Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as Fitzcarraldo, wants to build an opera house in Iquitos, Peru. To gather the money he decides to become a rubber magnate and leases a parcel from the government. The problem is that the river leading to his terrain is full of deadly rapids. However, he sees in a map there is another river that runs very close to it, but at the other side of the rapids. Determined to reach his goal no matter what, Fitzcarraldo decides to take advantage of the closeness of the river to make his boat cross from one river to the other.
The movie is famous for its Troubled Production, lasting more than four years, where Herzog really dragged a 320-ton boat over the land (with an inclination of 40 degrees) using methods even more difficult than the ones used by the real man. Also, the raving personality of Klaus Kinski got loose because of the isolation and the technical difficulties. It was so epic that a documentary of the making of the film was made, Burden of Dreams.
Claudia Cardinale plays Fitzcarraldo's lover Molly.
Provides examples of:
- 10-Minute Retirement: The Indians abandon the project after one of their men gets killed, but decide to return the next day to finish what they have started.
- All for Nothing: Fitzcarraldo's dream of becoming a rubber baron (and in extension, to open up an opera in the city) is over when the Indians sent his boat into the rapids in order to appease their river god.
- Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: A gender-flipped example with Molly tongue-in-cheek asking her servants to bath and bring Fitzcarraldo to her room.
- Bittersweet Ending: Fitzcarraldo's plan fails, but he earns the respect of the whole town and the Indian tribes for his unflinching determination, and returns home with the whole opera cast aboard his ship to a cheering crowd on shore, looking as happy as we've ever seen him before.
- Book-Ends: Fitzcarraldo's first scene is paddling in a small motor boat. His last scene is standing atop a 300-ton cargo ship.
- Chekhov's Gun: Cholo's dynamite which he showcases earlier.
- Chekhov's Skill: Fitzcarraldo being able to produce ice via a chemical reaction proves helpful later when he uses this skill to impress the Indians.
- Cool Kid-and-Loser Friendship: Don Aquilino sees his friendship for Fitzcarraldo in that way.
- Determinator: Fitzcarraldo. He wont stop to reach his goal of building an opera house in Iquitos, even though he already failed with a previous enterprise (a trans-Andean railway) and he definitely wont stop his journey just because the river he wants to reach is several hundreds of miles apart from where his boat is.
- Do Not Go Gentle: Cholo tells the captain to wake him when the Indians attack, as he wants to "brighten up my last hour with a little fireworks."
- The Drunken Sailor: Huerequeque.
- The Edwardian Era: The setting of the film is the beginning of the 1900s with this era and its fashion in full swing.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first time we see Fitzcarraldo, he's rushing with his lover to get to an opera premiere. All of Fitzcarraldo's love for opera along with his insane devotion to it come out in this moment. In essence, all of his magnificent character.Porter: Sir, Madame! This is a gala performance!Fitzcarraldo: We come from lquitos, one thousand two hundred miles down the Amazon. I had to row because our motor broke down.Molly: Look at his hands!Fitzcarraldo holds up bloodied and bandaged handsFitzcarraldo: For two nights I've been rowing to see Caruso once in my life!
- Exposition Diagram: Fitzcarraldo draws up a map to explain his big plan to the captain.
- Fingore: During the filming of the rapids scene, one of the crewman on the boat fractured some of his fingers.
- God Guise: Subverted. In order to get the manpower to drag the boat up the mountain, Fitzcarraldo and his crew try convincing a bunch of natives who conveniently have a legend about a divine power with a white vessel that Fitzcarraldo is a God. The natives inform them that they weren't born yesterday, but decide to help out anyway for reasons only revealed later.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Molly, the madam of the high-class brothel, gets Fitzcarraldo out of prison and supports him to the hilt.
- It's Quiet... Too Quiet: The captain mentions that he doesn't like the silence after the Jungle Drums stopped playing.
- Jungle Drums: The drums of the tribes can be heard as the boat floats through dangerous territory.
- Line in the Sand: Fitzcarraldo asking his crew to step forward if they wanted to turn back. Nobody does but the next day they are off anyway.
- Messy Pig: Piggy - he's not porcine, really, but he did get the name for a reason.
- Mundane Object Amazement: The Indians stare in awe at a block of ice that Fitzcarraldo presents to them.
- Nice Hat: Fitzcarraldo wears one.
- No OSHA Compliance: The natives work with the pulleys in horrible conditions. They seriously ran the risk of losing their lives if something went wrong. In-universe, a couple of them die; in real life, at least one actor did.
- Ominous Fog: Combined with Ominous Latin Chanting, to set a generally foreboding mood, over the opening credits.
- Practical Effects: Herzog's crew actually pulled a real 320-ton ship over a 40 degree inclining hill for this movie; and it was a complete nightmare to pull off.
- River of Insanity: More off-camera than on screen. Just listen to Herzog after more than half a year in the jungle:Werner Herzog: Kinski always says [nature] is full of erotic elements. I dont see it so much as erotic. I see it more as full of obscenity.... Nature here is violent, base. I wouldnt see anything erotical here. I would see fornication, and asphyxiation, and choking, and fighting for survival,... just rotting away. Of course there is lots of misery but it is to say misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, the birds here are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain.
- Scenery Porn
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Most of the crew abandon Fitzcarraldo the second it becomes clear that he's heading deep into Indian territory and won't be dissuaded.
- Sliding Scale of Cynicism Versus Idealism: In spite of what the film's infamous production would have one believe, Fitzcarraldo is the embodiment of idealism.
- Spiritual Antithesis: To Aguirre, the Wrath of God, another River of Insanity film set in South America by Werner Herzog. Whereas this film is highly idealistic, Wrath Of God is deeply cynical.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Klaus Kinski doesn't hold a candle to Claudia Cardinale. note
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The true Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald was a Peruvian rubber baron, the son of an Irish-American father and a Peruvian mother, who developed the Madre de Dios basin by portaging a ship overland. Unlike his film counterpart the real Fitzgerald very sensibly decided to disassemble the boat into several pieces before attempting to pull it up the slope.
- Victorious Loser: Fitzcarraldo's plan fails, but he earns the respect of the whole town and the Indian tribes for his unflinching determination.