Bright Lights Film Journal

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

“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.

My purpose, however, is not to compare the deficiencies of Royal Hunt at the expense of the superior Aguirre. Royal Hunt, in fact, presents both sides of the historical conflict in the Andes circa 1532. Atahualpa watches in disbelief as his powers as god-king are stripped in a matter of moments. Yet, so strong is Atahualpa’s faith in his own immortality that Pizarro himself is affected by the Inca’s mighty tragedy. Historically, Pizarro (with his brothers) is implicated in Atahualpa’s murder, betraying a promise to let him go after Incan gold was handed over to the Spaniards. The film foists the responsibility for his murder primarily on Pizarro’s nervous associates, which include Hernando DeSoto, best known for his discovery of the Mississippi River and his immense cruelty toward the Indians. They argue for Atahualpa’s execution, fearing that he will return with an army of 60,000 and annihilate the expedition. Pizarro argues against the murder, dimly realizing that what empowers Western civilization and Christian morality will be sacrificed for the contingency of conquest and immense riches. Royal Hunt comprehends the Spanish dilemma. Only a fool — an existential one like Shaffer’s Pizarro who vainly wants to construct a world beyond good and evil — would live up to his word to Atahualpa when it would mean the Spaniards’ annihilation for the sake of spiritual rejuvenation.

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.

Atahualpa’s godliness — his own and the Incan people’s belief in it — represent the most authentic element of the film. The godliness is best seen in a subtle naivete in his character. He believes in himself and his powers. His capture at Cajamarca undermines this belief, especially his invulnerability. Only his cognitive dissonance protects him during the period of capture when he bargains away Inca treasures for his life. Even if he fails here and the Spanish go back on their promise of release, Atahualpa can rely on his immortality, a last resort that he must believe in. Pizarro is seduced by the Inca’s confidence and abandons his traditional beliefs.

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.

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.

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.”