The Wrath of God

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The quest is not going well. A band of 16th-century Spanish conquistadors are barreling deeper into the unexplored jungle, hell-bent on discovering El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The dense foliage and mountainous landscape are arduous to traverse; a raft carrying nearly a dozen men is ambushed by camouflaged natives; and, worse, the Spaniards descend into infighting, mutiny, murder and treason against the crown. 

Yet Aguirre, the Wrath of God’s opening crawl confirms El Dorado is a fabrication, invented by the natives to mislead the gold-craving, fortune-seeking Spaniards. In truth, the myth does more to dishearten and destroy their enemy than slings and arrows. And the river — which “God never finished” as the film’s tagline states — is a breeding ground for madness.

Or was the madness there all along, ripe for harvesting?

The 1972 cult classic, directed by Werner Herzog and inspired by historical events, is a cynical — but accurate — representation of the oldest sin to infect humanity: pride. The futile scouting mission begins when Gonzalo Pizarro, a conquistador, orders forty men on a one-week expedition led by Don Pedro de Ursúa with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second-in-command. If they fail to return, Pizarro will consider them dead, and the mission failed.

After several tense days and piling lives lost, Ursúa suggests returning lest to miss Pizarro’s deadline and being stranded from the rest of the party. However, Aguirre has other plans. His motivations are revealed later in the film: “If we turn back now, others will come, and they’ll succeed. And we’ll remain nobodies.”

To convince others to mutiny against Ursúa, he cites how Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ignored an order to leave the New World, and instead conquered Mexico. Cortés’ disobedience led him to glory, forever etched in the annals of history. Aguirre offers the men the same temptation — and they agree. (After all, Satan tempts us with attractive things.) To disguise his thirst for power, he nominates Don Fernando de Guzmán as the band’s new leader. Ursúa is found guilty in a biased trial, yet Guzmán (now an emperor) grants him clemency. The clemency is short-lived, as Ursúa is executed once the emperor dies.

At this point Aguirre assumes command. He declares himself the “wrath of God” when the party burns a native village. His alluring blue eyes — which often symbolize purity in art — are subverted, evoking a cold, sinister, calloused man.

Aguirre’s pursuit and indifference to the mounting deaths are questioned by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, who chides, “Until now, El Dorado has only been an illusion.” Later in the film, Aguirre reveals his true intention, saying, “My men measure riches in gold. But it’s more. It’s power and fame.”

One could argue that Herzog — an apostatized Catholic and atheist — is creating a parallel between Aguirre’s pursuit of gold and Brother Carvajal’s quest for evangelizing the natives (i.e., that both are illusions). Additionally, Brother Carvajal is a conflicted, opportunistic man, and not the pristine moral compass his vocation calls him to be. After the mutiny, the Catholic missionary tells Ursúa’s wife, “You know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong.” He even is a judge in the sham trial.

Nevertheless, Aguirre, Wrath of God elicits the warnings embedded in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.” (1:11)

Aguirre’s vain quest for everlasting glory, like Cortés, is more than a fool’s errand, but catastrophic to the men under his auspices. All of them die, mostly from attacks by natives. His disdain for them, even for the Church’s teachings, is particularly evident when he denies his fellow soldiers a Christian burial and mocks a dying Brother Carvajal to pray “otherwise God could come to a bad end.”

Sin is not contained to oneself, but a virus, severing others in one’s orbit to become adrift from spiritual truths much like Aguirre’s men on the raft down the endless, winding, perilous river. However, sin is also isolating. Quite literally, Aguirre’s vanity leads him away not only from the Spanish crown, but God’s kingdom. The further along he travels, the more suspicious, nasty and corrupt nature seems in his men’s eyes.

His descent on that river reveals the true “wrath of God”: ourselves.  

When one rejects God, we stake a claim as kings of our own domain. But this is also a fallacy and an illusion — which Aguirre never realizes. At the film’s close, he clings to his moniker as the “wrath of God,” lauding as an aristocratic title, still hell-bent on “power and fame.” Yet his raft is burdened by the dead and swarms of monkeys. Dazed (or insane) he asks no one in particular, “Who else is with me?”   

Despite Herzog’s religious apostasy, his film Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a powerful reminder of the evil lurking in men’s hearts — that no El Dorado is awaiting us if we pursue pride and vanity. Quite the opposite: it leads us and others to ruin, and lost in hell on earth.

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