Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 film written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the title character. It portrays would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman called Fitzcarraldo in Peru, who has to pull a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory. The film is derived from the real-life story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald.
Brian "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald, a European living in a small city in Peru in the early part of the 20th century, has a great love of opera and an indomitable spirit. He is a great fan of the famous tenor Enrico Caruso and he dreams of building an opera house in his city of Iquitos. This will require a lot of money, and the most profitable industry in Peru at the time is rubber. The areas known to contain rubber trees have been parceled up by the Peruvian government and can be leased for exploitation.
Fitzcarraldo investigates getting into the rubber business. He is shown a map by a helpful rubber baron, who points out the only remaining unclaimed parcel in the area. He explains why no one has yet claimed the parcel: while it straddles the Ucayali River, the parcel is cut off from the Amazon by a treacherous set of rapids. However, Fitzcarraldo notices that the Pachitea River, another Amazon tributary, comes within several hundred meters to the Ucayali upstream of the parcel.
To make his dream a reality, he leases the inaccessible parcel from the government. With the selfless underwriting of his paramour and brothel owner, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), he buys a steamer (which he christens the Molly Aida) from the same rubber baron, raises a crew and sets off up the Pachitea, the parallel river. This river is known to be more dangerous the further one gets from the Amazon because of the unfriendly tribes that inhabit the area. Fitzcarraldo's plan is to reach the point where the two rivers nearly meet and then, with the manpower of enlisted natives, physically pull his three-story, 320-ton steamer over the muddy 40° hillside across an isthmus, from one river to the next. Using the steamer, he will then collect rubber on the upper Ucayali and bring it down the Pachitea to market.
The story was inspired by the real life Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald; in the 1890s, Fitzcarrald did bring a steamship across an isthmus from one river into another, but it weighed only 30 tons and he had it dismantled before doing so.
The casting of the film was also quite difficult. Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, but he became ill and was forced to leave. Herzog then considered casting Jack Nicholson, and even playing Fitzcarraldo himself, before Klaus Kinski accepted the role. By that point, forty percent of shooting was complete and Herzog insisted on a total reshoot with Kinski. Mick Jagger was originally cast as Fitzcarraldo's assistant Wilbur, but his shooting schedule expired and he departed to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog dropped Jagger's character from the script and reshot the film from the beginning. Though none of the major cast members spoke English natively, the original soundtrack was recorded in English, as it was the only language common to the lead actors.
Klaus Kinski himself was a major source of tension, as he fought with Herzog and other members of the crew and greatly upset the native extras. In his documentary My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered to murder Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed Kinski to complete filming.
Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, about the production of the film, documents these many hardships. Blank's footage, which also appears in Herzog's Portrait Werner Herzog and My Best Fiend contains some of the only surviving footage of Robards and Jagger in Fitzcarraldo and many scenes documenting the ship's journey over the mountain, along with several episodes of Kinski's raving.
Locations used for the movie include: