While it’s tempting to call Aguirre The Wrath Of God a great film about the Vietnam War that never mentions Vietnam, it’s probably safer just to say that it’s a deeper, more original adaptation of Heart of Darkness than Apocalypse Now. For 1/100th the price — $300,000 to Apocalypse Now’s $30,000,000 —- Werner Herzog’s masterpiece about the mad Spanish conquistador gets closer to the meaning of Joseph Conrad’s famous novella than Francis Ford Coppola does in all three hours of his ponderous epic. Lope de Aguirre’s last words may not be “the horror, the horror.” But they’re certainly ours.
Horror, like the opening of Aguirre, can be beautiful. A long, slow procession of Spaniards and their Indian slaves descends from the Andes into the Peruvian rainforest. The expedition, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of Francisco Pizarro, has set out from the recently conquered empire of the Incas to search for the mythical city of “El Dorado.” We meet Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, the narrator, Don Pedro de Ursúa and his mistress Doña Inéz, representatives of the Spanish crown, Don Fernando de Guzmán, a fat, sloppy Spanish aristocrat, Aguirre and his teenage daughter, and Perucho, Aguirre’s strange, brutal enforcer. Except for Doña Inéz, who will later reveal herself to be the film’s most sympathetic character, these are mostly petty, mean-spirited little people who are simultaneously ravenous and helpless in the face of tyranny. Yet they are surrounded by a majestic landscape worthy of Ansel Adams or John Muir. These white Europeans, oblivious to nature’s beauty, are the scum of the earth. The vanguard of empire, they’ve come to kill, to extract precious metals, to convert the natives to Christianity, to despoil the Garden of Eden.
Joseph Conrad opens Nostromo, perhaps his greatest novel, with a similarly doomed hunt for precious metals. Two white sailors, probably Americans, “but gringos of some sort for certain,” are looking for a pile of gold buried somewhere, deep in the wilderness of an the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. With them is “a gambling, good-for-nothing mozo,” a mestizo. Together, the three steal a donkey, and with their revolvers in their belts, hack their way into the jungle with machetes and never come out. “As to the mozo,” Conrad says us, “his wife paid for some masses, and he had been probably permitted to die.”
“But the two gringos,” he continues, “spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty—a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced and been released.”
1560, year that Lope de Aguirre perished in the Amazon rainforest, was the age of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. Feudalism, traditional, limited authority gave way to capitalism. The individual could now go as far as his imagination would carry him. That could lead to Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, or it could lead straight down into hell. After several days slogging through the mud and swamps, Gonzalo Pizarro decides, like Conrad’s good Christian, to renounce his quest for Eldorado. The main body of the expedition will stop, camp, and send 40 men (and women) ahead on rafts to make a brief reconnaissance. If the advance party doesn’t find Eldorado in three days, they are to return to the base camp. The expedition will be deemed a failure, and they will all march back up over the Andes, back to civilization. He puts Don Pedro de Ursúa in charge of the scouting expedition, and nominates Aguirre to be his executive officer. Against his better judgment, he also allows Aguirre’s 15-year-old daughter and Doña Inéz to go along with the men.
The advance party quickly proves to be a disaster. One raft gets caught in an eddy, and its crew is massacred by Indians. El Dorado is nowhere to be seen. The jungle is deep, merciless, inhuman. Don Pedro de Ursúa decides to turn back. But Aguirre is having none of it.
While I’ve never been a fan of Klaus Kinski, he is cast well as Aguirre. Ruy Guerra, the actor who plays Don Pedro de Ursúa, is dark, bearded, Southern European, a sleek, pampered Spanish aristocrat. Helena Rojo, the Mexican model and actress who plays Doña Inéz is regal, haughty. Dressed in green, with her hair tightly pinned to her head, she’s the very model of a representative of the Spanish crown. Kinski is different, not only blond, blue eyed, Northern European, but wild, manic, borderline psychotic. If Don Pedro de Ursúa and Doña Inéz physically embody feudalism, then Aguirre is the face of capitalism and imperialism, Kinski’s enormous, Mick Jagger like lips and wild bugged out eyes the very image of amoral, obsessive greed.
