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Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1973)
Director Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God tells the story of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro's (Alejandro Repulles) doomed 1560 expedition into the Peruvian rain forest in search of the legendary lost city of gold, El Dorado. Pizarro realizes that his expedition is doomed to fail but sends out a small expeditionary force led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), with second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) to find information on El Dorado and hostile tribes. Kinski plays Aguirre as a man on the edge of madness with paranoiac delusions of grandeur. He lopes around the screen with an insane look in his eyes like a conquistador version of Shakespeare's Richard III. The journey is undertaken with Indian slaves, Spanish soldiers, several Spanish women (Ursua's wife and Aguirre's daughter), a representative of the Spanish crown Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), and a monk named Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) who chronicles the events in a journal, which is noted in the opening credits as the only surviving document of the lost expedition. The journal provides the text for the voice-over narration in the film. The expeditionary force sets out on rafts upriver, and the group experiences disintegration, including the loss of the rafts, attack by arrows and darts from unseen assailants, and a mutiny led by the megalomaniacal Aguirre. Aguirre rules the survivors with fear and terror. He orders Ursua arrested and hanged, and appoints Guzman, who later dies for an unknown reason, as emperor of El Dorado. The members of the expedition build another raft, float upriver, and slowly die one by one by attacks from hostile natives. The film audience is positioned on the raft with the expeditionary force on the journey upriver into the alien jungle environment. Unlike the four survivors of the doomed 1528 Narvaez expedition portrayed in the film Cabeza de Vaca, who survive eight years of wandering in the American Southwest by acculturating themselves with native tribes, Aguirre maintains his notions of imperialistic conquest to the end. The only natives that are clearly seen in the film are the native slaves. The attacking hostile tribes are always out of range of the viewer. Aguirre declares himself to be "the great traitor," and says that even if there is no El Dorado "but only a land of trees and water, I'll conquer it." Aguirre admits that "Men measure riches as gold, but it's more. It's power and fame." The rest of the expeditionary force die by fever or arrows, and all lose their sense of reality. As the monk is killed by a hail of arrows, he says, "That is no arrow. We only imagine arrows because we fear them." Aguirre, alone on the drifting raft filled with the corpses and hundreds of tiny monkeys, rants and raves about his plans to conquer and rule the entire continent and marry his dead daughter. Aguirre's last words (and the final words in the film) echo his imperialistic delusions--"I am the wrath of God! Who else is with me?" Herzog's intense film and Kinski's manic performance end on a note underscoring the megalomania and delusional myths at the epicenter of imperialistic thought and activity during European conquests in the "New World."
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie Apocalypse Now is considered by many critics to be one of the most important depictions in American culture of the Vietnam War experience. Coppola's film is based loosely on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. The film traces a voyage upriver in Vietnam of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an American military assassin who has been assigned by the C.I.A. and U.S. Military Intelligence to travel into Cambodia to "terminate with extreme prejudice" Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is a highly decorated Special Forces officer who has gone insane and gathered a group of Montagnard natives and renegade U.S. soldiers around him in a jungle stronghold. Willard, who accepts the mission with much self- examination, notes that "charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." Willard is taken upriver by a Navy patrol boat commanded by Chief (Albert Hall) and a small group of sailors. Along the way, Willard and the patrol boat crew experience a series of war-related encounters including an attack on a Vietnamese village by an Air Cavalry unit, their slaughter of a family of innocent civilians on a sampan, a surrealistic USO show, and a pointless never-ending battle at a bridge near the Cambodian border. Willard and the crew (minus two men killed on the journey) reach Kurtz's stronghold. Willard murders Kurtz with a machete, while the natives ritualistically slaughter a water buffalo. Kurtz's last words before he dies are "the horror, the horror." Coppola's movie seems like an odd choice as a companion film to Cabeza de Vaca. Both films, however, explore the issue of personal transformation in an alien environment in a context rife with imperialistic overtones (American involvement in the Vietnam War and the Spanish conquests of the "new world"). Both films trace a physical journey that is paralleled metaphorically by an inner journey and transformation of the consciousness of the protagonist. Cabeza de Vaca portrays an individual's identification and assimilation into an alien native culture, while Apocalypse Now depicts Willard's and Kurtz's identification and assimilation into the dark, maddening, destructive psyche of the Vietnam War. Both films have tragic endings with tragic implications. Cabeza de Vaca emphasizes the tragic enslavement of the native people by Spanish conquistadors, while Apocalypse Now depicts the futility, madness, and destructive effects of the Vietnam War on both Americans and native Vietnamese. Both films emphasize failed missions with fatal consequences--the doomed Narvaez expedition in Cabeza de Vaca and the doomed American involvement in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now.
