Deep in the Amazon, in the 16th Century, an advance party of conquistadors attempts to locate the fabled city of El Dorado, only to be destroyed by internal conflict, the forbidding power of nature and the madness of their assumed leader Aguirre.
A legend of madness, of conflict and of foolish men miles from home, pitching their wits against the might of the Amazon jungle — thus was the making of Aguirre, Wrath Of God let alone the story itself. The monumental ego that was Klaus Kinski, not to forgo his talent either, was never quite as demonic as during this nightmare shoot, presided over by Werner Herzog hellbent on pushing everyone to breaking point. That such a masterful study of man and nature was the result could be method over madness, but more likely a whole lot of each.
The themes are writ large – how man’s greed will drive him to destruction, here personified by the band of conquistadors, sent ahead by their general Pizzaro to find a path to the fabled treasure. Aguirre, played with less histrionics in front of the camera than were perhaps going on behind (he demanded the cinematographer always keep him in shot), his pale blue eyes glaring through the lend and his cheekbones jutting like the prongs of the Andes, offered a stunning study of man both ruthless and lost to himself. That his men turn on him is treated as much as tragedy as comeuppance.
Herzog shoots the jungle, whose vastness rises to scrape the heavens and reduces the figures of Aguirre and his men to the scale of insignificant insects, as a teeming metaphor in itself. “Civilised man”, represented by the foolish conquistadors, are cowed and destroyed by nature – our lust for gold driving us to grand folly and ultimately death. It’s hardly subtle stuff, but breathtaking to behold.
This fabulous journey into the heart of darkness would go on to inspire Coppola in the making of Apocalypse Now.