Ranking: #87/111

Director: Werner Herzog (Germany)

Genre: Allegorical Historical Drama

This historical drama depicts the expedition of the sixteenth-century colonialist adventurer Don Lope de Aquirre, whose mission was to find and conquer the mythical South American kingdom of El Dorado.  “With its incongruous adherence to courtly grandeur in the midst of the Amazon jungle, the film is both a parody and a criticism of colonialism,” writes The Oxford History of World Cinema” “(p. 620). The audience is treated to a cinematic allegory of colonialism which speaks more powerfully than the history books can on the subject.

Indeed, this isn’t an academic or theoretical work; rather, it’s a highly expressive cinematic story rendered in exquisite detail, buoyed by evocative cinematography and reinforced by an incredible cast of characters, all looking and acting with a seemingly effortless authenticity.

Near the end of 1560, a large expedition under Gonzalo Pizarro set off from the Peruvian sierras to find and annex El Dorado for the Spanish kingdom. The only document to survive of the fateful journey was the diary of the monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, and it is through his words that the voice-over narration carries the story along. On Christmas day of that year, they reached the last pass of the Andes.

The film opens in silence, with mist in the mountains; then Herzog zooms in from this long shot on the trail of members of the expedition descending the pass.  You then see the jungle. It is, at once, an uplifting, yet forbidding, setting. The director gives us the sense that these people are small against the environment they think they will conquer.

The descent of the expedition is metaphorical as well as physical. They don’t realise it yet but they will soon go into a terrible moral decline in an extremely inhospitable place. These opening shots are visually extraordinary and symbolically significant. The opening sequence of the movie skilfully prefigures the coming disaster.

Herzog uses extreme camera angles as well as these long shots to create a filmic theatre of the absurd, in which colonialism will be ruthlessly exposed.

As the claustrophobia of being on a primordial-looking river in the jungle sets in, a spiritual and moral claustrophobia takes hold, too. “There is no escape from this jungle,” the audience is told.  The shot of a boat suspended on top of a tree, in the middle of nowhere, for example, symbolises the fact that their mission is doomed from the start.

Themes associated with European colonialism, like xenophobia and racism, gradually rise to the surface, just as the penchant for violence does. The Indian scouts are effectively enslaved (even though one of them is a Prince in his tribe). As the rations start to run out and physical exhaustion sets in, Don Lope de Aquirre, who is second-in-command, orchestrates a revolt to take power. His megalomania soon becomes apparent. He is amoral and there are suggestions of an incestuous love for his daughter, Flores, whom he wants to be queen of El Dorado.

As the river becomes sluggish further downstream, their progress becomes insufferably slow and their absurd pretence at having a kingdom is graphically highlighted. Aquirre and his henchmen become increasingly delusional. It’s all symbolic of a corrupt revolutionary political movement running out of steam, deserving to fail, and to fail badly. The revolutionary leaders then declare they are claiming possession over all the land they survey – but there are no resources or people to rule over. El Dorado doesn’t exist; it’s mythical, just as their dreams of colonial power turn out to be a cruel fantasy.

Thus ends the absurd, misguided expedition to claim a paradise on earth for Spain.

This is the most evocative political drama and allegory I have seen.