We’ve all heard the stories of disastrous film sets where every possible thing goes wrong. From Apocalypse Now to Twilight Zone: The Movie to…most Terry Gilliam projects, there are countless tales of instances where the combination of big egos, big budgets, and a big vision don’t add up to a big blockbuster. But one of the most compelling examples of a movie set gone totally haywire doesn’t even come out of Hollywood. It comes from West Germany via Peru, and it’s got it all. An eccentric director, a cantankerous star, and a 320-ton steamship. The 1982 production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo wasn’t just disastrous—it was absolutely catastrophic.
When Two Become One
Today, Werner Herzog is something of a pop culture icon. He’s known more by younger fans for documentaries like Grizzly Man or for his unforgettable appearances in Jack Reacher and The Mandalorian. But at the end of the 70s, Herzog was an art-house cinema darling and a representative of what critics had dubbed New German Cinema. Critics and audiences loved him for films like Aguirre, Wrath of God, Woyzeck, and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
At the time, Herzog had an idea in mind for his next film. He’d learned about the story of an ambitious 19th-century Peruvian rubber baron named Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. The man had been determined to find a way to get rubber out of the Madre de Dios region in Peru. For Herzog, what began as a strange fascination soon turned into a full-on fixation. It was one that culminated in the eccentric director attempting to replicate Fitzcarrald’s mission himself.
To achieve his objective, Fitzcarrald needed a steamship in the Madre de Dios basin, but there was no way to easily transport one there. So, he forced local Indigenous peoples to help him move his disassembled steamship over a mountain that bridged two rivers under threat of death. After his mission was complete, geographers named the isthmus he’d crossed after him. When Herzog heard of Fitzcarrald, the story inspired him—particularly, the effort involved in moving an entire steamship piece by piece—so he sought to replicate it.