In the wonderful Adventure Time episode “The Other Tarts,” our heroes Jake (the dog) and Finn (the human) are tasked with toting royal tarts to a distant land for a mystical ceremony. Finn decides to traverse treacherous, largely unknown terrain, reasoning that no one of sound mind would take such a route and no one would dare follow them. One by one, the tarts are lost to creatures better suited for survival in such formidable, unfamiliar locales. Faced with failure, Finn is crestfallen: “My plan sucked. It sucked all along, but I was blinded by my hubris.” Of course, the cartoon has an upbeat ending, you know, for the kids (and the stoners).
In Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), there are no heroes, but there is a maniacal, power-starved figure seeking a mythical land. Aguirre, based on the historical conquistador Lope de Aguirre, leads a poorly prepared expedition into the unforgiving heart of the Amazon in search of El Dorado and its rumored riches. One by one, and sometimes by fours and fives, the caravan falls. Confronted with his failure, Aguirre contemplates a baby monkey, a creature, despite its vulnerability, better suited for survival in the impenetrable jungle that surrounds him; he tosses it with disdain into the river, and the monkey swims to the safety of tree branches that stretch from the very water. That’s about as happy as the ending gets in Aguirre, the title character of which, though certainly blinded by his hubris, has no moment of self-realization; despite everything that has been lost, he still fantasizes of conquest and declares himself “the Wrath of God.”
Hubris, as the keen Adventure Time writers know, is not just a fun word (say it: hu-bris!), but a powerful one and a distinctly human trait. It is a characteristic common, as we are—sigh—about to learn yet again, in politicians and wanna-be world leaders, particularly those least suited to wield the power to which they aspire. Such was the case with Aguirre, and such is the subtext in Aguirre; it is a theme that also arises in Herzog’s great Fitzcarraldo (and, to lesser extent, its making, as documented in Les Blank’s riveting Burden of Dreams).
In Aguirre’s opening title scroll, Herzog provides the biting, and plausible, perspective that natives of the Amazon region fabricated the idea of El Dorado in order to send prospective vanquishers down the fierce river and through hostile jungle, an experience the invaders would likely not survive. Aguirre’s expedition of 1560-61 followed barely two decades after Gonzalo Pizarro’s brutal overthrow of the Inca Empire, and Francisco Orellana’s harrowing completion of the first known navigation of the Amazon River from its headwaters in the Andes some 4,000 miles east to its confluence with the Atlantic Ocean.
The stage thus set, Herzog hits us with a striking long shot of imposing, Peruvian peaks. The image lingers as foreboding clouds unfurl and recoil.
The film then cuts—closer but still distant—to a mountainside. Just perceptible is a procession of people amid the crags and trees.
With another cut, Herzog plunges us to ground level. An expedition and its forced porters hack their way through thick jungle, dragging along horses and pushing heavy canons.
Then, the roaring, menacing river. The cortege halts.
With just a few bold, elemental images, Herzog establishes an untamable environment, provokes a sense of dread, and suggests the arrogance that led the group to this point (among the ranks, and being carried in plush sedans, are the mistress of one of the campaign’s commanders and the daughter of Aguirre). In the film, the excursion is fronted by Pizarro, who, lost and faced with dwindling supplies, appoints Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) to lead an exploratory mission downriver and report back; Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is Ursua’s second in command.
Aguirre does not wait long to seize control and quench his thirst for power. He orchestrates a mutiny, props up an inept nobleman as a puppet leader, and instead of sending news back to Pizarro he incites the haggard group deeper into the encroaching jungle in search of the fabled city of gold. Disaster begets disaster.
A faction of men on one of the rafts becomes trapped in an eddy and meets a gruesome end. Other rafts are swept away by an overnight flood. Natives defend their land with deadly force.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God is one of those rare films where you feel dropped into a specific place and time. In fact, after the stark opening shots, the only time I feel the camera’s presence is in the final scene, when it circles and swoops about the faltering raft. This is not to say the film lacks visual poetry; Herzog’s staging and editing simply do not draw attention to themselves, and he is not afraid to hold a shot and allow viewers to absorb sights, sounds, expressions. For those who have not seen the film or have encountered it only on the video and DVD versions derived from dirty, scratchy prints, the Blu-ray edition recently released by Shout Factory is a revelation.
Yet Aguirre’s success hinges on Kinski, himself a legendary wildman. In contrast with the actor’s initial desires, Kinski’s Aguirre is not a raving lunatic, but a calculating fiend plagued by visions of grandeur that he alone sees; he operates on a constant simmer prone to occasional eruptions. “Fortune smiles on the brave and spits on the coward,” he snarls at his beleaguered crew, in what I hope becomes someone’s 2016 presidential campaign slogan. Hubris is rarely a victimless crime, and Aguirre’s victims eventually include his beloved daughter.
In the climactic moment of “The Other Tarts,” Finn, despite the predicament to which his pride has led, repents and retains Jake’s loyalty. In Aguirre, the would-be conquistador, still entranced by illusory riches and power, staggers across his dilapidated raft, which is strewn with bodies and, in a Darwinian wink, overrun with monkeys, and rants: “I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I’ll found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen. … We’ll endure. I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?”
There is no one left.
The Real Aguirre
The historical record of Lope de Aguirre’s Amazon voyage tells an even darker tale than the film that bears his name.
In reality, the Pizarro-Orellana expedition occurred about twenty years prior to the Aguirre odyssey. Pizarro was forced to turn back, but Francisco Orellana and his retinue of mercenaries and slaves pressed on, drifting the length of the Amazon in 1542, a journey that is detailed in a number of books, most recently in Buddy Levy’s engaging River of Darkness.
That book’s epilogue includes an account of the Ursua-Aguirre saga, which Levy describes as an “unmitigated catastrophe that would ultimately devolve into utter pathos and horror, the darkest of the Amazonian annals.” Aguirre’s coup included the murder of Ursua (in the movie, Ursua is taken prisoner but allowed to live) and was followed by what Levy calls “a bloodstained retracing of Orellana’s journey.”
Aguirre and his recruits slaughtered more than half of the expedition’s remaining 200 members and pillaged numerous villages as they drifted the mighty Amazon. Aguirre and his small band of surviving rebels eventually reached the coast and sailed north to Venezuela, where word of his treason (based in part on his own imperious missives to King Philip) had spread. Back in civilization and fearing retribution, Aguirre’s conspirators deserted him as royal authorities closed in.
Knowing that the end was near, Aguirre palmed a crucifix in his daughter’s hand and ran her through with his sword. Soon after, he was killed by members of the royal army, who beheaded him, quartered his corpse, and carried his head home for display in an iron cage.