Lope de Aguirre may have been the first European in the Western Hemisphere to rebel against his mother country. He declared himself Prince of Peru in 1561 in defiance of the King of Spain, after leading a mutiny against an expedition on the Amazon river. According to the Wikipedia account of his career, Aguirre was more successful in his exploits than he is portrayed as being in Werner Herzog's landmark film. Learning that actually only reinforces the core of madness in Herzog's chronicle: why shouldn't Aguirre dream of glory in a time and place where some such dreams actually came true?
Even so, the odds were against Aguirre. Herzog enforces this impression by going on location for what proved to be a typically hellish shoot. He put his cast in the jungle and on the river, and they convey convincingly that they've undergone an ordeal. On one level, Herzog is a cinematic primitive. His approach is hardly different from the days of silent movies; he finds a spectacle and films it. But if that approach still works, why change? Herzog's virtue in our time is his ability to demonstrate time and again that it is still possible to discover spectacle in the real world and equally possible to make cinematic spectacle out of nearly pure raw material. Aguirre's opening shot of the expedition trekking over an Andean mountain pass is as epic in scale and scope as anything concocted on a soundstage or a computer, and more so once the sheer reality of it sets in. Herzog's commitment to authenticity keeps the film grounded as the characters sink into delusion. When two characters toward the end deny in the depths of their delirium that they haven't been shot with arrows, that it isn't raining out, etc., Herzog shows the truth (except about the arrows, that is).
Until the end, Herzog seems to follow the true story fairly closely. Aguirre participates in a mutiny against the commander of an Amazon expedition, but does so in the name of an associate whom he proclaims as Emperor of the Amazon. This fat fellow enjoys a privileged existence, but Aguirre seems to be the real power, and emerges as such when the slob succumbs during the river journey. The tawdriness of this ambition is demonstrated as the "emperor" pigs out on fish and fruit while his men subsist on carefully-rationed corn and the emperor's horse threatens to run amok on the raft until he orders it dumped into the river. Aguirre is the true visionary, or at least the true lunatic, but what else are you to conclude when Klaus Kinski plays him? Kinski employs what I learn to be an authentic limp in an intensely physical performance. The actor often phoned in his work, but Herzog always goaded him into giving his all. Aguirre may be Kinski's best-known, maybe even best role. I haven't seen as much of Kinski as some have, but if someone wants to make the case I'm prepared to believe it. This isn't the sort of movie with a plot that suffers from being given away, so here's the final scene of the film, as provided by a thoughtful YouTube member, featuring Kinski at the end of his tether.
History tells us that Aguirre and his daughter did make it to the Atlantic, that he did accomplish some of the things he fantasizes about here, and that he finally killed his girl himself rather than let her be taken prisoner and suffer the fate worse than death at the hands of loyalists. Since we don't see Aguirre die in the film, Herzog may work from an assumption that the man will make it, but his point about imperial madness or delusions of grandeur in the face of implacable nature seems to be made one way or the other. That point, which requires seeing Aguirre as a sort of self-defeating figure in his overreach, might actually be undermined if we got a more accurate account of his adventures in which the government gets him in the end. As it is, there are other film versions of the Aguirre story, though the others don't seem to be widely known in the U.S. I'd be interested in seeing Carlos Saura's El Dorado for comparison's sake, but movie history has most likely already given its verdict on the best Aguirre movie.