Cobra Verde(1987)

 

 

 

Director:     Werner Herzog.

Starring:      Klaus Kinski (Francisco Manoel da Silva / Cobra Verde),  King Ampaw (Taparica),  Jos Lewgoy (Don Octavio Coutinho),  Salvatore Basile (Captain Fraternidade),  Peter Berling (Bernab),  Guillermo Coronel (Euclides),  Nana Agyefi Kwame II (Bossa Ahadee),  Nana Fedu Abodo (Yovogan),  Kofi Yerenkyi (Bakoko),  Kwesi Fase (Kankpe),  Benito Stefanelli (Pedro Vicente),  Carlos Mayolo (Governor of Bahia).

young Brazilian goes to West Africa to round up slaves, starring Klaus Kinski  (English subtitles)

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

An old fiddler tells his audience that they will have to pay him if they want him to sing the ballad of Francisco Manoel da Silva, the bandit of Cobra Verde and the master of the slaves who became the Viceroy. 

Eleven years of drought.  Francisco sits by a grave looking so sad. 

Workers covered in muddy clothes do back breaking work.  Others stir pans of water looking for gold nuggets.  A man gets in line to be paid, but the fellow giving out the money tells him that he knows that he isn't getting paid because the bank took his wages this week.  Words are exchanged and the fellow not getting paid starts fighting with the pay master.  The other workers in line jump on both men to separate them. 

In the dark a man with a lit candle says to another: "I want you awake when you die!"   A scuffle ensues.

Cobra Verde walks into the village square and people start running away from him in fear.  He carries a rifle with him.  Many people rush into the church. At the fountain Cobra Verde takes a drink of water.  He walks over to a bar and opens the door.  The young fellow inside tells Cobra Verde that the rifle stays outside.  So the rifle man leans his rifle against the door.  He tells the proprietor that he wants something to eat.  The proprietor says he's not afraid of him.  Cobra Verde now says his name is Francisco Manoel.  He takes off his cape revealing a ripped shirt and the fact that he has strapped on his revolver.  Euclides, the proprietor, says he will get Francisco something to eat.

By the time the food is served and eaten, it is dark outside.  Euclides says that in about a year he is going to sell this bar and go high up into the mountains.  Cobra Verde says he is heading east, because the Sertao region both dries out the heart and kills the cattle.  Franciso is ready to leave.  He says:  "I never had a friend in all my life.  Farewell." 

Slaves are carrying supplies and transporting someone who sits in a chair.  Francisco fires his weapon and the slaves start scattering.  They leave behind their passenger, who turns out to be a young, pretty black woman.  She slowly dances over to Francisco.  These two people know each other.  They roll along the ground hugging each other.  She asks Francisco why he walks 40 miles a day without any shoes.  Francisco answers that he doesn't trust shoes, horses or people.

Francisco has reached the Atlantic Ocean.  He stands in the water with a bottle of wine in his left hand. 

At the square, a slave tied to a post is being lashed by another slave.  Another black slave gets free from the chain around a large group of blacks and starts running away.  He runs right into Francisco who tells him:  "Don't run away.  It'll only be worse for you."  A soldier come over and grabs the slave.  Francisco shouts at the soldier:  "Let him go!  He can find the post by himself!"  The soldier releases the slave and the fellow walks straight to the whipping post.  Franisco walks through the court and he is stopped by a wealthy landowner, who says that he is Colonel Octavio Cotinho and he needs a forceful man like Francisco.  He has 600 slaves working his sugar cane crop.  The Colonel says he needs a new overseer because the one he has now is an idiot. 

At the plantation house, three sisters hide behind the drapes.  They are sneaking peeks at Francisco who is getting his new clothes for work.  When the non-black women leave the room, the Colonel tells Francisco:  "And when I think of all the mulatto girls I haven't made pregnant yet, why, that's quite beyond endurance."  He also tells Francisco to watch out for the ladies. 

The Colonel takes Francisco out to see the slaves at work on the sugar cane.  He tells Francisco that he has 40 other sugar plantations just like the one he has here.  He brags that his plantations produce more sugar than that produced by the entire state of Pernambuco.  All the sugar goes to England.  Now the Colonel takes him to where the cane is pressed, where the juice is thickened and where the molasses is heated to 120 degrees.  The molasses rests for awhile and it starts to crystallize.  A slave gets his hand caught in the pressing machine and he screams.  The boss orders someone to get a machete.  They will cut the man's arm off, rather than stop the machine.   

