14 August 2008
Rivers Run Through Them
Yesterday I enjoyed an interesting double feature: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).
Both movies starred a river. Oh sure, Martin Sheen was in one and Klaus Kinski in another and there were jungles in both. But these were river movies as much as they were about war, conquest or madness.
Rivers have always been central to civilization. The Nile, Amazon, Thames, Mississippi, Yangtze to name a few are rivers which have been central to the very founding of civilizations, not to mention their progress. Rivers also hold a romantic place in our culture and recreation. Just ask readers of Tom Sawyer or lovers of river rafting. Rivers are central to commerce. They are often strategic points in war. Rivers are sources of both dangerous floods and tranquil outings.
In Apocalypse Now, set during US involvement in VietNam, Sheen's character, is sent on a mission to kill a deranged Army Colonel. (Did I say kill? I meant: "Terminate his command with extreme prejudice.") The only way to get to the colonel is by way of a long journey up river.
In Aguirre, Kinski seizes command of a splinter group from Conquistador Gonzalo Pizzaro's Peruvian expedition and heads down a river in search of the mythic El Dorado.
Both journeys are fraught with peril, mostly in the form of native peoples well camouflaged in the jungle. In both films, people are dropping like flies. Many bodies are consigned to the river.
These are stories of man against nature only if Americans and Europeans represent man and natives are regarded as merely another dangerous animal in need of domestication. More accurately they are stories of strangers in strange lands where rivers provide the greatest safety. You enter danger via the river, find solace in the river are threatened by being on the river and can escape only by the river.
The protagonists may be regarded as trespassers. One is on a morally dubious mission during a morally dubious war and the other is motivated by greed during a time of immoral and racist conquest.
One mission is a total failure. The success of the other seems to satisfy no one.
The one unconquerable element in both stories is the river. There is no ambiguity about the water. It is a relentless force. By times placid and temperamental. The river may countenance a lot but remains true to its purpose.
In both films the river provides a symbol. In both the river is a vehicle to tell a kind of story. In both the river is beautiful cast member. Both films find much of their narrative strength from visual beauty and mood and thus from the river.
I've loved these films for over 25 years. I'm just now beginning to appreciate the river that runs through them -- in more ways than one.