Klaus Kinski was a major source of tension on set, as he fought virulently with the crew and raged over trivial matters. The natives where very upset about his behaviour. Werner Herzog has claimed that it went so far that one of the chieftains offered, in all seriousness, to murder Kinski for Herzog.
Based on a true story. Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald was a Peruvian rubber baron, the son of an Irish-American father and a Peruvian mother, who developed the Madre de Dios basin by portaging a ship overland. It was disassembled, however, not moved intact. The rivers connected by the Isthmus of Fitzcarrald are the Rio Mishagua and Rio Manu; the Ucayali was part of the downstream shipping route. Fitzcarrald died at age 35 when his ship sank.
In one of the region's driest summers on record, scavenging Amahuaca tribespeople launched a scavenging hit-and-run raid on the film camp. One man was lucky to survive an arrow through his throat, while his wife was hit in the stomach, necessitating eight hours of emergency surgery on a kitchen table. According to Werner Herzog, "I assisted by illuminating her abdominal cavity with a torchlight and with my other hand sprayed with repellent the clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around the blood." Herzog decided against a revenge attack, because he believed it would be bad for international relations.
A Peruvian logger bitten by a deadly snake made the dramatic decision to cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to prevent the spread of the venom. Werner Herzog commented, "It was a good decision - he lived".
Cinematographer Thomas Mauch's hand was split open trying to film the climax. He underwent a 2½ hour operation to put his hand back together again - and no anaesthesia was available. As he screamed and thrashed in agony, one of the two camp prostitutes (!) calmed him by pressing his head between her breasts.
Jack Nicholson loved the screenplay and wanted to play the lead character. He demanded his usual salary of 5 mill. dollars. which was too much for the producers, therefore they chose Jason Robards. But Robards became ill after 6 weeks of filming in the jungle and the production had to be stopped. The insurance company paid for the resulting costs and filming could start again after Klaus Kinski finally signed on.
Werner Herzog has been accused of exploiting indigenous people in the making of the film, with some drawing similarities between Herzog and Fitzcarraldo. Michael F. Brown, a professor of anthropology at Williams College, notes that initially Herzog was on good terms with the Aguaruna people, some of whom were hired as extras for the film and for construction. Relations deteriorated, however, when Herzog began to build a village on Aguaruna land, failed to consult the tribal council, and tried to obtain protection from a local militia. In December 1979, Aguaruna men burned down the film set.
Werner Herzog fatuously claimed that the Indians were lucky that he had a doctor on set, failing to realize (or at least to admit) the fact that his policy of relocating diverse tribal groups in alien territory was bound to create inter-ethnic friction. The Indian extras, almost 1,000 in total, were housed in barrack room conditions. The food was appalling and medical supplies limited. There were not enough women to produce the Indians' staple, a drink made from manioc. The only diversion possible was soccer until the ball burst. One native died of malaria, sparking off a period of heightened tension. Some extras worked on the film for six months, their official rate of pay being around two dollars a day. The majority of them had been relocated hundreds of miles from their homes, families, and most importantly, their gardens. When the extras agreed to work on the film, they were unaware of two facts. First, that the project would take twice as long as Herzog had promised them. And second, that for most of this time the extras would work as laborers, clearing forest slopes and trying to haul a 365 ton ship up a 40-degree incline - a ship that was ten times larger than the original.
Director Werner Herzog wanted Mario Adorf as captain of the ship, but Adorf refused to do the takes that involved the ship drifting throughout the rapids. Eventually, six men besides Herzog himself volunteered to do it. Of the six, three were wounded; one had two broken ribs.
Before filming could begin, Werner Herzog was immediately faced with the problem of finding an alternative location when the Aguaruna Indians in northern Peru violently ejected the entire film crew, protesting against the arrogant attitude of the filmmakers and the manner in which they had walked into villages and attempted to take control. The Aguaruna are the most politically unified native group in the entire Amazon, with a strong and often militant tribal council that has reacted quickly to outsiders who once again tried to take without giving back in return, or even asking first. Some of the council-members were jailed and a German aid-worker, who had been helping the Indians plant rice, was almost drowned by the film crew. After six months of argument, during which Herzog ordered soldiers to intimidate a village assembly by firing over their heads, the Aguaranas had had enough. They burnt down the film crew's camp and bundled its workers and equipment into three canoes.
Werner Herzog didn't cast Klaus Kinski initially because he thought Kinski would go "totally bonkers" if trapped on location in the Amazon during the production's lengthy shooting schedule. His fears proved to be well founded.
River levels plunged to depths of two feet or less. As a result, the movie's steamship became stranded for months on a sand bar while waiting for rains to return. However, when rains came, Werner Herzog found himself working during the wildest rainy season in history.
In Werner Herzog: Filmemacher (1986) the director visits again the place where he says, he had the original inspiration for this film: The ancient Carnac Stones in Carnac, Brittany, France. The huge rocks are so heavy that to this day it's unknown how they could be transported 5000 years ago.