AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD —-“I am the great traitor. There must be no other. Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 198 pieces. Those pieces will be stamped on until what is left can be used only to paint walls. Whoever takes one grain of corn or one drop of water… more than his ration, will be locked up for 155 years. If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees… then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God. The earth I pass will see me and tremble. But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. But whoever deserts...”
1560. During the Spanish conquest of Latin America, a small company of conquistadors descend from the Andean highlands into the Amazonian jungle, searching for the fabled gold of ‘El Dorado’. Transport calamity, hostile Indians, greed and treachery turn a quest into a disaster. Well, at least the locals get a crash course in Christian charity.
While hillbilly-spooked audiences made Deliverance the 4th most-seen movie of 1972, the year’s other perilous river trip came in the form of this $370,000 dazzler from Germany, which debuted there at the end of the year, then took until 1977 to make it to the States. It gripped art-house patrons, stunned critics, developed cult status, influenced other film-makers and attained status as a classic.
The script takes several historical personages and a couple of separate explorations and blends to them into a fiction-fact situation, playing free with fact to get at Truth through fiction. Those continent conquerors were nothing if not daring, driven by vision that sustained them through hardship and allowed them to excuse excess to get what they were after. Sanity was optional, violence a given. Fittingly enough the project was undertaken by a 29-year-old writer-director-producer willing to go to extremes and put himself, cast and crew in harm’s way: Werner Herzog. Focusing his tale—he wrote it in a frenzied 60-hour marathon—on the cruel and unhinged Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), he picked his volatile 41-year-old friend Klaus Kinski to star: who better to play a madman than another lunatic?
With a skeleton crew, filming was done at remote locations in Peru, cinematographer Thomas Mauch capturing the action on and around the Urubamba, Huallaga and Nanay Rivers, and—for the mystical opening segment—on the slopes of the Andes near Machu Picchu. The cast’s we-were-there placement makes for a you-are-there viewing experience as the discomforts and dangers of the isolated location shooting are plainly obvious. The rages displayed by Aguirre fit the script but they also erupted without “going into character” out of the unstable Kinski, and stories of the near-homicidal incidents that arose are part of cinema lore. Actors may have hissy fits about their trailers or whine about camera-favoring, but they usually don’t swipe swords at extras or fire a rifle at them. Directors might yell at a difficult performer but they rarely threaten to shoot them and themselves. All part of the package in a Werner-Klaus daymare.
“When we reach the sea, we will build a bigger ship, and sail north to take Trinidad from the Spanish crown. From there we’ll sail on and take Mexico from Cortés. What great treachery that will be! Then all of New Spain will be ours, and we’ll produce history as others produce plays. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?”
Otherworldly atmosphere is enhanced by the soaring, eerie, haunting music score from Popul Vuh. Also in the cast: Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera, Daniel Ades. Their suffering and endurance carries conviction—they had little choice, since there was no way out. A remarkable, often astounding film. 94 minutes.
* Herzog said he was nipped dozens of times by some of the 400 monkeys used in the last scene, and was chomped “over 150 times” by a swarm of fire ants. The un-faked mistreatment of a horse (or horses) is unsettling: imagine the uproar if it was done by a director critics didn’t consider an ‘artist’ ?
The cast and crew hailed from 16 different countries. Since English was the only common language, dialogue was spoken in it. Herzog felt English would boost international box-office. The already sparse budget left little for post-synchronization sound work, then the guy in charge of that split with the dough. Post-synching was then done in German. Kinski’s lines were dubbed by another German actor, But no-one could replace that insane stare…
“That man is a head taller than me. That may change.”
Despite their personality episodes, Herzog and Kinski worked together four more times over fifteen years, including a return to the jungle for the amazing bonkers of Fitzcarraldo.
Aguirre had company in ’72. Notable foreign films that year: The Ruling Class, Solaris, The New Land, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, Cries And Whispers, Last Tango In Paris, Fellini’s Roma, The Harder They Come, The Offence, State Of Siege, The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe.
In 1988 came another take on the woeful wandering servants of Philip II, this time directed by a Spanish gentleman with a more sensitive disposition than those God-blessing murderers from “The Golden Age”. The renowned Carlos Saura’s lavish El Dorado, filmed in Costa Rica, is bigger, longer, and hews closer to the facts—but locating a copy is like trying to find that elusive gold city in the jungle.
His Most Gracious Majesty Philip II was also known as ‘Philip the Prudent’, which no doubt would qualify as a religious experience to the millions of his lesser-mortal victims. He died of cancer, which is regrettable, as one redeeming feature of Crowned Heads is the extra weight of the jewels makes for a bigger thump when the blade comes down.