An updating of Don Quixote with an old man who believes he’s a cowboy is an interesting concept, and you could do a lot with it. This isn’t it. And that’s even leaving aside the fact that most people fundamentally misunderstand Don Quixote and think he’s more harmless than he was. Modern tellings always give him an actual villain to oppose, or an actual maiden to actually help, or what have you. But even with the modern perception, there are definitely aspects of this that are terrible in a retelling, and the racism is only part of it.
Paco (Alfonso Arau) is left by his cousin to work for John McCandless (Brian Keith). McCandless shoots at him at first but comes to accept Paco as an employee. It turns out that Barton Whittaker (Simon Oakland) holds the mortgage on the McCandless ranch, and he wants to foreclose and put in a dam that will flood out probably thousands of people. McCandless decides he wants take his herd to the rail head and sell it to pay the mortgage. An old-fashioned cattle drive. With Paco coming along with him. The herd turns out to be a single cow.
Meanwhile, his granddaughter Amanda (Michele Carey) teams up with Whittaker’s son Jimmy (Rick Lenz) to keep McCandless safe. Which isn’t easy, because McCandless and Paco are going through the desert, and Amanda and Whittaker are stuck taking, you know, roads. They all team up at one of those ghost towns that’s now a tourist trap, which is supposedly the railhead. Whittaker has the “herd” declared tainted, and he puts it, and a mariachi band, on his old-fashioned train car, and he and a bunch of politicians and things go for a ride where they will talk over the destruction of the region for the sake of the dam. And if you don’t know that Paco and McCandless are going to get on that train, you don’t know this sort of movie.
Paco is undocumented. The movie constantly uses a racial slur for undocumented workers, which lets us know that it is a term that also sounds terrible when spoken by great actors like Harry Morgan. One assumes they couldn’t get a citizen for room, board, and twenty bucks a week, even in 1971. But everyone is very clear that this is an unequal relationship—McCandless may say he likes Paco, but he treats him as an underling and often as a child. And it’s a minor point, but Paco introduces himself by full name at the beginning, is called Paco without saying it’s his nickname, and is never called anything else again.
I could like Paco, if the movie would let me. Like, he’s freaked out when McCandless shoots at him at the beginning of the movie and gets upset when he’s told he’s going to dance on air, and it’s completely and utterly reasonable of him. He would be a good perspective character, but of course we cannot have our perspective character be an undocumented Mexican immigrant, so honestly we pretty much don’t have one. The movie tries to make it Amanda, but she’s offscreen so much of the time that it can’t be. And Paco’s the person whose head we seem to be in most often, which the movie never acknowledges.
As for Amanda, early on, Jimmy suggests that the traditional way of getting the mortgage torn up is to have the young woman offer her gratitude in return. Amanda knows what we’re talking about, and so do we. And he’s not joking. He seems really serious about it and seems like he’d absolutely take her up on the offer. Now, it’s not spelled out, because this remains a Disney movie, but he’s offering to trade her grandfather’s mortgage for sexual favours, and he is the romantic interest for her. Sure, he seems to reform, but the movie takes place over far too short a time to make a reform of that level at all believable, especially since he’s fully reformed about forty-five minutes in.
In case you still weren’t sure about this movie, it also features a scene wherein McCandless and Paco ride through the desert—which is rough but doesn’t look at all as desolate as some parts of the American Southwest—while Rod McKuen rasps one of his songs over it. I’m not sure I’d ever heard Rod McKuen’s voice before; this does not leave me in any way enthusiastic to hear it again. Honestly, the whole thing feels like two guys rambling around the rougher back yards of my hometown while someone’s stereo is too loud.
I’m not sure if this movie has good bones or not. It’s clad in so much racism and sexism, with a bonus moment of homophobia, that there’s a lot of digging to get to the bones at all. Because, yes, there’s an old school Movie Sissy fairly early in, who informs McCandless that he’s not wearing perfume, he’s wearing “Lilac Tweed. A man’s cologne.” McCandless gets a thing where he talks about the old feminine ladies, and nowadays there are just flappers. In the most quixotic moment of the movie, McCandless sees a bunch of bikers in a bar run by Mavis—played by Iris Adrian, ten of whose last eleven roles were minor characters in Disney pictures—and ignores everything she says about how they’re paying customers.
Is this, then, the worst Disney movie I’ve ever seen? No, I don’t think so, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen The Gnome-Mobile that I’m not sure. But it’s definitely in the bottom five. I haven’t even gotten into the goings-on at the tourist trap or the train crash that is reminiscent of the train crash in The Greatest Show on Earth, inasmuch as I could recreate it in my own home for maybe ten bucks, depending on if someone’s getting rid of a model train set in a local no-buy list or not. It feels as though they blew all their money getting Brian Keith and five minutes of Harry Morgan. This, more than things like Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, feels like a reminder that Walt was dead and the studio was in a holding pattern.