This 1972 movie, directed and written by Werner Herzog, starts out with the following preamble:
"After the conquest and plundering of the Inca Empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers led by Gonzalo Pizarro, set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal."
In historical reality, no such diary exists. Such a monk did exist who wrote a diary of other expeditions. This expedition did exist. Aguirre existed as did Pizarro; however, the vast majority of the script was written by Herzog in less than three days after he stumbled across a short note on Aguirre in a book belonging to a friend. The prose work that he created in those three days eventually became the essence of the movie; however, Herzog is never limited by a story line, only stimulated by it. During the actual shooting and pre-production phases of the film he takes whatever creative opportunities arise and builds on them. We will see how he does this as the story unfolds.
The first scenes of the movie are the most unbelievably exquisite ones as we watch as hundreds of soldiers and Inca natives slowly make their way down an extremely steep mountain path leading from the highlands into the Amazon jungle. The actors and extras are really on this perilous path along with chickens, pigs, lamas, horses, even a cannon and a sedan chair for the two women on the expedition---and the camera crew are there as well, all making the treacherous descent. They survive that peril only to be faced by another, and another, and another peril---both the characters of the story and the actors are facing these perils and it shows as the picture has the tone of a documentary being made of an expedition occurring over 400 years ago! Is this the key message of this film? Life is about perils? In order to fulfill your destiny you have to be willing to take risks? The creative endeavor is a risk-taking endeavor? We shall see as the movie unwinds.
When they get into the jungle they are met by a ferocious, turbulent river. If you have ever rafted down such a river, if you have ever even stood by one, then you have an inkling as to just how powerful and turbulent nature can be. Herzog holds the shot of the river for a long time so you can savor this power. Is this another of his messages? That nature is powerful and to be reckoned with? That our task is to overcome our brutal nature? We shall see as the movie unfolds.
The Inca slaves they have brought from the highlands (in real life they descend from mountains near Machu Pichu) are not capable of handling the lowlands and get colds and many of them die off quickly. The going for all is very difficult and they are soon exhausted. After getting to the river, Pizarro realizes that they have to change their plans. To any rational observer, it is the height of lunacy for them to be doing this and the obvious thing would be to turn back, to give it up. At this point, Aguirre realizes this and would turn back if the choice were his. However, Pizarro decides to split the group up. Some will go on.
They are running out of supplies so they are also running out of time. (The same is true for Herzog as his time, money, and resources are quickly running out. He has to shoot this movie quickly. The whole film is shot in five weeks in the middle of Amazon!) Pizarro appoints Don Pedro de Ursua as the leader of a subgroup that will go on and Aguirre is the second in command. This subforce has one week to try to find El Dorado. If they do not return in that length of time, Pizzaro will head back and do his best to find civilization before the rest of the group perishes. (Remember, no one gets out of this alive according to the plot.) 40 people will be in the subgroup that ventures forth. The remaining 200 or more slaves remain. The two women in the expedition will go forward with the subgroup. One is Dona Inez, she insists that she will go, as she is the mistress of Don Ursua. The other female is the 15-year-old daughter of Aguirre. Pizarro lets the women go because others insist, but feels that this is unwise. Also, a representative of the Spanish court will also go. This party sets off on three rafts.
(Herzog is shooting this film with one camera, a camera he stole from his film studies program. He shot not only this movie but also 8 others with this camera. As the rafts are shooting through rapids we see wet spots on the lens. Obviously the cameraman is on the raft at times and is in real peril just as the actors/characters of the movie are. Instead of the spots being distractions, they lend to the documentary qualities of the movie.)
At one point one of the rafts is caught in an eddy up against a steep cliff. They cannot get off the raft, the raft cannot go further, they are trapped. The other two rafts make it to land on the other side. A rescue party is sent by Ursua against Aguirre's advice; but during the night shots are fired and by morning all those on the raft are dead or missing. On the way back to the main group, the rescue party is invisibly attacked by the Indians. Ursua decides that the bodies of the dead should be hauled back so that they can be buried in consecrated ground. Aguirre has one of the men loyal to him blow the raft and the dead men up with the cannon. Two key themes are developing here. One, the jungles are dangerous, the Indians are mysterious, the Spaniards---who see themselves as the superior race---are afraid of the Indians. Two, authority is being undermined. Once you are in desperate circumstances, you may no longer follow authority, especially if you have someone willing to lead the mutiny. Captain Bly had his Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (also a fact based film/story), Don Ursua has his Aguirre. Is this what this movie is all about? Control, authority, who is superior and who is inferior? Hmmmm….I wonder?
