Excerpt: Millennial Cervantes

The following is an excerpt from Millennial Cervantes: New Currents in Cervantes Studies edited by Bruce R. Burningham (June 2020), the newest addition to the New Hispanisms Series.

Chapter 6: QuixoNation

Unfinished Adaptations of Don Quixote in Cold War U.S. Cinema

By William P. Childers

This chapter focuses on three never-completed film projects from the Cold War era: Orson Welles’s Don Quixote, begun in 1955; Harold L. “Doc” Humes’s Don Peyote, filmed in 1960 but never released; and Waldo Salt’s screenplay, written in 1965–67, revised in 1971 and in the 1990s (by other hands), yet to date never filmed. For each I make use of material not previously studied. Orson Welles’s 1957 screenplay finally resurfaced in 2016 after nearly sixty years. Humes’s film, lost for decades, was recovered by his daughter, Immy Humes, while working on her 2008 documentary about him, Doc. Waldo Salt’s Don Quixote screenplay is conserved at the University of California, Los Angeles (and, in other versions, the University of Michigan), while his artwork and notebooks remain under the care of his daughter, Jennifer Salt.1 My aim is to demonstrate the special attraction that Don Quixote had for Cold War filmmakers working outside or against the dominance of Hollywood. They associated Cervantes’s novel with a reflexive, critical form of cultural production, antithetical to the conventional style prevailing at the time. For them “Quixote” stands for experimentation, self-awareness, and challenging the status quo, both artistically and politically.

To understand the significance of their use of Cervantes, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the limitations on U.S. filmmakers during the first two decades of the Cold War. In its golden era, the Hollywood model of moviemaking was driven by the star system, high production values, and a near monopoly on distribution, established soon after World War I. The major studios’ ownership of the means of cultural production amounted to a virtual cartel. Due to the expense involved in producing such films and the expectation of strong returns on investment, the “media-industrial complex” (Rosenbaum 2002) was (and remains) extremely risk-averse. To prevent controversy that could undermine their hold on the market, the studios submitted to a strict regime of self-censorship, known as the Hays Code, in effect from 1934 through 1967. After World War II, as Hollywood consolidated its influence over the American psyche, its aesthetic ideology became still narrower. McCarthy-era blacklisting, reinforced by covert CIA infiltration, converted the film industry into a de facto propaganda machine for the dominant order. Since the late 1960s, first the New Hollywood and then the independent film movement have loosened restrictions on filmmaking in the United States, both in terms of technique and sensibility. Though it would be naive to say that the system of production/distribution is now truly open, comparatively speaking the quarter century prior to that liberalization was a much more difficult time for any filmmaking practice resistant to the hegemony of the Hollywood studios.2

The efforts of the counterhegemonic filmmakers examined here do not necessarily pull in exactly the same direction, but all three seek to unleash potential in the film medium that remains largely untapped, even to this day. For Humes and Salt, their activist quixotism is overtly political, directed against militarism, inequality, and the authoritarian role of the state in the context of the Cold War; though the political element is not absent for Welles, he focuses more on artistic freedom and the power of imagination. All three share an appreciation for the satirical dimension of Cervantes’s novel. Historically, the presence of such “activist quixotism” within the film community in the United States has been obscured by the invisibility of projects that were never completed, as well as by the success of Man of La Mancha, whose romantic quixotism eclipsed the activist model, siphoning away the energy it had accumulated to fuel a more saccharine approach to Cervantes.3 Pointing out that these three filmmakers all participated in an activist quixote-paradigm is easier than explaining how or why this paradigm emerged during the Cold War. Certainly one factor is the ongoing association of Don Quixote with the “lost cause” of Loyalist Spain, whose importance as a catalyst for the radical left before World War II can hardly be exaggerated.4 Another, undoubtedly, is the resurgence of satire in the postwar United States as a reaction to the arms race and its doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). It is not out of place here to recall the analogy between these filmmakers’ circumstances vis-à-vis McCarthyism and the conditions under which Cervantes’s own novelistic practice developed. The parallels between Lope’s comedia nueva and classic Hollywood cinema have been rigorously explored by Bruce Burningham (2008).5 The function of both the comedia nueva and the Hollywood studios as entertainment industries results in an ideologically conservative outlook, not because their creators are deliberate propagandists for the Spanish Empire, on the one hand, or global capitalism, on the other, but because they want to please their audiences and avoid ruffling feathers.6 Again in both cases, the high cost of production incentivizes this conservatism, and the public visibility of the spectacle makes controversy doubly undesirable. What appears on stage or on screen is scrutinized by officialdom to a degree that private reading experiences are not. In this regard it is crucial to keep in mind that Cervantes was driven from the stage by Lope de Vega, and that the novelistic practice he developed as a result addressed itself to an individuated reader whose freedom was the first tenet of the new aesthetic announced in the prologue to the 1605 Quixote: “Estás en tu casa, donde eres señor della, como el rey de sus alcabalas, y sabes lo que comúnmente se dice, que debajo de mi manto al rey mato” (Cervantes 1978, 1:51).7 How aware Welles, Humes, or Salt were of this background is of little consequence. The questioning, critical stance and the satirical techniques embedded in Cervantes’s work have appealed to generations of maverick artists who recognize themselves in the eccentric, self- defining character he invented, who is benignly mocked at the same time that he is given license to implicitly criticize the Crown, the church, the nobility, and the emerging class of wealthy commoners. The appeal of activist Quixotism to those resisting Hollywood’s hegemony circa 1955–65 can be considered a convergence of all the factors mentioned above, which overdetermined an interest in Cervantes on the part of independent- minded filmmakers working in isolation from one another. Finally, let us note the undeniable attraction at that time of identifying with an insane hero, for all those who could repeat with Allen Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (1956, 9).

1. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Jennifer Salt and Immy Humes for giving me access to their fathers’ work. I am also grateful to Julie Graham at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Library for drawing my attention to the Orson Welles screenplay of Don Quixote, which she assisted in cataloging, and to Philip A. Hallman, Film Studies Field librarian at the University of Michigan, for meeting with me to discuss the Welles holdings of the Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers archive.
2. Under the Hays Code, according to Doherty, “Hollywood undertook a wholesale depoliticizing of its subject matter and a desexualization of its atmosphere, language, and bodies” (1999, 337; the text of the Production Code is reprinted on pp. 347–67). During McCarthyism, Whitfield explains, “It was safer to produce films without any political or economic themes or implications at all” (1991, 131). Saunders offers specific examples of undercover CIA agent Carlton Alsop’s role in reinforcing the Hays Code in the 1950s (1999, 290–93). Jowett (1996) gives a nuanced view of the gradual decline in censorship leading up to the final overturning of the Hays Code in 1968.
3. For further discussion of the relationship between Man of La Mancha and countercultural approaches to adapting Don Quixote, see my forthcoming article, “‘A Most Timely Message for This Tired and Cynical World’: Man of La Mancha (1965) as the Depoliticization of Counterculture Quixotism.”
4. That the defense of the Spanish Republic was in any sense “Quixotic” is not an uncontroversial claim. James D. Fernández (2016) has recently noted that Hemingway’s Robert Jordan (in For Whom the Bell Tolls) is too individualistic and isolated to be taken as typical of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers, who were overwhelmingly urban-dwellers involved with the labor movement and saw volunteering to fight Franco as an extension of their political activism, not some romantic personal quest. Nonetheless, Alvah Bessie, the only one of the Hollywood Ten to have fought in Spain, did read Don Quixote during the year he spent in prison for contempt of Congress (Nelson 2001, 181–83). Cabañas Bravo (2014) has also shown that the Spanish loyalist exiles celebrated Don Quixote as a symbol of their defeated cause. The tension between individualism and collectivism on the radical left is too large a subject for this chapter. The least one can say is that leftists of all political stripes tend to idealize the Spanish Republic, and that even at the most trivial level, Don Quixote, the best-known Spanish literary classic, is often taken as emblematic of Spain.
5. David R. Castillo (2012) also deserves to be credited in the development of this analogy into a serious analytical tool. Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano’s feminist approach to Lope is indebted to Laura Mulvey’s (1975) work on the gaze in conventional film, further demonstrating the validity of reading the comedia through the lens of Hollywood cinema (Yarbro-Bejarano 1994, 237– 56). My understanding of the ideological function of the Spanish comedia vis-à-vis its audience draws as well on José María Diez Borque (1978), Anthony J. Cascardi (1997), and Walter Cohen (1985).
6. As Vaughn explains, “Hollywood moguls . . . were reluctant to take stands on controversial issues that risked alienating the moviegoing public, and they were extraordinarily sensitive to pressure groups that threatened the box office” (1996, 238–39). In fact, when the major producers did meet in December 1947, “they made it clear that they had blacklisted the Ten not because of moral reservations about communism but because of the public’s reaction” (239–40).
7. In “Destierro del teatro, invención de la novela” (forthcoming), I discuss Don Quixote as a two-step, strategic response to Lope’s domination of the theater, whereby Cervantes created a new genre and in the process invented a new kind of audience, the self- reflexive reader of fiction
8. Heylin (2005) examines all of Welles’s clashes with the studios in painstaking detail. The famous Touch of Evil memo was used in 1998 to restore the film to an approximation of a “director’s cut” and is included with the DVD released by Universal. Though Welles’s abandonment of Hollywood is usually interpreted as his own choice, he was effectively graylisted by inclusion in the pamphlet Red Channels for his association with twenty-one organizations considered Communist-affiliated by the House Un-American Activities Committee or other federal and state government bodies. Several of these organizations provided aid to Spanish Loyalists (Red Channels 1950, 155–57; McBride 2006, 101–4).

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