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Features Films

El Dorado in the Movies

By Murray Dahm

If you mention the history of European contact with the Americas in the early 16th century, it won’t take long for the legend of El Dorado to come up. The exaggerated stories of how much gold was to be had from Columbus’ and later discoveries led to the growth of the legend; it became a literal city of gold. There are more movies that explore these myths than those which deal with the more mundane history of the conquest itself. These movies are fascinating, however, and worth exploring in their entirety.

El Dorado (or Eldorado), the city of gold, began as the legend of a Columbian Muisca tribal chief (zipa) an initiation rite. The chief would cover themselves in gold dust and then submerge in Lake Guatavita, in the Columbian Andes. At the same time as the gold dust washed off the chief, gold objects would also be thrown into the lake. The original Spanish was ‘El Hombre Dorado’ or ‘the Golden Man’ and this legend, told to the Spanish newcomers, soon evolved from a man into a city, then into a kingdom and finally into an empire. The Muisca people were based in what is modern Columbia, but the alleged location of the city has changed over time (usually based on proximity to a lake). Another candidate was the legendary Lake Parime and the city of Manõa (reported by an adventurer and early searcher, Diego de Ordaz, on his deathbed in 1532). The whereabouts of Manõa were never discovered but the stories led to several 16th century expeditions in Columbia, Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana.

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There is evidence that the legends of the city of El Dorado were spread by Spanish leaders as a way to distract and occupy their difficult to control soldiers-of-fortune in the New World. The leaders would send their mercenaries on deliberately futile expeditions to find such riches. Several accidental discoveries resulted, such as sailing the length of the Amazon River. Several early 16th century accounts mention ceremonies with piles of gold or a city of gold and two centuries (and more) of exploration to find the legendary city followed. Sir Walter Raleigh even led two expeditions (in 1595 and 1617), and expeditions (all of them unsuccessful) have continued in every century. Legends of El Dorado inspired cartographers, poets, writers and painters, musicians, and, finally, filmmakers.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)) is one of the great works of 20th century cinema. Herzog’s movie tells the story of Lope de Aguirre who was known as ‘the Madman’ (El Loco) and who styled himself as the ‘Wrath of God’. Born in the Basque Country in 1510, Aguirre enlisted in an expedition to the new World in 1536 or 1537. He became known for his cruelty but was useful to several officials such as the viceroy of Peru. In 1560 he joined an expedition to find El Dorado – he may have been sent on this expedition to remove his excesses from the remit of the viceroy. The expedition reached the Atlantic and there Aguirre declared himself Prince of Peru. Tierra Firme was the province of the coastal possessions of Spain in the Caribbean. Aguirre wrote to the Spanish King, Phillip II, and declared an independent Peru in 1561. He then attempted to conquer Panama and was killed at Barquisimeto in Venezuela.

Herzog’s movie is remarkable for its depiction of megalomania and the sense of paranoia it conveys. Claustrophobia too, despite being set on the open river, but, with the unknown hemming the characters in from the surrounding jungle, it works remarkably well. There are some historical discrepancies; Aguirre murdered his own daughter, Elvira, when he was surrounded by his enemies in Venezuela, and the expedition to El Dorado actually reached the Atlantic (probably via the Rio Orinoco). Aguirre did usurp the leadership of the expedition, killing its original leader Pedro de Ursúa and his successor, Fernando de Guzmán, but his real megalomania became apparent when he declared his independence from Spain and seized Isla Margarita, off Venezuela’s north-eastern coast.

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He brutally suppressed the local population and forced the remaining Spaniards to follow him. Herzog has Aguirre’s entire expedition killed on the river (never reaching the Atlantic) and Elvira (called Florés in the film) is killed by an Indian arrow. The movie ends with Aguirre drifting along the river alone on a sinking raft (unless you count the monkeys swarming over the raft as his subjects). The single setting adds to the sense of paranoia, pitting the increasingly isolated Aguirre against the river (and nature itself), and this mood would have been broken by multiple shifts in setting. Herzog also shot the film in chronological order to heighten his actors’ sense of increasing fatigue, exhaustion, and madness.

Herzog combines two expeditions in his narrative – that of 1541 led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Francisco Pizarro’s younger half-brother), from Quito to discover the ‘Land of Cinnamon’ for which the monk Gaspar de Carvajal recorded a diary, and the 1560-1 expedition. Herzog has the Ursúa/Guzmán/Aguirre expedition split off from Pizarro’s (and with only 40 men, not the 300 of the actual expedition). The monk de Carvajal accompanies Aguirre and records the expedition in his diary (and so forms the narrator). Herzog’s opening credits the invention of El Dorado to the indigenous peoples after the conquest of the Inca ‘located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters.’ This doesn’t match what we know of the origins (and how early they are) of the actual El Dorado myth.