Jerico (1990)
The Venezuelan film Jerico is the fictional account of the Dominican friar Santiago who is sent by the Roman Catholic Church (against his wishes) as a missionary on a Sixteenth century Spanish expedition into the Amazon region of South America. Santiago is appalled by the brutality of the conquistadors towards the natives. He flees the main expeditionary force with a group of Spaniards who have stolen the expedition's gold and are on a quest to find the Pacific Ocean. All the other members of the group are killed in an attack by natives, and Santiago is captured. Like the protagonist in Cabeza de Vaca, Santiago is captured by natives, initially mocked and humiliated, but gradually acculturates himself into the tribe. The films Jerico and Cabeza de Vaca share several similar features. Both Cabeza de Vaca and Santiago initially resist adaptation to the native culture. Cabeza de Vaca, however, is treated as a slave in the first stages of his captivity, while Santiago is treated kindly by his captors. Santiago fails in his attempts to convert the natives to Christianity. After he is forced to undergo a drug initiation rite, Santiago joins the tribe and completely gives up his European identity. He is eventually captured by the Spanish who raid the native village. Jerico ends with Santiago imprisoned and apparently insane. Both films suggest that a complete psychic return to the original culture is problematic (Cabeza de Vaca) or virtually impossible (Jerico). Like Cabeza de Vaca director Nicolas Echevarria, Jerico is director Luis Alberto Lamata's first feature film. Both Echevarria and Lamata were previously documentary filmmakers.
A Man Called Horse (1970)
A Man Called Horse is a film which portrays the experience of English aristocrat John Morgan (Richard Harris) who is kidnapped and enslaved by a Sioux Indian tribe in 1825, while hunting in the Northwest territory in the U.S. Morgan is captured by Sioux tribal chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou) and offered to the chief's mother Buffalo Cow Head (Judith Anderson) as a slave. Like 16th century Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, Morgan is initially enslaved, tortured, and humiliated by his native captors but eventually identifies with his captors, gains his freedom, and assimilates native tribal customs. During his captivity Morgan falls in love with Yellow Hand's sister Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei). He kills and scalps two warriors from a rival tribe to prove his manhood and honor and offers the dead warriors' horses to Yellow Hand for Running Deer's hand in marriage. Before Morgan can marry Running Deer, he needs to be fully accepted into the tribe. Morgan undergoes the Vow of the Sun ritual, which involves standing in the sun for two days and getting hung by ropes through prongs piercing his chest. The film graphically recreates the ritual. During the ritual Morgan undergoes a powerful spiritual transformation, connects with the Great Spirit, and spiritually unites with the tribe. In the spiritual transformation scene, Morgan (like Cabeza de Vaca in the film Cabeza de Vaca) seems to connect with the center of cosmic existence. Director Elliot Silverstein (like director Nicolas Echevarria in Cabeza de Vaca) visually portrays the transcendent moment of cosmic connection in the film as a dizzying, spiraling, light- infused image of the sun shining through the roof of the hut. Morgan is fully accepted into the tribe after this ritual and marries Running Deer, who dies in a battle with a rival tribe. The producers of the film strove for authenticity in their portrayal of native Americans. The film credits at the beginning of the film claim that the filmmakers based A Man Called Horse on letters, paintings, and eyewitness accounts of tribal customs from the early nineteenth century. The native costumes, however, were based on costumes designed by Hollywood studios, despite the production designer's claim of authenticity and Native American consultation. Many critics claimed that the depiction of natives in A Man Called Horse is another case of Hollywood stereotyping of natives as grunting, violent, ignorant, aboriginal savages.

See Also

Amérika: Terra Incógnita (1988)

Bartolome (1993)

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992)

Dead Man (1995)

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Hans Staden (1999)

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971)

Kino (1992)

Orinoko: Nuevo Mundo (1984)

The Other Conquest [La otra conquista] (1998)

Retorno a Aztlan (1990)