Filmmaker Werner Herzog had an idea for an opus based on a historical story he had heard of where a rubber baron in the Amazon jungle had transported an entire ship from one river over a hill to another. This prompted a whole new story about an opera-loving Irishman called Fitzgerald who the natives called Fitzcarraldo and his dream of bringing the music he loved to the middle of nowhere. He would build an opera house in the jungle and invite Caruso there to perform. The film was eventually made, but not after years of hardship and problems - luckily for posterity, documentary maker Les Blank was on hand to record what happened.
And the award for the director most in need of C.G.I. goes to... Werner Herzog! Essentially a chapter of accidents, Burden of Dreams was Blank's attempt to get inside the craziness of the folly that was the Fitzcarraldo project and to quite some extent he succeeded. The fact that Herzog succeeded in bringing his creation to the screen, which was only comparable to his previous film Aguirre, Wrath of God (another troubled production filmed in the Amazon), was nothing short of a miracle judging by what was chronicled here.
As the film was being made in such a remote location, Herzog and his crew had to rely on the local Indians to provide labour, actors and extras for them, which hit a snag early on when the tribes of the region of Ecuador where they began got caught up in infighting and land rights disputes, leading to death threats and eventually the crew having to flee. They settled elsewhere downriver, and managed to shoot about forty percent of the film until star Jason Robards fell seriously ill and had to return to the U.S.A., with co-star Mick Jagger following soon after due to touring and album commitments. Blank shows a few tantalising scenes of their footage, a glimpse of what might have been.
So it was that Herzog's old friend, well, accomplice anyway, Klaus Kinski was roped in to star and funnily enough he turned out to be least of Herzog's worries; yes, he was temperamental with all the waiting around he had to suffer, but it was really the elements that were Herzog's biggest enemy. The delays meant that the river was at a low tide as the rainy season was now over, so shooting on the water was precarious as the ship might easily run aground. But the real sticking point was that the director's biggest effect, the sole reason for making the film, was providing the biggest headache and threatened to end the process once and for all.
The centrepiece of the film was to take a ship and pull it over a hill, just as the Fitzcarraldo of history had not exactly done (he had dismantled his and reassembled it on the other side), and with the muddy conditions and faltering pulley system it was taking months for anything to get done. Through it all, as all around are losing their heads, Herzog gives the impression of having lost his mind some time ago as one damn thing after another holds up his ambitions. It's near the end where the director finally breaks down and rants to Blank's camera in a brilliant monologue - not that he shouts and tears his hair, he speaks in his accustomed calm and measured tones about how the jungle is a place of nightmare where the birds "screech in pain" and even the stars in the sky "look a mess". Burden of Dreams is darkly funny, but also so painful and exasperating that it's only the fact that the project was completed that makes it possible to be optimistic about the chaotic events depicted.