The movie was shot entirely on location in Peru, during a five-week shoot, using Machu Picchu and the Ucayali region. This, with locals and livestock (llamas, and the 400 monkeys of the film’s finale) add an unmistakably authentic sense of place (and the monkeys add a sense of the surreal). The rivers, dangerous and in flood, also become a character within the movie.  The arms, equipment and dress all seem appropriate for Spanish adventurers in the 1560s, and the use of hundreds of Peruvian locals as porter-slaves adds a great touch of authenticity (especially since the manacles they wear look particularly real!). The wear and lack of polish on suits of armour seems entirely appropriate to the terrain the soldiers encounter – there is actually very little combat – we see the storming of an abandoned village and there are some other ‘military’ scenes but weapons are consistently present (and the firing of the cannon and arquebuses is enough – arrows striking bodies is also a common occurrence!). If I have a complaint it is that the cannon, which is fired quite frequently, has no recoil.

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The struggle of the expedition through inhospitable terrain, slope, mud and river, is visceral (and especially the manhandling of the cannon – the wheel borne on a local man’s back is striking). This is shot relentlessly and the actors’ obvious discomfit with foliage and mud adds to the sense of authenticity. Kinski’s tyrannical treatment of the other actors too (especially the local extras) adds to the sense of madness. Such filming would not be possible today – the real danger of the actors on the rafts on the river is palpable (and an Occupational Health and Safety nightmare!). Aguirre’s madness is there from the start, in every glance and gesture – Kinski’s adoption of a limp fits what we know of the historical Aguirre and it forms part of his unsettling character. He is the one who foments rebellion and plans it from the start. There is (unexpected) comedy in the movie too (the character finishing his count to ten even after he is decapitated, and the soldier struck by a spear making a joke about ‘big arrows’ becoming fashionable (this after an earlier joke about ‘small arrows’ (poison darts) and how small the men to fire them must be).

Some details of the plot are plundered from elsewhere in the story of the conquest of the New World such as the local ‘listening’ to the bible and not being able to hear the word of God – this was from the encounter of Francisco Pizarro and the Inca emperor Atahualpa. The Dona Inéz, Ursúa’s wife, is remarkable (her marching alone into the cannibal-controlled jungle after her husband is hanged is a poignant moment). Her depiction here has later resonances in later portrayals in 1988 and 2017. Herzog’s script contained references to an earlier expedition, by Francisco de Orellana. Orellana was detached from Pizarro’s expedition in 1541 with 50 men and it is on his expedition that the premise of Herzog’s Aguirre is based. Orellana himself ended up sailing the entire length of the Amazon River, reaching its delta in 1542 (and an event worth filming on its own merits surely). Orellana named the Amazon River after his claims of fighting battles with tribes of warrior women which he likened to the women warriors of Greek mythology. For Herzog, however, the first reference to Orellana (in the script) is omitted from the final film although the discovery of their bodies, eaten by cannibals (a helmet and boots prove it’s them), remains. The image of a brigantine (the boat Orellana used) stranded high in a tree further down the river also remains – this detail was from Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the aftermath of a hurricane in Hispaniola, an account also written in the year 1542.

Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the crazed Aguirre is monumental and is burned into the memory of anyone who has seen it – his delivery of the line ‘I am the wrath of God’ straight to the camera is still particularly unnerving. The portrayal of Aguirre in the movie, however, is more Herzog’s vision. Kinski wanted a wild ranting madman and he and Herzog clashed over the interpretation; Herzog wanted a quieter, more menacing figure. He would anger Kinski who would do his ranting version (without the camera rolling), and then, when he was calmer (and exhausted), Herzog would film those later takes. The relationship between star and director was famously violent and destructive (despite the five amazing collaborations they made together between 1972 and 1987 – Aguirre was their first collaboration). Kinski’s fee also took up one third of Herzog’s small $370,000 budget. His, however, is not the only depiction of the search of El Dorado or of Lope de Aguirre.

