According to Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski threatened to abandon the film entirely at one point during the shooting over Herzog's refusal to fire a sound assistant. Herzog says he threatened to kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself if Kinski left - and later declared he was quite prepared to do so, knowing that the authorities would write it off as a hunting accident. Kinski stated in interviews that Herzog wielded a pistol to emphasize the threat, but Herzog denies this.
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During a particularly rowdy night of production, Klaus Kinski, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, repeatedly fired with a Winchester rifle into it. One of the bullets took the tip of an unnamed extra's finger off. Werner Herzog immediately confiscated the weapon and it remains his property to this day.
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Many of the scenes were unrehearsed and unstaged, blurring the line between the cast acting in character and simply reacting to their situations. In one opening scene, when the carriage holding Ursúa's mistress tips over and threatens to collapse, a hand comes in from the right side of the frame to assist the actors in steadying their hold. That hand belongs to director Werner Herzog.
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The film was originally shot in English, the only language the multi-national cast and crew had in common. The original production sound was recorded on location, but not used because of its poor quality. The whole film was later dubbed into German. Werner Herzog claims that Klaus Kinski wanted too much money for the recording sessions, so Gerd Martienzen dubbed him. Even audiences that have seen Kinski's other performances often can't tell the difference.
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The complete crew consisted of eight people.
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In his commentary, Werner Herzog explained how he manipulated star Klaus Kinski into giving the performance he wanted. Kinski wanted to express Aguirre's madness at the end of the film with very loud shouting. Herzog had him do that for an hour and a half until Kinski grew tired. Then, he was very quiet and much more contained.
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Werner Herzog claims to have written the screenplay in two and a half days. He wrote a good portion of it while traveling with his soccer team, during games and on bus rides. Following one game, the team was very drunk, and the player seated behind Herzog vomited on his typewriter, ruining many pages of the script. Herzog was unable to salvage the pages, and tossed them out the window. He was also unable to recall what he'd written on them.
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According to Werner Herzog's commentary, he paid the men who were to provide the monkeys at the end of the film only half of what they asked for, thinking they would try to run off with the money. The dealers took the money, then sold the monkeys to someone else, and prepared to fly them to Florida. In desperation, Herzog pretended he was a veterinarian and said the monkeys didn't have their vaccination documents. After filming, he released the monkeys into the wild.
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The pan flute player was a beggar with intellectual disabilities. He scared easily, and could be difficult to manage.
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During one scene in a native village, Klaus Kinski hit a crewmen over the head with his sword. If not for his helmet, the man would have been killed.
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This was Werner Herzog's first film with Klaus Kinski. It was the start of an extremely stormy, sometimes violent, professional relationship that lasted 15 years.
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Werner Herzog did not storyboard a single frame of the film. All of it was shot and framed spontaneously.
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In 1971, while Werner Herzog was location scouting for the film in Peru, his reservation on LANSA Flight 508 was cancelled due to a last-minute change in itinerary. The plane was later struck by lightning and disintegrated, with one person surviving after a free fall. Almost 30 years later, Herzog made Wings of Hope (1999), which explored the story of survivor Juliane Koepcke.
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Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski had met many years earlier, when the struggling young actor rented a room in Herzog's family's apartment. Kinski's antics during the three months he lived there left a lasting impression. Years later, Herzog knew the volatile actor was the only possible man who could play the mad Aguirre, and sent Kinski a copy of the screenplay. "Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang," Herzog recalled. "It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realized that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre."
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The finale is significantly different from Werner Herzog's original script. The director recalled, "I only remember that the end of the film was totally different. The end was actually the raft going out into the open ocean and being swept back inland, because for many miles you have a counter-current, the Amazon actually goes backwards. And it was tossed to and fro. And a parrot would scream: "El Dorado, El Dorado"..."
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Aguirre's line "What is a throne but a plank red with velvet?" is an authentic quote from Napoleon Bonaparte.
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Klaus Kinski's crazed performance bore similarities to the real Aguirre, a "true homicidal megalomaniac". Many of his fellow soldiers considered his actions to be that of a madman. Kinski's use of a limp reflected one that Aguirre actually had, the result of a battle injury. Aguirre's frequent short but impassioned speeches to his men in the film were accurately based on the man's noted "simple but effective rhetorical ability."
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Werner Herzog was attacked by fire ants when he was chopping a tree branch with his machete. He didn't cut it down completely, so the ants poured down on him and bit him "about 150 times". As a result, he got a bad fever.
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Much of the filming involved rafts traveling down the Amazon. Due to the film's limited budget, the cast and crew had to live on rafts. One raft had a small kitchen.
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Despite the extensive jungle filming, no one came down with malaria or other tropical diseases, except for one case of hepatitis.
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Near the end of the shooting, Werner Herzog thought he'd lost all the negatives. Several weeks later, he discovered that the shipping agency at the Lima airport had completed all paperwork needed to ship the film cans, but hadn't actually shipped them.
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The film was shot in chronological order, because Werner Herzog believed the film crew's progress on the river directly mirrored that of the explorers' journey in the story.
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The idea for the film began when Werner Herzog borrowed a book on historical adventurers from a friend. The plot was inspired by a half-page about Lope de Aguirre.
