A group of Spanish conquistadors, slaves, two women and a monk go down the Amazon searching for El Dorado, coming out of the Andes on Christmas Day 1559. If their mission wasn’t obviously futile, the opening introduction tells us none of them will return. After a munity led by Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope de Aguirre, the journey takes on an inevitable tone: there will be no turning back, only glory or death will be accepted. The story shares common features with Moby Dick, Aguirre being Captain Ahab: a commander who through his personality manipulates his crew into going against nature that will eventually end in all of their deaths. Aguirre’s willpower is so strong he believes he can control the jungle the same way he does everyone else. And nature in return, laughs at him.
Aguirre is barely a presence through the film, seen mostly seated through the first half of the film. The only major physical action he does is throw the burning keg overboard, almost certainly to provide an example of his personal courage. For the most part, Aguirre controls events through other people. His only critic the original commander Don Pedro de Ursua is quickly wounded, discredited, and remains quiet through the rest of the film until his execution. After that, Aguirre will is rarely challenged, when the man he makes puppet emperor insists on trying de Ursua, Aguirre accepts it without challenge. He understands the dream he’s selling will do most of his work. Even as the group is slowly killed by Indians and other mysterious causes there’s a sense more of frustration than fear from everyone accept the African slave. Only near the end after a crew member threatens to return down river (then decapitated on Aguirre’s orders) does Aguirre feels the need to give a speech about what he will do to those who turn against him giving the film its title.
The ludicrous pronouncements made by everyone throughout the movie show how little they understand what is going on around them. The conquistadors feel their new empire based around a non-existent city will make them more powerful than they can dream. Their “overthrow” of Phillip II and the puppet emperor creating borders for his kingdom on the fly shows that they’re not only disconnected from nature but from regular civilization. Their time in the New World had made the impossible look possible until the horror of their reality sets in.
The film does not have much of an arc instead it focuses on episodes during the journey. For example, the only horse is pushed into the river for annoying the new Emperor, he swims to the shore. The ship shares a moment of disbelief, viewing the horse’s escape almost as a desertion. Humans in the movie either die or in the case of the girl disappear into the woods. They are not allowed to simply stand on the shore, passively watching the raft go by. Only an animal can escape their journey.
The rejection of reality reaches its apex when the crew refuses to recognize their own deaths. The monk questions the arrow sticking out of his chest and the rain falling on him as he bleeds to death. Aguirre’s idea is so strong for them that reality has become meaningless. Reality in return rejects them. And for that nature will always have the upper hand over humanity. No matter the civilizations, religions, and systems created by man the jungle will always eat it away. The strongest might be the last alive but what would it mean to be Emperor of an empty kingdom?