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Newer movies

In 1988 Aguirre was the subject of El Dorado, directed by Carlos Saura, and entered into the Cannes Film Festival that year. This is not to be confused with the Disney movie The Road to El Dorado (2000) which is set in 1519 but essentially uses the plot of Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 story and John Huston’s film The Man Who Would Be King (1975) where two con-men adventurers are mistaken for gods in the legendary city of gold. Of course, in the Disney movie, the city actually exists. The city of gold is also referenced in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) where the settlers of Jamestown (and especially its Governor, Ratcliff) seek gold and dig for it immediately on arrival in 1607. This connects with the exaggerated tales of just how much gold was to be found in the New World, spread among prospective settlers (Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch) dating all the way back to Columbus. The only gold the natives know of in Pocahontas is the maize they grow. The movie was praised for its depiction of plundering Englishmen (as well as its inclusion of and depiction of aboriginal culture).

Saura’s movie was shot on location in Costa Rica and the authentic location is indeed evocative. The five ships built for the film also look amazing sailing down the river – when a flood washed away the rafts and equipment, it was incorporated into the film. For the most part the soundtrack contains 16th century tunes and instruments: lutes, guitars, and viols (and panpipes for the natives. Drums also play an important (and authentic) part in Saura’s score. Modern orchestration is then used for the introduction of a (western) ‘madness motif’ which recurs throughout the movie at appropriate moments.

Pedro de Ursúa (Lambert Wilson) is well portrayed as the leader out of his depth but the film, 142 minutes long, is slow and ponderous. There is not the energy needed to portray the madness the expedition descended into even though the expedition encounters massacres, the aftermath of a battle, and witnesses other things which warp the men’s minds and behaviours. The paranoia and claustrophobia achieved by Herzog is unfortunately missing. When the first mutiny is quelled, it is very matter of fact rather than the result of inexorable madness (or planning), as are the subsequent murders.

The movie opens, however, with the Muisca man of gold being covered in gold dust on the lakeshore which looks magnificent. The costuming is sumptuous and shows the variety of dress (it is good to see sweat too – it too plays its part in the madness of the expedition). Perhaps the armour and helmets are a little too dull and modern-looking.

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The weapons, basket-hilted swords, crossbows, pikes and arquebus all look great. The formation shown with pike, sword and buckler men, crossbows and a line of arquebus is great to see (like a mini tercio which is entirely appropriate). I liked the depiction of the majority of the footsoldiers on the expedition being bare-legged and almost bare-footed, emphasising their relative poverty in relation to their aristocratic (immaculately dressed) commanders. The crowded nights aboard ship are well depicted (the unrelenting cramped conditions and getting on one another’s nerves leading to madness and the breakdown in civilisation). One of the more interesting discoveries made by Columbus was of the hammock, which was to become widespread in Europe, but perhaps it had not yet revolutionised naval sleeping arrangements in the 1560s!

Saura’s Aguirre (Omero Antonutti) is too passive as the villain; he almost seems to take over by accident rather than seize power, and his actions, rather than deranged, are either politically expedient or inexplicable. He too adopts a limp although it is more of an old war wound which sometimes hampers his movement rather than a personality trait as Kinski makes it. Guzman here is a very different character from Herzog’s fat incompetent aristocrat (although his death is not explicitly by Aguirre’s hand in Herzog’s film). There are moments when the madness comes through but for the most part everything is too calm; when one of the ships sinks it is almost a relaxed affair (especially in comparison to the rafts of Herzog). Aguirre only seems to become unhinged after he takes power at the very end of the movie (which could be argued to fit with history). He dreams that he kills his daughter, wakes to find she is alive, and the movie ends in voice over with the expedition still on the river – this seems to have been another homage to Herzog who’s film ends the same way.

One thing that both Herzog’s Aguirre and Saura’s El Dorado share is an affinity with Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness (and therefore with Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (1979)). Unlike the river journey to Kurtz, who is a real figure in both the book and Coppola’s movie, in the El Dorado examples the purpose of the quest is illusory. Nonetheless, the river journey results in a descent into madness which links them all. Unsurprisingly, Coppola acknowledged how much of an influence Aguirre had on Apocalypse Now; it has also clearly influenced The Mission (1986), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Predator (1987) and director Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), to name only a few.

2017 saw another Spanish El Dorado movie, Agustín Díaz Yanes’ Gold (Oro in Spanish). Gold is loosely based on the expeditions of Aguirre and Nuñez de Balboa, who led the first European expedition to the Pacific, crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. The movie is set in 1538 and is a fictional expedition. It also refers to another fictional expedition, by Tomás de Ulúa in 1530 from which a survivor, Iñigo Labastida survived and made a map. This tells of the city of gold, Tezutlán and the expedition marches to find it. The film combines the Europe meets America tensions with additional tensions from the Spanish characters based on their region of origin, Castille, Aragon, Navarre etc. Although there is no river, the expedition goes mad on the march and murders several of its own members, including the leader, Don Gonzalo. All of the elements have clear precedents in the history of exploration in the New World.