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This film, as well as several other early films by Werner Herzog, were shot on a 35mm camera that he stole as a young man from the Munich Film School, a predecessor to today's prestigious film school 'HFF München'. Herzog himself never was a film student there or anywhere. He readily admits to the theft but also justifies it with the significance of the films he's made with the camera and his right to artistic expression: "It was a very simple 35mm camera, one I used on many other films, so I do not consider it a theft. For me, it was truly a necessity. I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right."[Cronin, 2003]
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Aguirre's costume has many leather straps in place to suggest that without them he would fall to pieces. This is mentioned by Werner Herzog in his commentary.
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According to the director's commentary, Werner Herzog occasionally had to trade his wristwatch or boots for food during filming.
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Werner Herzog invented Klaus Kinski's unique style of walking that was part of his performance as Aguirre. Herzog refers to it as being "crab-like" and that Aguirre is meant to have a hunch back.
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Klaus Kinski claimed at one time that while filming the final scene, he was actually bitten by some of the monkeys.
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The low budget meant the production couldn't afford stuntmen or elaborate special effects. The cast and crew climbed up mountains, hacked through thick jungle, and rode ferocious river rapids on rafts built by natives. At one point, a storm caused a river to flood, covering the sets in several feet of water and destroying all the rafts. The flooding was immediately incorporated into the story, as a sequence including a flood and rebuilding the rafts.
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The Emperor's latrine was used by the cast and crew during filming.
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Werner Herzog explained how the choir-like sound was created. "We used a strange instrument, which we called a 'choir-organ.' It has inside it three dozen different tapes running parallel to each other in loops. ... All these tapes are running at the same time, and there is a keyboard on which you can play them like an organ so that [it will] sound just like a human choir but yet, at the same time, very artificial and really quite eerie." The instrument was most likely a Mellotron M400, introduced in 1970. It had 35 keys and was a staple of early-1970s progressive rock.
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Mexican craftsmen built the boat with attached canoe at the end of the movie.
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At one point during filming, Klaus Kinski had a disagreement with Werner Herzog's direction, which led to one of his loudest tantrums on a set. Both of them didn't notice that a sound technician had recorded the situation on tape. Herzog later admitted that while that incident was serious and not funny at all, he can now laugh about it.
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In the commentary, Werner Herzog says he was bitten "about 50 times" by the monkeys that appear at the end of the film.
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The character of Aguirre was based in part on the Zanzibar revolutionary John Okello.
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All of the costumes for the Spanish actors in the film were assembled by Werner Herzog himself, which he collected from a rental house. The natives mostly brought their own traditional clothes for their characters. The only costume that was made for the film was Aguirre's, which was made by a designer that Klaus Kinski recommended. As Kinski had a good intuition about costumes, Herzog allowed him to decide what his character should wear. Kinski asked for his costume to contain a lot of straps and belts, as to suggest that Aguirre would fall apart without them.
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Ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time"
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The film is included on Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" list.
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A 2018 BBC critics poll ranked this film #17 in non-English-speaking films.
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Cecilia Rivera played Flores, Aguirre's daughter. In his autobiography 'All I Need Is Love' Klaus Kinski wrote: "There isn't a single person who isn't exhausted to death or sick or both. But my daughter in the film, a sixteen-year-old blond Peruvian, was fucked by almost everyone, I think."
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The film is featured in Jesse Andrews' novel "Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl."
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While plot details and many of the characters come directly from Werner Herzog's imagination, historians have pointed out that the film incorporates some 16th-century events and historical figures fairly accurately. Aguirre, Ursúa, Don Fernando, Inez, and Florés were all involved in a 1560 expedition to find the city of El Dorado. Commissioned by Peru's governor, Ursúa organized a group of 300 men to travel by way of the Amazon River. He was accompanied by his mistress, Doña Inez. Aguirre, a professional soldier, decided that he could use the 300 men to overthrow the Spanish government in Peru. Aguirre had Ursúa murdered and proclaimed Fernando "The Prince of Peru." Fernando was eventually murdered when he questioned Aguirre's scheme of sailing to the Atlantic, conquering Panama, crossing the isthmus and invading Peru. Others who attempted to rebel against Aguirre were also killed. The surviving soldiers conquered Isla Margarita, off the coast of present-day Venezuela, and made preparations to attack the mainland. By then, Spanish authorities had learned of Aguirre's plans. When the rebels arrived in Venezuela, government agents offered full pardons to Aguirre's men. All of them accepted. Aguirre murdered his daughter Florés just before his arrest. He was captured and dismembered. Herzog's screenplay merged the 1560 expedition with the events of an earlier Amazon journey. In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro and his men entered the Amazon basin in search of El Dorado. Various troubles afflicted the expedition. Sure that El Dorado was very close, Pizarro set up a smaller group led by Francisco de Orellana to break off from the main force, forge ahead, and return with news of what they had found. The group traveled down the river on a brigantine. Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish Dominican friar, kept a journal of the expedition. The real Gaspar de Carvajal (1500-1584) settled in Peru and dedicated himself to the conversion of indigenous Peruvians.
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The screenplay was shot as written, with some minor differences. In an early scene, Pizarro instructs Ursúa to lead the scouting team down the river. In the script, Pizarro mentions that in the course of the expedition Ursúa could possibly discover what happened to Francisco de Orellana's expedition, which had vanished without a trace several years earlier. Later in the screenplay, Aguirre and his men find a boat and the long-dead remains of Orellana's soldiers. Further down the river, they discover another ship lodged in some tree tops. In the screenplay, Aguirre and others explore the boat but find no sign of Orellana or his men. Werner Herzog ultimately eliminated references to Orellana's expedition. The sequence with the boat caught in a tree remains, but seems to be a hallucination.
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