The American Dream in Three Historical Films

The American Dream in Three Historical Films

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In a small, flat world, society exists only within itself. The people preoccupied in their own universe simply cannot fathom a world outside their own. Some historians cite the first gleam of a true "American Dream" didn't surface until the first colonization. However, in three historical films, recreations of very early distinctions in the very first American dreams are exposed for their accuracies and their faults. The spirits that voyaged onward, heading for a land of riches and freedom, had many characteristics in common. Still, inconsistencies existed in their tactics and their motivation, which led to some failed attempts and a few successful investments. It was these adventurers who brought on motivation and hope for the future of the beginning of these United States.
The first film in this series is Aguirre, the Wrath of God, directed by Werner Herzog of Germany. In this psychologically demanding account, Herzog explores the life and destiny of Lope De Aguirre who famously navigated the South American landscape through the Amazon River en route to one destination; El Dorado, the golden city.
The film's opening shots culminate in a magnificent sight: the view slowly zooms towards an Andes mountain face with an endless string of soldiers and slaves descending the impermeable terrain. They suspend their women above them in ornate thrones. They carry heavy cannons, supplies, and are hindered by steel armor that inhibits comfortable movement. As David Cook aptly states in his "History of Narrative Film," it is the very image of futility. It is implicit that the primary appliance of filmmaking is fabrication. Realities are fashioned to tell fiction. Reality is essentially a foreign quality of film. Even Titanic — the most expensive film ever made — relies upon special effects instead of the arguably more affordable action of sinking a ship.
Aguirre is a stark contrast to this traditional filmmaking tactic. The film is less about a treacherous journey than it is one, as the cast and crew repeat the fictionalized trek, lending the film a resolute truth. Gonzalo Pizarro leads this army, whose incongruity of transport exploits their vulnerability. He is driven, pompous, and partially ignorant — traits mirrored in Herzog for leading his crew into identical endurances. His resulting work is one of rare audacity. Pizarro's intentions are benevolent although inspired by the conformist tactics of imperialism.

