We have talked — here and here — about the image of the jungle in the European imagination. Part of that mythology is that the jungle — filled with what German filmmaker Werner Herzog called “fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away” — has a mysterious power to drive Europeans crazy.
As famed Amazon explorer ColonelPercy Harrison Fawcett said, before his final expedition, "We will have to achieve a nervous and mental resistance, as well as physical, as men under these conditions are often broken by their minds succumbing before their bodies." The term men presumably did not apply to those indigenous people who actually lived under the conditions he was describing.
There can be little doubt that this mythology is founded on a hierarchic colonial discourse, in which the colonial Other was seen — often contradictorily and inconsistently — as lazy, aggressive, violent, sexually promiscuous, bestial, primitive, innocent, and irrational, and the colonizers feared contamination by absorption into indigenous life and customs. But more, this colonial discourse was permeated by sexuality. Going native meant, above all, transgressive, interracial sex, with its attendant deterioration and degeneracy — the "abominable practices," the "monstrous passions" of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The promotional material for a recent book on Amazon exploration speaks of a history in which countless explorers, irresistibly drawn into the green hell of the jungle, "have perished, been captured by tribes, or gone mad." Note the mythic conflation of death, madness, and assimilation into the indigenous. All three fates are essentially the same.
The opening shot shows a long line of men and animals snaking their way down a trail on the eastern slope of the Andes into the jungle; the final shot — one of the most unforgettable in cinema – has the camera swooping around the insane Aguirre drifting down the river on a raft filled with corpses and monkeys. In the beginning, Aguirre is rational and careful, surrounded by all the useless trappings of triumphal European civilization, carried on the backs of native porters; in the end, firing his cannon uselessly into the jungle, he is stripped of everything but transgressive sexuality, muttering about how he will conquer Mexico, marry his own daughter, and found "the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen."
What follows is not entirely clear. The feckless group heads into the jungle, Vivian has sex with the leader, they are welcomed by a primitive people wearing mud masks, they abandon their horses, and finally, at the point of death, they think they see a valley — and the movie ends.
The cruel conquistadores and the ineffectual hippies both fall prey to the madness that the jungle inflicts on Europeans. Both movies express this process in dreamy psychedelic soundtracks — by Popul Vuh in Aguirre and Pink Floyd in Valley. Both films enact the European myth of jungle madness; both sets of invaders are stripped bare, absorbed into the jungle, assimilated, finally, into primal fornication and death, gone native entirely.
It is worth taking a moment to compare the endings of the two films.