The movie is visually sumptuous but, given the dramatic potential of the real stories of Spanish exploration, one wonders why a fictional story needed to be invented. There are other movie tropes used too (when the Spaniards sing to compete with the ‘three sins’ tribe’s own song, it’s straight out of Zulu (1964 – although there ‘Men of Harlech’ is a much more rousing ditty!). Gold also inherits the hostile landscape idea; there is mud everywhere and our conquistadors are dirtier and grittier than most others.

The soldiers have varied equipment and dress, most of which looks fine although some pieces seem fanciful – everyone wears bracers – how the depiction of forearm armour became ubiquitous is difficult to answer – no contemporary depictions show soldiers wearing leather armour on their forearms ever, but it can be seen in almost every (ancient and) medieval movie. Very little metal armour is worn, helmets only, which marks this as different to most other conquistador movies where mail or plate is seen on someone. It is good to see the fearsome dogs that the Spaniards brought with them and here they are more than set dressing, actually being used and taking part in the story. The major combat of the film is actually Spaniard on Spaniard (we do see lots of dead Indian bodies but little conflict with them). This Spaniard on Spaniard fight quickly devolves into the one-on-one melee we’ve seen so often (although this one is in splashy mud – like an Agincourt in the New World). There is reference to the Spanish Sack of Rome in 1527 which is a nice touch. The movie also contains the Amazon myth, an Isle of Women, close to the city of gold transplanted (like several others) from Greek myth to the New World. In the end, the city of gold is rationalised – its ‘roofs of gold’ are actually glazed yellow mud when finally encountered.

All three of these movies portray the inhospitability of the jungle terrain (especially to inappropriately clothed westerners) and there is a great deal of rain and mud. This inhospitability is something missing from most of the other New World movies (rain does play an important part in the plot of Apocalypto). The precedent for this portrayal of the expeditions in such terrain seems to be Herzog’s Aguirre, and that legacy is still going strong.

The legendary city of El Dorado makes an appearance in all manner of other movies, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), to the Marvel Universe Black Panther (2018), and even 2019’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold (that’s Dora the Explorer for those of you not au fay with the children’s cartoon). This movie was the (new trend) live-action update; Dora is now a teenager and the lost city of gold is called Parapata in the film with links to the Seven Cities of Gold legend (you’ll need to wait till our next article for that). The movie explores Incan culture and Machu Picchu and the Dora, Isabela Moner, learned the Quechua/Runasimi language (the language group of the Incan empire) for the role. The original language has links to the indigenous movies we have explored even though here El Dorado is moved to the Incan culture rather than being located with the Muisca people. Nonetheless, the large number of Latino actors in major roles in the film has been rightly praised (New Zealand Maori actor Temuera Morrison also makes an appearance). The legend as presented here also links to the Fountain of Youth: the guardian of Parapata is an old woman but transformed into a young one by the power of the treasure. There are also several homages to Aguirre throughout the Dora film. Filmed in Peru and Australia, here the city of gold is a real place.

We should mention another El Dorado movie even though it has little to do with our subject. 1966’s El Dorado starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum is, of course, a Western, directed by Howard Hawks. The plot (repeated in two other Hawks/Wayne Westerns, Rio Bravo (1959) and Rio Lobo (1970)) is more to do with a gunfighter (Wayne) helping a drunken sheriff (Mitchum). The movie is set in a fictional town (the Texas town of Eldorado didn’t come into existence until 1895). Filmed in Arizona and Utah, it is difficult to see a connection between the plot and the name of El Dorado (other than it being a destination in the movie for people wanting to strike it rich). Many other movies and miniseries take advantage of the lost city of gold idea – from The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958), Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986), the animated Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982-3) which starred a character named Esteban (of whom more next time), through to Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975) and several modern series (including one pawn shop series). None of these are in any way medieval and more than a little fanciful. Seven Cities of Gold (1955) starring Anthony Quinn, is about the 1769 expedition.

Many enjoyable hours can be spent searching for El Dorado on film, your own quest for a ‘visual’ city of gold; the quality and variety are a moveable feast but, you never know, perhaps there will be gold at the end of your search. Happy viewing.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

Click here to read more articles from Murray

Top Image: Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019) – IMDB

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