Inez warns Don Ursua after Aguirre blows the raft up that it was the handy work of Aguirre and if he gets away with this…what next? Ursua tells his mistress that he has bigger problems what with the Indians all around them. Both of them are right. Neither of them appreciates that they have other problems heading their way. During the night the river rises 15 feet and they lose their rafts and have to build new ones. At this point Don Ursua decides to give up and head back by land to the main force. Aguirre says no, don't obey, let's go on to riches, Cortez didn't obey and he became rich, so will we! When Ursua tries to have Aguirre arrested for mutiny, Aguirre has him shot, along with one of his supporters, and his other supporters imprisoned in a makeshift cage.
Inez goes to the monk and pleads with him for help. The monk tells her that the church is on the side of the strong---and at this point Aguirre is the strong one. Is this the message of Herzog? That the strong will prevail, that even institutions as powerful as the church bend to the will of the strong? Might makes right? Clearly this is a message we see throughout history, is this Herzog's message to us?
Aguirre, with the help his most loyal supporters, has Guzman, the King's representative on the expedition, elected as the leader. Clearly Aguirre is in command, so why does he have Guzman placed in the lead role? I suggest that you read Machiavelli's The Prince if you want to clearly understand how politics operate. What he is up to is cleverly protecting himself. Under these difficult circumstances the person who is in charge is the one who will be held responsible when things go wrong---and as we have learned and codified in the Peter Principle: "If things can go wrong, then they will go wrong." In the middle of the Amazon, they most assuredly can go wrong. Also, by having the King's representative take over, it lends a certain legitimacy to the mutiny. Guzman is declared Emperor of El Dorado and he reads a proclamation declaring that the King of Spain has no authority over their new empire. (Herzog lifts some of this dialogue from the actual letter to the King that Aguirre wrote proclaiming their independence.) Aguirre rallies the men by declaring that: "Fortune smiles on the brave and spits on the coward."
In one scene one of the slaves who sometimes acts as an interpreter, talks to Aguirre's lovely daughter and tells her that he was once an Incan Prince and that all the calamities that befell his people throughout history were nothing compared to what the Spanish have done to his people. But he also tells her that he feels sorry for the girl as he knows they will all die.
When some of the prisoners loyal to Ursua escape by killing one of their guards, Aguirre tells Guzman he must kill Ursua in order to be safe. Ursua declares that a trial must be held. A mock trial is held led by the monk with the outcome that Ursua is sentenced to death by hanging---but the Emperor Guzman grants him clemency, much to Aguirre's disgust.
The group takes to the newly built rafts but now the river is no longer one of rapids. It is slow moving. We now begin to see some of the natives on the shore. At times there is no shore. Due to the high water the jungle is flooded for miles around so that they cannot leave the rafts. At other times if the rafts get too close to the shore, they are attacked by the natives. Sometimes when they are attacked they fire senselessly off into the jungle. It is clear that they are powerless. The forces of the natives and nature are in control.
When the river was raging, it was more dangerous; however, it was emotionally less dangerous. When you are focused on a fierce struggle, you don't let your mind wander, you don't let fears and paranoia take over. Now as they slowly float downstream, their greatest enemy is their own minds.
They come across a canoe with a man and woman Indian in it. The monk tells the man that the bible holds the word of God and when the Indian takes the bible and holds it to his ear to hear God, he obviously hears nothing and says so---so they kill him for his blasphemy. The Indian had a gold figure around his neck so at this point they have not lost all hope that they will final El Dorado, they will become powerful and rich. On the raft they still have a horse, but it become fractious and they toss it overboard at the Emperor's command. The monk notes that they could have at least eaten the horse. Not long after the Emperor is found dead. Once he is dead, they take Ursua off into the jungle and hang him.
They pass an Indian village. The Indians are yelling out: "Meat floating by!" They attack the village of cannibals and some of Aguirre's group are killed and wounded. Inez comes ashore and simply walks into the jungle regally adorned in her finest gown. She is never seen again.
