“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.”
Two films, The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969) and Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972), have dramatized Spanish conquistadors in South America. Their appearance within three years of each other belies the distance in the sentiments of the films and their authors. Royal Hunt follows world-weary Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, centering on his capture and execution of Inca leader Atahualpa. Directed by Irving Lerner, the film has limited cinematic interest but, rather, strongly reflects the ideas and vision of Peter Shaffer, who authored the play of the same name (opening in London in 1964). The play’s essential drama holds up in the film version due to the strong lead actors, Robert Shaw as Pizarro and Christopher Plummer in a tour de force performance as Atahualpa. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog’s postmodern Aguirre combines a classic performance by Klaus Kinski in the title role with a cinematic vision of the Amazon jungle that propels the film into a category by itself.
I called Aguirre postmodern, which I will deal with later. First, let me explain what makes Royal Hunt modernist. Modernism represents a self-conscious break with the past and a search for a new form of expression. The contrast or foundation of the film/play rests with Pizarro rejecting the worlds of courtly Spain and the Christian religion for the exotic, charismatic Atahualpa’s paganism. Pizarro functions on a non-historical level — paradoxically so, given the film’s attention to the historical facts — an individualist plane of feeling and belief. Royal Hunt gives Pizarro the presumption of acting differently from the historical Pizarro, who would have been incapable of this kind of existentialist despair. Pizarro’s infatuation with Atahualpa’s sense of immortality, his possibility of cheating death, as the resurrected Christ cheated death, might make the conquistador appear defeated and humiliated, but at least he discovers something to invigorate his exhausted spiritual state.
Pizarro’s men increase the pressure on their commander to execute the Inca ruler. They fear that once released, the king will bring the fury of the Inca army on the small Spaniard force. Outnumbered, the Spaniards cannot give up their great advantage. Pizarro relents reluctantly, insisting that Atahualpa be strangled, not burned, to give the king a possibility to resurrect himself. Pizarro awaits a spiritual renewal, equating Atahualpa’s potential return to Christ’s. Resurrection redux, but Atahualpa’s excruciating death is absent redemption.
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.
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.
Royal Hunt retains some historical accuracy in its depiction of Atahualpa, who acts as a full-fledged pharaoh, owning all Inca land and minds, with a self-assurance that ultimately amazes Pizarro. However, unlike Aguirre, much of the film is filmed with interior scenes. It pivots on Pizarro’s modern existential crisis. Herzog’s conquistador has no time for reflection: “I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I’ll found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.” He provokes no pity or sympathy in the viewer. His quest is uncompromisingly criticized. Postmodern Aguirre summarily dismisses Western imperialism, further separating it from the modernist Royal Hunt, which criticizes Western imperialism but finds a saving grace in Pizarro’s rejection of the monarchy and Church; that is, he has a conscience. Herzog’s conquistador has no conscience, is obsessed with finding gold, and will seemingly prevail despite the delusions of its quest: “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees . . . then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble. But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches.”