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The Amazing Fitzcarraldo – fact can be better than fiction

It’s amazing how there are times when fact is better than fiction, such is the case of Fitzcarraldo. The story goes that Fitzcarraldo braved hostile Indians, snakes, disease and unspeakable hardships as he used Indian labor to pull, drag and winch a ship across a mountain in the Amazon jungle. The baron, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman known as Fitzcarraldo, had realized that there was an untapped parcel of land that was rich in rubber but unreachable because of the Pongo das Mortes, (Rapids of Death).

Fitzcarraldo’s dream was to build an opera house into the jungle town Iquitos but he needed the funding to accomplish his dream. He had tried multiple ways to find the funding but to no avail.

Finally he convinced his girlfriend who ran a brothel in Iquitos to fund his expedition for rubber. He figured he could reach the untapped 400 square mile parcel by going upstream on a parallel tributary and moving his 30 ton boat across an isthmus upstream from the rapids, fill the boat with caucho (rubber) float the boat down through the rapids to Iquitos and cash in on the bounty and realize his dream of bringing the opera to Iquitos.

The story continues as Fitzcarraldo ventures into hostile Indian territory. His crew gets spooked abandon the expedition, Fitzcarraldo is left surrounded by hostile Indians who block his return route. He realizes the Indians believe in a river god and decides to see if his ship will fill theological requirements He utilizes the music from his hero, opera singer Enrico Caruso to quell the tribe and gain their support.

After months of pulling and pushing the task is completed, the boat moved across a mountain to the Ucayali River.  A grand fiesta to celebrate the task has takes place. Late in the night while the crew is sleeping off a drunken stupor the chief of the Indians cuts the mooring to appease the river god and the empty boat floats downstream through the rapids and back into Iquitos.

It looks like Fitzcarraldo’s dream has vanished but once back in Iquitos he sells his boat and utilizes the proceeds to bring the opera from Manaus Colombia to Iquitos to play a command performance on the deck of the boat as he floats into the Iquitos harbor.  

In reality Fitzcarraldo was really Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald the son of an American father and a Peruvian mother. Not the benevolent figure portrayed in the film but a ruthless conqueror who killed and overcame the indigenous Indians and forced them into slave labor or die for his own exploitation.

He did in fact move a boat across an isthmus but he had slave labor dismantle the boat first and he completed his task of filling it with rubber and his own pockets. Despite his brutality he was a pioneer and explorer who charted the region of Madre de Dios in Peru, founded the city of Puerto Maldonaldo and explored what is now the Manu Reserve. He later died as his boat got caught in a whirlpool, the boat sank and he died but the story does not end there.

Intrigued by the Fitzcarraldo tale the famous director, Werner Herzog, set off on a quest to make an epic film about the rubber baron. He cast Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo and Mick Jagger as Wilber (Fitzcarraldo’s sidekick).

The first hurdle came as they were five weeks into filming and 40% of the shooting complete and Robards became ill with dysentery and his doctors would not let him return to complete the film. Then Mick Jagger’s concert and album commitments force him to abandon the project leaving Herzog with a half finished film and both of his stars having abandoned ship.

Most directors would have licked their wounds and gone home, not Herzog. He went back to the drawing board refinancing and recasting the film, this time with Klaus Kinski with the leading role but this was just the beginning of his problems.

Herzog had negotiated with the Aguaruna Indians to support his project but he did not realize he had walked right into a political nightmare. A border skirmish between Peru and Ecuador had everyone on edge. The Indians had grown disenchanted with the film and started to become hostile towards the whole project. Rumors that Herzog planned to turn the film camp into a tourist Mecca angered the Indians.

As happens in the Amazon rumors turned into wild tales and wild tales turned into bizarre action as the film project catalyzed and unified the Aguarunians. The Indians found it threatening that a group of men would camp together without women. To them men gathered together without women before battle.

Then the rumors spread that Herzog had exterminated two Indian villages and  took part in the German holocaust. The Aguarunians dressed in war paint, surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to leave. They burned the camp and celebrated the act of chasing the white man from their land.

Again most would have called it quits and gone home. Not Herzog, the problems continued as the Amazon experienced a severe drought grounding the ship, crew members died in a plane crash, people were injured, many came down with malaria and there is a story that one was bitten by the deadly Bushmaster snake. He was given an ultimatum, die in the jungle or cut his leg off with a chain saw, he chose the latter. The crew went stir crazy, constant rain, setbacks and continuing problems with the Indians, including people getting shot with arrows.

Kinski was on a constant rampage, in fact at one point the Indian chief offered to kill him if Herzog would give him permission, an action that Herzog had contemplated himself. Hookers, cold beer and masato, a fermented beverage made by chewing up yucca root and spitting in a dugout canoe, kept the lid on the powder keg and eventually the film was finished after four years of agonizing effort, along with a “making of the Fitzcarraldo” called Burden of Dreams.

Filming and moving a 340 ton boat across a mountain without special effects was no small task but Herzog completed what the real Fitzcarrald would have never attempted.

The Fitzcarraldo won Best Director at the Canes Film Festival in 1982. Today there are still remnants of the Fiscarraldo scattered around Iquitos. The real Fitzcarrald’s home is now the Micobank that sits on the corner of Prospero St.. The original producer Walter Saxer runs a hotel and relaxing spot for a cold beer called the Casa Fiscarraldo and one of the original actors Huerequeque, who played the ship’s cook, runs a bar on the Nanay River.

The original home of Carlos Fitzcarrald still sits on the corner of Prospero St. in Iquitos, now a bank but still the same clay built building.

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