September 9, 2012
The expedition promptly goes awry, since the pace and size of the expedition, as well as its knowledge of the Amazon environment, is incompatible with success. Pizarro decides to suspend it but send a smaller party downriver in the hopes they will return with food and further information about El Dorado.
The downsized exploration group includes its head Ursua (Ruy Guerra); his hottie and noble mistress Inez (Helena Rojo); his ambitious and scowling second-in-command Aguirre (Klaus Kinski); Kinski's hottie fifteen year old daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera); monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), who hopes to convert the Indians to Christianity; a purportedly black man (Edward Roland) who will purportedly frighten off any hostile Indians; portly aristocrat Guzman (Peter Berling); and a black horse that wants nothing more than to get off the raft.
The downsized party also has misfortunes, and Ursua decides to give up and rejoin Pizarro. Aguirre leads a successful mutiny in the hopes that the party will yet find the nonexistent lost city of gold. Ursua is seriously injured and placed under arrest. Aguirre elects Guzman "emperor" to add importance and increase acceptance of the mutiny.
But the party, now reduced to a single raft, continues to find nothing but more river, along with hunger, starvation, and a steady loss of life from skirmishes with river bank Indians.
How others will see it. A German language film with English subtitles, slow moving and depressing. It is not for everyone, but it has been a cult favorite for most of its forty years. Critical praise has been constant if not overwhelming. Box office was unexceptional but the movie has undoubtedly recouped many multiples of its cost through video sales.
At imdb.com, the film has an impressive 24K user votes and a very high overall rating of 8.0. Closer examination shows a steady decline with advancing age (8.3 under age 30, to 7.3 over age 45) and a sizeable gender gap. Women over 45, the most significant demographic due to their independence, give it only 5.2.
It is easy to understand why older women don't like it. The two women in the film are passive. Everyone dies. It is harder to understand the film's tremendous popularity among young men. Regardless of comments about the beautiful cinematography, and any philosophical insights about the dark nature of humanity and its refusal to recognize impending disaster, the chief appeal of the movie to many may be a sadistic pleasure in watching the cast get picked off, one by one. It would make a great drinking game.
How I felt about it. You can compare the raft scenes to counterparts in Apocalypse Now, and the setting to another Kinski-Herzog collaboration, Fitzcarraldo. But the movie also reminds me of Easy Rider, in that the director is winging it on location with only a sparse script and story. This is the opposite approach of Alfred Hitchcock, who mapped out all the camera angles on storyboard before the film entered production.
Aguirre is hardly great cinema, but it has the fascination of a highway wreck. We know things end badly, but we don't know exactly how, and we wait with anticipation the next disaster.
Despite its reputation, there are problems. The two young women are present solely for eye candy. Pizarro would never have taken them along in the first place. The horse is also out of place, as are the monkeys, and are there because the director thinks they add interest.
The real problem, though, is the lack of planning by the expedition leaders when all lives are at stake. The natives should be used to secure food throughout the expedition, which should move onland at a pace sufficiently slow to allow its sustainment. The expedition was far too large in the first place, and should have been a Lewis and Clark sized party. Surely the Spanish knew better by 1580, and that they didn't is a cinematic invention.