It is the late sixteenth century and a play is being staged for a handful of interested Spaniards in this town, a production conducted in elaborate costumes and masks which is openly critical of the religious authority of the day, most blatantly the Spanish Inquisition. As the play continues, the law arrive and see that it ceases, taking away its author and director Miguel de Cervantes (Peter O'Toole) to the nearest prison facility to await trial on charges of sending up the Inquisition, a real no-no in the nation where it is subjecting the populace to extremely strict regulations. Once inside the dungeon with his right hand man (James Coco), the other prisoners set upon them and the basket full of costumes, planning a trial of their own...
Man of La Mancha was a musical which along with too many others, as legend had it, was a dream on stage but once it was translated to film all the magic was lost on the way and the movie was one of those which well and truly killed the musical as a cinematic artform. It didn't, of course, there are still musicals being made today, it's just that there aren't anything like as many of them as there were before efforts such as this began to put people off, so while you would ocasionally get a stage production moved over to the screen, as it turned out with the passing of time going the other way around, moving the film to the stage with added songs was the more popular method of increasing the profits on a given property.
Back in 1972, however, the major studios were still hedging their bets that smash hits on Broadway indicated mountains of moolah could be generated by the big screen adaptation, but to call the late sixties and early seventies a barren wasteland that spoiled the genre wasn't quite accurate, after all you had the blockbuster success of Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret for example, two very different stories and approaches, but still recognisable in the movie musical bracket. This, on the other hand, was a flop, mainly because too many were comparing it to the stage version, and a troubled history behind the scenes was affecting the audience's expectations: those who had visited the theatres were most put out that star of the original Richard Kiley was not onboard.
Instead, they had to make to do with a cast not noted for their singing, and it certainly showed as a succession of awkward-looking actors almost apologetically moped into each sequence, leaving even the non-musical parts doleful and dejected. Step forward Peter O'Toole (in terrible makeup) as the prime culprit for bringing down the mood, as while Cervantes' classic text Donkey - er, Don Quixote has been regularly intepreted as a spoof of romantic tales of when knights were bold, you wouldn't pick up any humour from this, everyone takes it deadly seriously so much so that there is precious little joy to be found even in its most supposedly optimistic moments. The most famous song, The Impossible Dream, comes across less as a beacon of hope and more of a paean to futility, a hymn to never giving up on your starry-eyed ambitions when everything points to their being unachievable.
O'Toole never looked in the least comfortable in his role, probably because he was being dubbed by a soundalike in the singing, and appears very discomfited when it comes to miming to the tunes; his co-star Sophia Loren, on the other hand, did do her own trilling and acquits herself well enough, only to give the impression of a tart with a heart (who nevertheless is a bit miserable) she was asked to rely on her décolletage which draws the eye without enhancing the performance. Coco fared a little better as Sancho Panza, for the trial staged by the prisoners involves them acting out an extract of Don Quixote as supposed by the author of the musical, Dale Wasserman, so in effect most of the cast were in dual roles, complete with tilting at windmills (or windmill, anyway) getting them out of the dingy jail set, though even away from there the rest of the scenery was depressingly drab. It was all very well concocting an earthy look, yet Man of La Mancha was simply unattractive to see never mind listen to, a largely tedious proposition for non-aficionados.