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Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, a monk, intends to spread the word of God on this mission. His progressively desperate diary entries serve as the film's narration. In the background, silent yet prominent, is Don Lope de Aguirre. He has a teetering walk and furious glare, dominating the frame with a festering intensity. He is invisibly subordinate, employing traits inspired by Hernando Cortez, whose nonconformist strategies resulted in the seizure of Mexico.
As the mission's futility becomes apparent (the film is paced by the progressive reduction of the initial Spanish team), Aguirre is sent under the command of Don Pedro de Ursua, along with Brother Carvajal, in a sub-expedition in search of food and, as it is inferred, direction. The team embarks on two rafts, each drifting with uncontrollable speed down a muddy, rapid river. Almost instantly, one becomes trapped in an eddy. The remaining crew assembles on the opposite side of the river; they are incapable of rescuing the other team without endangering themselves, and refuse to admit this failure. Gunshots awaken them during the night, and the following morning the trapped raft is strewn with bodies. The men pause in sympathetic interest and continue; there is no hesitation to discern the source of the violence as murder or suicide. Aguirre is the most disconcerting of the group, whose suggestion that they abandon the doomed raft the day prior went ignored.
Aguirre's drive remains indistinguishable from his madness. The mission's impending failure becomes increasingly apparent, even obvious, and Aguirre implores the traits necessary in baiting his men's interest and collaboration. His presence, both contextually in the film and existentially in watching it, commands attention. In the film's characterizing sequence, Aguirre claims his title, "The Wrath of God," in a powerful and domineering glare into the camera's lens. The image is powerfully affronting.
Aguirre is driven by the sort of timeless fame that spans history's entirety, exclusively akin to other explorers. His narcissistic goals are shared by the team because they promise a bounty as rich as it is unreachable. The myth of the "golden city" holds many motivations for the team; "All of us will gain something," remits a slave, "And perhaps I'll even be free." El Dorado would rival any find, and the group fails to rationalize the enormous hype of its legend: it does not exist.
In the end, Aguirre waddles about the raft as it meanders downstream, strewn with corpses. He is persistently intoxicated by the fleeting vision of his success and oblivious to his finality; that his end, too, is made. The raft is overcome by small monkeys (an action that literally manifests the infestation of the crew by prohibitive natural forces). Aguirre speaks, addressing the animals, repeating the rites he will employ as emperor of El Dorado. He is incapable of being distracted from his convictions, even in this scene, his failure. The final shot of Aguirre is its tragic conclusion. His journey is a forewarning tale of the dangers associated with obtaining freedom.
Black Robe is a somber exploration of cultural differences and the deep – if misguided – commitment of European missionaries who believed – as Laforgue says – that "The savages are living in darkness. We must convert them." The film shows Laforgue's journey, accompanied by one young French man, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin aboriginal people. From the start, the film contrasts the rituals and other vagaries of these dramatically different cultures. Director Bruce Beresford is even-handed; the Algonquin rituals may seem odd to a Western audience, but it's clear that the French rituals (Samuel de Champlain, the leader of the French settlement puts on his armour and full regalia for the farewell ceremony) are not inherently more sensible. The film implies what many people now consider obvious – that the aboriginal peoples of North America would have been much better off if Europeans had simply left them alone. Daniel makes this point early on, observing the decency of the Algonquin culture and arguing that they are "true Christians." The well-trained Laforgue is well intentioned, but he'll have none of that. There are a few flashbacks to Laforgue's previous life in France, providing a perspective on his struggles with faith – he finds the beautiful Annula, daughter of the chief, to be a source of sinful temptation. But these scenes add little to the film; it's the wilderness challenge that's at the core of things here.
Laforgue must deal with the doubts of his companions, who fear that he might be a demon, along with an Iroquois attack, and the increasingly challenging elements – winter is fast approaching. Considering the intensity of these events, the film is remarkably low-key, concentrating more on paralleling the cathedral of nature with man's constructions than on building an exciting narrative. Rarely will you see a movie that looks better or says less then Black Robe, which shows plenty of compelling events but stirs little passion in its audience. Unfortunately, this extends to the characters – an interesting and diverse collection of people who we just don't get to know well enough. Beresford's intentions here are excellent – to provide an impressively detailed recreation of the early days of New France and a balanced view of the existing and invading cultures.
The discovery of the New World was a time of change. In spite of the disparate documentation of this event, Malick chose his story's path and stuck to it with a vengeance.
Traveling from England, Capt. Christopher Newport and his band of not-so-merry men arrive on the shores of America and find a peculiar and exotic new land. A land abundant with fertile grasses and lush fruits, not to mention tribes of strange but gentle natives who have worked the territory for hundreds of years. Imprisoned upon arrival, but set free to lead the men to explore this potential goldmine is insubordinate John Smith, a charismatic hothead with a penchant for the new and different. Resentment flows fast and furious as the men see Smith as a traitor and bristle at his leadership. Their mission is to learn the ways of the people and generate peace and harmony between their European and Native American cultures. To that end, Smith falls for the 15-year-old princess Pocahontas hook, line and sinker. As the Jamestown settlement becomes a reality and the dueling cultures take baby steps towards amity, Smith and Pocahontas pursue their passionate affair.
Like any tragic romance this one goes wretchedly south, as Smith struggles with his responsibility to the men who aren't adjusting well to the winter, his preoccupied guidance or their strange surroundings. The film shifts gears when Pocahontas meets aristocratic settler John Rolfe who professes love and proposes marriage. For her part, Pocahontas has never recovered from her first love and, believing Smith to be dead, agrees to the union, traveling with Rolfe to London for an audience with the Queen. It is a surreal, fish-out-of-water moment that feels oddly surreal but curiously engaging. What ultimately comes from this film is not a sense of true love or kismet, but more so an intense idea of freedom; now that Pocahontas has been adopted to the Europeans (or as she sees it, the New World), they are inhabiting their own New World (her Old World).
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