A pretty black woman comes to the Colonel.  He says he hasn't made any children today.  So he takes her into his bedroom. 

On the large porch the three young ladies watch Francisco.  One of the sisters, refills Francisco's cup.  Another of the sisters asks Francisco if his shoes don't fit because he always goes barefooted.  They giggle, but Francisco doesn't say anything to them.  In fact, he has his face pointed away from the women.  The third sister asks if he ever learned to use a knife and fork?  The sister who filled his cup now says:  "The man from Santao doesn't talk to just anyone!"  Francisco gets out of his chair and walks away from the women.  The eldest sister gets up and goes looking for him.  She sees him on the other side of the pond and she decides to meet him around the corner.  She approaches Francisco grabs her and says:  "I have nothing to lose.  I don't have to talk to anybody!"  Then he hugs her and gives her a passionate kiss.  They go down to the ground. 

Mother is playing the cello when the girls come screaming and rushing past their mother.  The Colonel is screaming that all his daughters are whores and he will kill all of them.  He says Bonita is pregnant as he grabs her.  Then he grabs Wandeleide and says she is only 15 years old, but pregnant.  Now he looks for Valkyria.  He finds her and demands to know if she is pregnant?  She says no, then yes, then I don't know.  Now he goes after the "cow herder".  Francisco tells him:  "Sugarcane planter.  I am the bandit Cobra Verde."

The sugarcane planter holds a formal dinner with other plantation owners.  One of the planters says they should just kill this bandit Cobra Verde.  The Colonel says they would loose three or four dead before they could finish the bandit off.  A man in uniform suggests that they send Cobra Verde to Africa to buy some slaves.  The man will certainly be killed there because the King of Dahomey is crazy mad.  (Dahomey is now part of the Republic of Benin in west Africa between Togo to its west and Nigeria on its east.)   Outside listening to the planters talk is none other than Cobra Verde. 

Cobra Verde goes in to speak about the new assignment he is to be given.  The planter says that Dahomey is cut off for them because the King has cut off supplies to them.  But the King desperately needs weapons and money.  With nice clothes on, Cobra Verde now almost looks like a planter himself.  He just stands with his back to a wall.  The planters will send him to their Fort Elmina in Dahomey.  Francisco will have the rank of a lieutenant and his wages will be held in a special bank account in Bahia.  And it's a good time to go because the King is at war with the Egbas.  (The Egba are a clan of the Yoruba people living in western Nigeria.)  Francisco accepts the assignment. 

Elmina, on the coast of today's Ghana (west of Togo), West Africa.  Brazilian slave fortress in the country of the demented King of Dahomey.  The Brazilian ship approaches Elmina habor.  Francisco was going to go ashore with ten rifles, but one of the men on the ship tells him that no crew member will go to the fort with Francisco because of the danger.  So, Francisco waits for the natives to come out and get him.  And that's what they do. 

Francisco reaches shore and gets teased and taunted by a whole bunch of young black men and boys.  He ignores them.  He watches as a whole parade of men, women and boys comes out to him on the beach.  A spokesman for the king calls Francisco over to him.  They shake hands.  The spokesman says that the King expects gifts and asks Francisco about them, but Francisco tells him there will be no gifts until Dahomey resumes the slave trade.  In addition, the fort has to be turned over to Francisco.  He adds that he will pay the King in modern rifles.  

Francisco just starts walking along the beach to get to the fort.  The priest says that he could stay in the fort because the west wing is in reasonable shape.  And he can take one of the priest's many daughters to be with him in the castle.  Francisco asks the priest is he running a brothel?  The priest says he only offers this to white men.  Francisco goes into the fort by himself and starts going around checking on the conditions at the fort.  Francisco hears someone laughing.  He turns around and sees it's an older man laughing.  He says he is Taparica, the drum major and a Yoruban, who is also the only survivor of the garrison.  He says he served in the First Regiment of the Black Militia. 

Taparica shows Francisco around the fort.  He says that the King in Abomey is a bit crazy and he stopped sending slaves to the fort.  Instead, the King sent them a horse with only one ear.  Then Abomey's forces attacked the fort.  The governor was killed and then Abomey's men took the fort and plundered everything.  The Black Militia ran away and all the whites were killed.  Taparica says the enemy tortured him.

At night Taparica sets up a hammock for Francisco.  Now he asks Francisco what are they going to do?  Wait. 

