked on Don Quixote wherever a minimal cast and crew could be assembled and wherever Orson, equipped with a few personal dollars, could wrench himself away from his other commitments. The sight of a sunset in Ibiza, the carnival parade of a saint in Pamplona, or an ancient cobbled street in Seville would be enough to get Orson reinterested in the attenuated film and to instantly reorganize his crew.
Orson updated Cervantes so that Don Quixote pits himself against the monsters of the electronic age. In one of the episodes in the film, Don Quixote goes into a movie theater, observes the heroine on the screen who is shackled and about to be abused, perhaps slain, and with his legendary gallantry comes to her rescue, leaping upon the stage and plunging his lance into the screen.
In one scene, as Quixote and Panza ride into a modern city, complete with automobiles, buses, neon lights, and other artifacts of the twentieth century, they are cheered by crowds of bystanders who urge them on. A large poster of Don Quixote Beer can be seen in the background as the two men pass resolutely by.
Other modern parallels to the novel are created: the windmills becoming power shovels, for instance. Quixote and Panza rocket to the moon. The penultimate scene of the film was to be an episode that showed an atomic explosion where everything is destroyed and everyone in the world is killed, except Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
After a period of shooting, getting Reiguera and Tamiroff together became almost impossible—the former returned to Mexico and the latter went off to act in other films. Years went by without Don Quixote being completed. Eventually the seventy-year-old Reiguera contacted Welles and gently reminded him that if the shooting was not completed in short order, owing to his growing ill health, he might not ever be able to complete it. Shortly after that Reiguera died, and the continuity of the film could not be maintained.
In may of 1986, at the Cannes Film Festival, a forty-five minute compilation of some outtakes, rushes, and other shots of Don Quixote compiled by archivists of the Cinemateque Francais was shown. The visuals include beautiful, low-angle shots with sweeping clouds, and many moving camera shots of the two traveling. At one point, a stationary camera catches them riding across a hilltop, silhouetted against a brilliant sun.
Welles wanted to end the film with the two riding into the twenty-first century, against a background of old, burnt-out cars, and deserted landscapes, riding through towns populated with peasants.
As with so many projects associated with Welles, these fragments, or treasure, in the truest sense of the word, from many periods of his fascinating career, remain tantalizing signposts to the oft and deservedly lamented land of what might have been.
—Frank Brady, Citizen Welles