Fitzcarraldo: epic adventure marred by flat, over-involved plot with little human-interest tension

Werner Herzog, “Fitzcarraldo” (1982)

For all the off-screen controversies and shenanigans that bedevilled the making of this film, “Fitzcarraldo” turns out to be a decent enough work. Like its protagonist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald aka Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski), the film aspires to epic visionary heights, epitomised by the Herculean task of dragging a huge steamer over logs up and over a steep mountain in dense Amazonian rainforest with much of the work done by local people in the area, but for all that the film falls far short of masterpiece territory. The plot is meandering and fairly involved for a mainstream audience and I’d say that, here and there, a good 10 to 15 minutes in total could have been shaved off the film. Bogged in a fair amount of expositionary detail so as to make Fitzcarraldo’s voyage more incredible, the plot ends up flat. The actual trip up the Amazon river and its tributaries and over the mountain includes enough shady characters that conflict, setbacks and the odd sabotage look more than likely but apart from a mass desertion and a couple of deaths, the whole journey proceeds more smoothly with more luck and deus ex machina twists than should have been allowed.

The plot is based on a real incident in the life of a 19th-century Peruvian rubber magnate, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, who did indeed transport a steamer overland from one river to another: the difference is that he had the ship disassembled, transported in pieces by human and maybe animal labour, and reassembled on the shore of the other river. In the Herzog universe, such mundanity is to be disdained for the sake of drama and the fulfillment of a heroic dream. There’s got to be a plausible reason of course though Fitzcarraldo’s reason cuts plausibility quite fine: the fellow wants to build an opera house in his home town of Iquitos but his ice factory doesn’t generate enough income to support his vision so he has to swallow his pride and join the rubber plantation boom. He stakes out an area of land near the Ucayali river in Peru and is given nine months to survey it properly by the Peruvian government. Hopefully after the land is cleared of forest and converted to producing latex, there’ll be enough profits earned to start building the opera house. Reading some maps of the area provided by rival rubber baron Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), Fitzcarraldo notices the remote land could be made more accessible to rubber markets due to a quirk in the courses of the rivers Ucayali and Pachitea: their courses happen to come so close that at their closest point they are only several hundred metres apart – close enough that a ship could be carried overland from one river to the next!

This all takes an hour to work out plus a ship must be bought and fixed up for the trip and a crew of the usual motley unreliable and ill-fitted sort must be hired. The crew includes a captain with eyesight problems (Paul Hittscher), a cook who loves wine, women and song (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez) and Cholo the mechanic (Miguel Angel Fuentes) who is still reporting to his ex-boss Aquilino and may harbour his own hidden agenda. That done, the ship is on its way into the Pachitea river waters and the lands of the Jivaro Indians, famous for shrinking the heads of unwanted guests. Not surprisingly most of the crew decide that the cliche about discretion versus valour applies to them so they sneak away from the steamer at night in a boat and leave Fitzcarraldo, the captain, the cook and Cholo to face the unique Jivaro hospitality. Surprise, surprise, the Jivaros are very hospitable to the extent that they happily substitute for the deserting crew, help clear the forests and cut the logs to provide rollers for the ship to travel over on land, and provide the labour to haul the ship up the mountain and over, down to the Ucayali river. It helps that in the nick of time the cook remembers a Jivaro legend about a white god coming in a huge ship who will rid the Jivaro lands of an evil curse (yeah, right – that god’s name is Quetzalcoatl, whatever). Even when a couple of native labourers get fatally squashed under the ship, their colleagues simply down tools and observe the two-day bereavement period then get back to work with no complaint. Karl Marx must be spinning in his grave.

Amazingly everything works out with no more mishap and the ship reaches the Ucayali in double-quick time after scaling the mountain’s summit. The Jivaros mischievously push the ship off for a joy-ride down the Pongo de Mainique rapids in a baptism of, uh, “fire” to appease the evil spirits afflicting their territory. Visually spectacular though this part of the movie is, with shots of the steamer buffeted about by the churning waters and nearly over-turning, it does have the feel of being an after-thought tacked on to provide a climactic thrill given that the overland trip was relatively trouble-free and everyone including the captain, Cholo and the cook actually behaved and got on well together in spite of their CV’s. After Fitzcarraldo and the ship have proved their worth to the Jivaros, the film’s prolonged denouement doesn’t quite work out as expected but Fitzcarraldo is hailed as a hero in Iquitos.

Though he wasn’t the first choice to play Fitzcarraldo – original choice Jason Robards had actually completed about half the role’s demands before dropping out due to illness and fellow US actor Jack Nicholson had been considered to replace him – Klaus Kinski turns out an excellent performance in balancing the character’s eccentricity, restless enthusiasm and sheer mania. His interactions with the Jivaros are gentle and humane, not at all what I had expected of a colonialist would-be rubber baron. His scenes with Claudia Cardinale who plays brothel owner Molly are tender and touching and Cardinale herself provides some much-needed humanity to round out Fitzcarraldo’s character and give some depth to an otherwise straightforward and rather dry adventure epic.

Much of the film has the flavour of a travelogue documentary as there are many shots, some fairly long, of tropical frontier town life and of the Amazon rainforest environment. Local people in the area were heavily involved as extras with some individuals having quite important speaking roles in the film. The film acquires a strong exotic frontier flavour but at the same time the near-documentary approach does have a distancing effect and smooths over any simmering conflict. Being a more conventional mainstream film with a definite narrative than a previous Herzog / Kinski collaboration, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo” perhaps needs a less artistic approach with more emphasis on character interaction and conflict, building tension highs and lows and tightening up the preparation for the voyage.

The comparison with “Aguirre …” is relevant as both films focus on a character’s obsession with achieving his dreams: whereas Aguirre is interested in fame, wealth and power and ends up destroying himself and everyone around him, Fitzcarraldo dreams of bringing high art and culture to his home town and everything he does has that goal in sight. It’s a noble dream lacking in egoism and promising to benefit everyone, rich and poor alike, and therefore worthy of fulfillment. Good to see that the Herzog universe, however bloated it is, still adheres to a morality which rewards people who dream big but beneficial dreams and punishes those who follow selfish goals.

It could have been a really enjoyable if still long epic trip into the heart of the Amazon rainforest with dangers and fights aplenty, and Fitzcarraldo probably having to dodge near-death a few times and crack a few heads together, but for all the conflict and fighting that went on behind the film’s scenes, the result itself is surprisingly smooth and free of tension. A different director might have concentrated more on the potential human conflicts inherent in such an enterprise but then the whole film would be completely different: no comic scenes of a real steamer being dragged up the mountain for one thing …

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