One of the men starts a conversation with another about leaving and heading back. Aguirre tells his most loyal henchman that this man is a head too tall. The henchman slips up behind the sitting man and in a single blow cuts his head off while he is counting. The last number, "10", is uttered by the decapitated head. Aguirre declares, after the beheading, that: "I am the great traitor. Their can be no other. Who ever even thinks about deserting will be cut into 198 pieces! I am the wrath of God!"
They return to the rafts and continue slowly down river. They have now been on the expedition for over two months. It is now late February, 1561 and the expedition started around the end of 1560. (The actual film was shot in 5 weeks. Two of those five weeks the actors and crew lived on the rafts as they floated down the river. Herzog was on a very limited budget of $360,000---sounds like a lot but is very little when you have around 450 actors and extras you are hiring and feeding and providing for in the middle of the Amazon.)
Fever and hallucinations, near starvation, the death plagued expedition has to go on as they have at this point no real options. Everyone, including Aguirre's daughter, is eventually shot by arrows by the usually unseen Indians---except for Aguirre. Aguirre is still fixated on his dreams of power and fame---lesser men think of gold, Aguirre the Great knows that power and fame are what counts. Aguirre dreams now of not only becoming the Emperor of El Dorado but going on from there and conquering all of the New World! While he is ranting and raving of his dreams, the raft is overrun by hundreds of small monkeys.
Aguirre walks amongst the monkeys and picks one up and then tosses it aside. He declares to the silent universe: "I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. We shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the wrath of God!" As he speaks these lines, remember, his daughter is dead and we know he is insane. The camera circles the raft as we see Aguirre alone on the raft, lost, hopelessly drifting to oblivion. The end.
Commentary by Herzog: Most of the shots were one-time-only shots. They either got it or not and went on. Herzog was 28 when the film was made. Everybody involved knew it was going to be hard---food was short at times, keeping people dry was difficult, keeping Kinski sane was also a challenge---at one point he got so enraged at some of the noise at night that he took a Winchester rifle he had and fired into a hut where dozens of extras were housed. Fortunately no one was killed---one man had a finger shot off. Herzog then confiscated the rifle and still has it to this day as a souvenir. Herzog says that Kinski was a "pestilence" during the filming, however, he did stay---with the help of death threats from Herzog---and was totally committed to the character he created. Kinski may be a lunatic, but he also is one of the most powerful actors of all time. Herzog first met Kinski when they were both very young, Herzog was only 13 and even then Kinski was a close to insane young man.
Throughout the film Kinski plays Aguirre in a very unique way. At Herzog's direction he has Aguirre walk around somewhat crab-like, off kilter. It is a strange way of moving and helps make the character more menacing.
They were fortunate in that no accidents of a serious nature happened during the shooting of the film. This is close to amazing given the rafting scenes. At one point Herzog sank into the mud up to his hips and lost his shoe. At another point he was bitten by 100 fire ants and became feverish as a result---but wrote this off as what was to be expected under the circumstances.
Most of the actors were from Peru, Brazil, and Mexico. The 15-year-old girl who played Aguirre's daughter was a schoolgirl from Lima who had never acted before. After five weeks of shooting, Herzog spent five weeks editing the film.
Herzog does not use storyboarding when making his films as he feels they limit his creativity and spontaneity. Also, whatever just happens to occur he builds into the script. Much of the script is written on the spot by Herzog. The scene where the river rose 15 feet was written into the script because the river DID rise 15 feet and wash away the rafts. The scene where Aguirre shows his daughter the lovely little miniature sloth that sleeps most of its life away was built into the script when Herzog saw some of the natives playing with the sloth. Some of the "actors" were people that Herzog just stumbled upon when he arrived in South America. He found a retarded street beggar on the streets of Cuzco and he incorporated him and his flute playing into the movie. As Herzog says: "You just find these people and they become an important part of the shooting." The script started out as a prose treatment and most of the dialogue was written during the shooting. The 100s of monkeys on the raft were bought by Herzog for the scene. He uses a speedboat for some of his shots. But most of the filming is done on the rafts as they float for two weeks down the river. They use no special effects. The head that talks after it is cut off is created by burying the actor in the ground up to his neck.