Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Robert Castle: Two Cinematic Visions of the Inca Conquest -- The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Aguirre: Wrath of God

Two Cinematic Visions of the Inca Conquest: The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Aguirre: Wrath of God
by Robert Castle
Bright Lights Film Journal


The point of contact between Royal Hunt and Aguirre: Wrath of God is corresponding events: Atahualpa entering the courtyard in Cajamarca and an Indian approaching Aguirre's raft. The slaughter of the Inca king's imperial guard starts after the Spanish priest (Andrew Kier) has given him a Bible. Atahualpa is told that he holds the word of God, who speaks through the book. He puts the book to his ear and says that he hears nothing. Then he throws the Bible to the ground. The Spanish soldiers hidden around the courtyard emerge when the priest curses Atahualpa. The entire imperial guard, over a thousand men, are slaughtered without a single Spanish casualty.

In Aguirre, as the raft floats along a flaccid tributary of the Amazon River, Aguirre's soldiers spot a solitary canoe approaching. An old man and young woman are in the boat and subsequently brought aboard the raft. Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, just like Pizarro's priest, offers the Bible to the old man and tells him he holds the word of God. The old man, like Atahualpa, holds the Bible to his ear and then throws the book to the ground. The Spaniards, including Brother Gaspar, pierce the old man with several sword thrusts, killing him.

Aguirre, in Herzog's film, describes Cortes as his model for going against the Spanish authorities and conquering the land before him: "I am the great traitor. There must be no other. Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 198 pieces."

Aguirre views Cortes as a rebel who defied Velasquez, Spanish governor of Cuba who ordered Cortes not to go to Mexico, and the Spanish monarchy itself. When landing in Mexico, Cortes shackled all who were not with him and burned his ships to ensure no one could desert. The Spanish expedition over the Andes into the Amazon is led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), Francisco's brother. The extreme conditions force Gonzalo to send a party of forty on rafts downriver in search of El Dorado, led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra). After one raft is lost on a giant whirlpool and the others to a high tide, Ursua decides to return to the main force led by Pizarro. Aguirre and his henchmen take over, put Ursua on trial, and eventually hang him.

Where Pizarro sought his spiritual destiny through Atahualpa, Aguirre remains unaffected by the native Indians, who are portrayed as invisible antagonists with largely aggressive responses to the Spanish invaders (save for the two who came up to the raft in a canoe). What Aguirre finds is a world with no limits. Aguirre's world-weariness seems as inconsolable as Pizarro's in Royal Hunt, although Aguirre seeks the opposite form of meaning and fulfillment from his conquest. During his river expedition, Aguirre decrees all the land on both sides of the river theirs. His redemption comes in the form of personal empire-building. As the large raft comes to a halt in the dead waters, overrun by spider monkeys, Aguirre stands alone decrying himself the "Wrath of God" amidst the dead bodies of his followers. Aguirre seems to want to transpose his reality by this virtual conquest of the Amazon; likewise, Pizarro wants Atahualpa to resurrect himself after being strangled. Mutual delusions both.

Both films suggest Europe has run aground spiritually, as they both depict the Catholic Church and its representatives to be as bloodthirsty as the conquistadors. The Church sides cynically with the politically powerful. Brother Gaspar, for instance, does not try to save Ursua from execution. In Royal Hunt, Father Valverde signals the assault on the unarmed imperial guard. The films's respective responses to the spiritual crises divide their sensibilities. Aguirre: Wrath of God's postmodernist stance disdains psychological insight or drama. Royal Hunt of the Sun depicts Pizarro as a man torn between an old dead religion and the promise of a new revelation, an internal struggle that postmodernism rejects. Aguirre is driven by a single, narrow goal, albeit one that defines the Western sensibility. In this sense, the historicity of the film accurately gauges sixteenth-century psychology by denying Aguirre a modernist conscience. Cinematically, Herzog depicts the attitude of the Spaniards through the naturalistic settings. In particular, he holds one shot early in the film of the raging water flowing from the mountains symbolizing the power and the turmoil within the conquistadores.

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