When a mad Spanish conquistador (Klaus Kinski) rebels against the leader (Ruy Guerra) of an expeditionary crew sent by Francisco Pizarro in search of fabled El Dorado on the Amazon River, the fortunes of Kinski’s entire crew — including Guerra’s wife (Helene Rojo), Kinski’s 15-year-old daughter (Cecilia Rivera), a nobleman (Peter Berling), an African slave (Edward Roland), and a monk (Del Negro) chronicling their travails — quickly unravel.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- At Sea
- Historical Drama
- Living Nightmare
- Ruthless Leaders
- South and Central America
- Werner Herzog Films
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “fictional masterpiece” by director Werner Herzog was the result of Herzog taking “his cast and crew to unexplored regions of South America — steep mountain ledges and an Amazon tributary”, thus representing “filmmaking under the most trying circumstances” but with “priceless” results, given that “Thomas Mauch’s camera has gone back in time to a lost world that is at once beautiful and terrifying.” Peary points out that this “spellbinding” film — which “at first… is dreamlike”, but ultimately becomes “hallucinatory” — begins “with an incredible image of perhaps a thousand soldiers in full armor, women in long dresses, and Indian slaves dragging cannons along a narrow, steep mountain path”, and ends “with a delirious image of lone-survivor Aguirre stranded on a monkey-covered raft”. He writes that “the journey downriver is full of haunting images: ghostly figures moving in the brush, ready to pick off intruders with arrows, spears, and poison darts; an abandoned cannibal village; a small raft caught in a roaring whirlpool; [and a] hooded black horse that stands abandoned in the prehistoric jungle.” He points out that, “as in [his] other films, Herzog delights in placing characters in hostile environments where, having nothing tangible to fight, they are unable to cope” and “eventually their minds become mush from the constant horror, depression, and fear of death.”
Peary points out that “Aguirre himself has little dialogue, and that is delivered without emotions, but seconds after we first see Kinski — sneering and snarling, gnarled like Richard III, standing at an angle as if to signify he’s at odds with the world, twisting his head before moving his body — we recognize that he is contemptuous of the world and tortured by inner demons.” Peary argues that “certainly Aguirre is meant to represent Hitler (though George Armstrong Custer also is appropriate)”, but “his consistently poor leadership and frustration are treated with such mock delight by Herzog that there’s evidence Aguirre is used as a comic villain, and the film itself is, though somberly presented, a comedy about a most embarrassingly unsuccessful expedition, carried out not by heroic figures, but by nefarious Spanish imperialists who deserved the sad end Herzog happily writes for them”. Peary concludes his GFTFF review by noting that “Popol Vuh’s music contributes greatly, making the journey come across as a funeral procession.”
Peary’s comprehensive review (elaborated upon in Cult Movies) nicely describes this incomparable film, “whose very production seems too remarkable to comprehend.” It’s well worth viewing, numerous times.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Klaus Kinski as Don Lope de Aguirre
- Thomas Mauch’s cinematography
- Many memorable, haunting images
- Popul Vuh’s soundtrack
Yes, of course, as an influential and long-standing cult favorite by a master director.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)