It is precisely when Aguirre leads his rebellion against Don Pedro de Ursúa that we see what the hunt for El Dorado is really all about. Yes, it’s about gold. 16th Century Spain was obsessed with gold. But even more than gold, it’s about competition. Aguirre is a younger contemporary of Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro, both of whom have conquered empires and become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Will he become a great man like Cortez and Pizarro, or will he end up a footnote in history, a man born too late for Spain’s heroic age? The window of opportunity is closing. He intends to force his way through before it’s too late. He fails. Even more so, he goes mad, and succeeds, not in becoming a great conqueror, but only a deluded petty tyrant.
Apocalypse Now, as great a film as it is, has always had one glaring fault. Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe went into Central Africa at the height of European imperialism. In the 1890s, white Europeans did, for a brief time, make themselves gods, or, like King Leopold of Belgium, devils. But Apocalypse Now was released during the word-wide movement against colonialism that followed the Second World War. Since the Vietnamese had already defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, they were not going to put a strange white renegade like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz up on a throne, and proclaim him emperor. The temptation to rule was never there, only the temptation to destroy. Werner Herzog dispenses with the problem altogether. While Don Pedro de Ursúa and Lope de Aguirre have Indian slaves, their authority depends on brute force. It has none of the authority of a legitimate monarchy. Indeed, one of Aguirre’s slaves, a former Inca Prince, not only sees through the Europeans and their pretensions of civilization. He knows they’re doomed. “I pity you,” he says to Doña Inéz. “Nobody gets out of this jungle alive.
Doña Inéz, probably the film’s only sympathetic character, is not along to hunt for gold, but out of loyalty to her lover Don Pedro de Ursúa. While she, like Aguirre’s Indian slaves, is helpless in the face of Aguirre’s brute force, she reads his intentions like a book. If you kill Don Pedro de Ursúa, she hisses at Aguirre. God will punish you. When Aguirre does indeed have Don Pedro murdered, she simply wanders off into the jungle, never to be seen again. But Doña Inéz is the only member of the expedition capable of standing up to the jungle tyrant. The others are either too brainwashed, terrified, or simply paralyzed with confusion and fear to do anything but go along. The Indians, like the Viet Cong, an invisible, quickly moving, merciless army of ghostly avengers, pick the European invaders off one by one. Eventually Aguirre is the only member of the expedition left alive. In the final scene, Klaus Kinski is alone, floating down the river on a raft full of corpses everybody, even his daughter, already dead, his only companions a horde of monkeys that has appeared out of nowhere. It is the final resting place of fascism, the terminal state of an absolute ruler, to have as his subjects, not men and women, but a lower form of primate. Aguirre, the Jungle Fuhrer, has turned the vanguard of western civilization into a pack of screaming monkeys and rotting corpses.
It would be tempting to read this as an anti-imperialist fable and argue that the Indians have cleansed the earth of the Spanish conquerors, liberated the jungle from its would be conqueror, but this is not Herzog’s intention. As Aguirre’s expedition sails up the Amazon rainforest to its doom, we realize that the malevolent force is not the Indians, or European imperialism, but nature itself. Indeed, the most startling images in Aguirre The Wrath Of God dramatize civilized man being conquered by nature, turning into unthinking animals. Aguirre’s men come upon an abandoned village once occupied by cannibals. Ravenous with hunger, they fall upon a stalk of un-ripe bananas, not even noticing the mummified remains of the cannibal tribe’s victims. Further up the river, two men discover a pile of salt. They are white men in the jungle, Europeans unused to the the heat and humidity of the Amazon rainforest. They haven’t had salt in weeks. They’re dehydrated. They lap up the pile of salt as if they had finally come upon Eldorado, as if they were vampires sucking blood, civilized Europeans reduced to their basest, animal instincts. What’s more, Herzog’s view of nature is not Rousseau’s. The Amazon rainforest in the end is not the Garden of Eden before the fall, but nature red in tooth and claw, after the fall. There’s a horrifying image of a mouse devouring her children. The raft floats past another cannibal village. There’s meat floating by, one of Aguirre’s slaves translates the voices that drift across the river as saying. Capitalism is not the conquest of nature, but the destruction of civilization and a descent into a Darwinian pit of hell, people as meat, the jungle, the war of all against all. It is Joseph Conrad’s conservative vision of humanity, a thin crust of civilization over a volcano, put down on screen once and for all.