Directed by Werner Herzog
Fitzcarraldo reminded me of Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Both films concern single-minded obsessions deep in the jungle, and in the case of Apocalypse Now, the troubled story behind the film parallels the narrative, but not quite as much as this Werner Herzog film.
Now I don’t know the complete story behind this movie, but it’s chronicled in a documentary called Burden of Dreams, and I’m going to watch it tonight. But I haven’t yet, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s probably hard to separate this film’s narrative, about a driven male figure, with the story of Herzog making it. Both he and Fitzcarraldo‘s protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), wanted to drag a ship up a mountainside. Because of Herzog’s desire to make it look authentic, he actually dragged the ship up the mountainside. Or he tried to and failed? I’ll find out tonight.
The story here follows Fitzgerald, a struggling businessman, who loves the operatic music of Enrico Caruso and wants nothing more than to build an opera house deep in the Amazon jungle. Because most of the land has been claimed by rubber barons, Fitzgerald is pointed towards uncharted territory which is hard to reach because of river rapids. Fitzgerald observes that another river comes awfully close to the spot, so he plans to sail a ship to that point and then to drag it up the mountain to the other river.
Fitzgerald knows this is insane, and that’s why he doesn’t tell anyone the specifics of the plan until it’s too late to turn back. Roughly an hour of the film’s two and a half hour runtime concerns the makeshift escalator Fitzgerald oversees. He uses the physical labor of the natives who are in awe of his ship (his arrival parallels a myth they’ve held onto dating back many generations), and even when one of them dies during construction, they keep on keeping on.
The ship makes it to the other river, and while asleep one night, the chief of the natives severs the ropes holding the ship to shore, sending it down the aforementioned rapids. The chief did this in order to appease the gods he believes they defied by hauling the ship unnaturally up the mountain.
Back where they started, Fitzgerald must abandon the mission and sell the ship to its original owner. Before he bids adieu, however, he hosts an orchestra, including Caruso, to play him off as if on a funeral pyre.
This is an uplifting final moment, and considering this is a Werner Herzog film, that came to me as a big surprise.
So Fitzcarraldo is about single-minded obsession, but it never really delves into the darker sides of that obsession. We don’t get a sense for just how long Fitzgerald is in the jungle, apart from his wife who financed the ship’s purchase. He leaves her, goes on this mission, and for the most part it goes quite well. The eventual failure of his mission must be karmic precisely because it worked so well to begin with. We keep waiting for his journey to go wrong (as the journeys do in Apocalypse Now and The Bridge on the River Kwai), but the reasons it do fail are mostly unforeseen.
Well maybe Fitzgerald should’ve had a better sense of the natives’ plan. He certainly deserves to fail because he abused their labor, particularly in moving past the death of one of their children working under his ship. Between that, Fitzgerald’s lies to his crew, and his abandonment of his wife (who hoped to join him), Fitzgerald is the type of passionate, flawed protagonist who can only succeed in these ventures but who must also fail.
These types of stories always fail, don’t they? With a white male protagonist deep in the jungle of a country he has no business being in, these stories are all about colonialism, capitalism and man’s greed.
Fitzgerald is taken with his own mission, just as the heroes of those other two movies are, but he’s so single-minded, so unaware of the consequences of his actions, that he must fail due to his hubris.
It’s for the same reasons that the titular ‘bridge’ over the River Kwai must detonate in the final scene. The Alec Guinness character who oversaw the bridge’s construction may have believed he was acting from a good place, but he too is so unquestioning of his mission, and the final beat of the film shows him realizing that he was wrong all along. The greatest sins of these types of protagonists is there ignorance. They trudge forward with no sense of the greater harm of their mission. They are the people who both get sh*t done but in doing so corrupt a bit of the world behind them. They are us.
Alright maybe that wasn’t as poignant as it first seemed in my head, but isn’t a story like this the core of our culture? It’s that same initial, pure impulse that drivers consumerism, capitalism and our society. We want more, and the characters of these movies eventually succumb to the same drive that gets them over the mountain or through the heart of the jungle. They make it, for a time, and then they’re punished, whether literally or cosmically.
It’s the same kind of arc you see in gangster films like Goodfellas. The characters indulge in some pretty awful behavior, rising to the top, but because they got their through unsavory means, they have to witness the consequences. It’s just part of the genre, like a biblical, cinematic code. The character who wins by cheating the system must answer for their sins in the end.
I should also add that Fitzcarraldo is a great film. It’s engaging despite its length, and the story is concerned with the process of getting the ship up the hill so much so that you can’t help but be enamored with Fitzgerald’s dedication as well as that of Werner Herzog. The movie and the story behind it is so beautifully insane, and Herzog’s own obsession with making the film really shows. You get a sense of the realism he was after. This might be a production horror story, but it might not be a great film without it.
Up Next: The Ring (2002), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), Away We Go [Script Only]