In the morning I read mass and then we descended through the clouds.
The folly of many colonial expeditions was exposed well before the last century, where anti-colonial sentiment rightly replaced the silly arrogance of Westerners who believed it their holy duty to reform the ruffians who stalked jungles darker than they could have ever imagined. Throughout history critics, oftentimes silent or silenced, were aware of what was transpiring, an evil so far from God's will that one almost shudders. Now I for one am all for the spread of Good News, provided it is offered and not spoon-fed. Yet more important than any creed or system of belief is the notion that we are all brothers, regardless of what we worship as long as our divinity believes in good, in redemption, and in tolerance. The ignominy of what the Spaniards and Portuguese did in the New World in the sixteenth century needs no summarizing or rhetoric. So we would do better to focus on one of their most preposterous searches, that of the Gilded Man, and the brutal mockery of that search in this film.
Our initial screen shot informs us that what the Spaniards are pursuing, El Dorado, is a myth devised well after their landfall; whether this was clear at the time to the emissaries and assassins of Spain is not ours to worry. We venture into the Peruvian highlands on a jungle march of master and slave, the masters easily being distinguishable by their weapons and skin color. One native carries a wheel; another a crate of chickens; a third leads wild boars on a leash; a fourth is burdened only with the icon of the Virgin. We look upon the animals in consort and know they are no less doomed to die and be consumed than any other member of the party. And when an Inca lies collapsed on the ground out of exhaustion or disease, we know not a single Spanish step will lose its pace. After the march has depleted the expedition's reserves, Gonzalo Pizarro – the conqueror's brother and trusted aide – appoints a new party to head out on rafts, ostensibly as scouts against possible enemy attacks, although everyone seems to understand the assignment as a death sentence. Everyone, that is, except one man. That man is Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a feral blond skeleton of a Spanish mercenary who has little respect for his superiors or the Crown he allegedly serves. When his eyes are not gazing upon his beloved teenage daughter Flores, their glint bespeaks nothing less than mutiny. A complex but typical series of power transfers takes place, with Pizarro's choice for the secondary expedition being a man of some dignity by the name of Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), who also happens to have brought along his radiant mistress, Doña Inez de Atienza (Helena Rojo). Ursúa will endure, even after being shot and reduced to a mute captive, as Aguirre's bloody conscience for most of the film. That Aguirre's conscience and guilt are drowned out by the indigenous sounds of the tightening cage makes Ursúa's participation all the less likely.
For better or for worse, we know precisely what will happen to most if not all of these miserable men. What is odd is that they know it as well. The first raft comes back littered with corpses and arrows, all in close conjunction; a day later the tides wash away rafts and other useful items, so more must be built. Aguirre predictably infects his comrades with ideas of the glory that Cortés attained in Mexico, then anoints a fat and pasty nobleman, Don Fernándo de Guzmán, Emperor of El Dorado – at which point Guzmán's days officially become a matter of whispered wagers. The narrator throughout most of the journey is a Franciscan monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, who flashes piety and goodness but evinces his true colors in a wicked last-act confrontation with an Amerindian couple. And as the only European women for miles around, Doña Inez and Flores tend to each other's grooming and occasionally make the priest think he's in the wrong line of work. As the river flows and the difficulties mount, we regularly stumble across a Spanish corpse. It is one of the nameless minions of the bloated Emperor, and death has invariably arrived in the form of a poisoned arrow – although the bow and archer are never revealed. The arrows fly in from the most unexpected angles, or at least that's what a brief examination of the cadavers would lead us to believe, as if the perpetrators were invisible or suspended behind a cloud. All the while we see and hear the whip of Aguirre's tongue as he urges his troops on, slaps a horse into the water, and generally acts as if the only thing that mattered were the discovery of something in which no one believes.
A cynic would be almost right in concluding that, in format, there is little to distinguish a film like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (as it were, a self-proclaimed epithet) from any slasher vehicle in which a batch of stupid, pretty people are numbered and destroyed in sequence. Yet that similarity speaks more deeply about the patterns of our nightmares than its engagement in true philosophical conjecture. When you hear Herzog's film labeled as a forerunner to this later work, you may think the comparison valid until you compare Aguirre's quest for eternal life and wealth to Willard's contract killing. And anyway, Aguirre and his thugs may be soldiers, but we are not dealing with war, devastation, or ruin. What informs the entire picture is greed, greed for something that cannot possibly exist, greed for taking advantage of nature in every way imaginable to obtain a treasure that, once found, would probably be impossible to defend. None of this occurs to Aguirre; nothing in his beady eyes suggests any awareness of the fact that he alone cannot keep all this money and all this land. Even when he gets to share his thoughts with the monkeys that assault his craft towards the end, no one pays him too much attention. Not even the people behind the clouds.