The next morning Francisco hears a big commotion.  Furniture is being brought into the fortress.  Men with long ladders start painting the outside of the fort.  Women carry out trash from the fort.  Taparica sees Francisco busy at work right alongside the slaves.  He says:  "I've never seen a white man work before!" 

Slaves with chains around their necks are brought in.  Others are tied to wooden poles  that connect to other wooden poles.  The slaves are tied to these wooden poles. 

The military man from Brazil comes to the fortress.  Francisco has 300 slaves lined up.  Two half-naked black women come into the dining room and put down some food for Francisco and his guest.  The military fellow tells Francisco that they really didn't expect him to live long in Dahomey.  And yet Francisco has brought a lot of slaves in. 

There's a big commotion out by the beach, involving Bossa Gelele, the king's older brother.  Every child named Bossa will now be killed.  And Bossa Gelele is to be drowned in the ocean.  The King has the name Bossa and he wants no one else to have the same name as he has.  A message is given to Francisco.  A Portuguese captive writes that he has been a prisoner of the King for 16 years.  "If you come here, you're a dead man."  The natives want Francisco to come with them.  When Francisco says he can't go, the natives grab him.  They roll him up in a sheet and tie it up.  It looks like they are going to do to Francisco what they are going to do to Bossa Gelele.  The natives do the same to Taparica. 

Abomey, Residence of the King.  Francisco and Taparica are each tied to a pole running under their knees with their hands bound around their bent knees.  The people dance to the music.  And now the King is brought out in another procession.  The King moves his body to the music.  Francisco and Taparica are thrown down on the ground before the King.  Both men are tied up.  The King threatens to kill the white man.  They blacken Francisco's face  with some type of black paint.  Taparica explains that they cannot kill a white man, so they transform him into a black man. 

At night a group of blacks climb over the walls.  They kill the guards supposedly watching Taparica and Francisco.  A man tells Francisco:  "I am Bakoko, the confidant of the prince.  Prince Kankpe is waiting for you.  Quickly , stranger, come with me!"  They cut the ropes off of Francisco and Taparica. 

When they are safely away from the King, Taparica learns that Prince Kankpe is going to revolt against his uncle Boss Ahadee, who is up north now with his warriors fighting the Egbas.  The rebels feel that they need the help of the white man.  Francisco says that if the new King will turn the slave trade over to him, then he will help the future King.  The spokesman for the new King says that the Prince is crazy too and always says yes when someone asks a question of him. 

The rebels take over the old fortress.  Now the women are used are warriors and are referred to as Amazons.  (some nudity) The women in pairs practice fighting each other, while Francisco goes around correcting any bad mistakes that they make.  Taparica comes over to Francisco and says he has 400 more Amazons with him.  Francisco tells him to take these women down to the shore. 

Francisco keeps on training them even after the women say they don't want to practice anymore, they want to fight.  When Francisco finally thinks the women are ready he says it's on to Abomey. 

The King is on his throne in the main building at Abomey.  Francisco gives the women the command to attack.  They run forward screaming as they come.  The King is wondering what all the noise is about?  When Francisco and some of the women go into the throne room, the King is told:  "The dead kings have deposed you."  The old King says:  "So, now I will go and sleep."  The King starts leaving.  This infuriates Francisco who wants to kill the old King.  The spokesman for the Prince tells Francisco to let the old King's wives strangle him.  The new King now sits down on the throne chair.  Francisco is brought forward to sit in a simple chair close to the King.  Francisco's new name will be Adjinakou, which means "green snake".  And now Francisco is appointed to be the Viceroy of Dahomey.   And the King gives Francisco Fort Elmina as his official residence. 

Francisco tells Taparica to improve the ventilation in the slave quarters, because too many slaves are dying. 

A naval man named Perdo Vincente tells Francisco that he is being offered a place in the syndicate back in Bahia, Brazil.  Francisco is not interested, but he is interested in knowing where are the ships that he wanted?  Pedro says he will bring the matter to the attention of the governor.  Francisco goes with the man over to the slave quarters.  He says to the fellow that this is the second slave shipment for which no payment has been received.  Francisco takes him over to the woman slave quarters.  (some nudity)  He lets the navy chap pick out a woman he wants to sleep with. 

Francisco will write a letter for the navy man to take back to Francisco's partners in Brazil.  A signal system of a long, long line of people with white flags is set up.  The women start twirling their white flags as the message gets to them. 

In a letter Francisco says he has fathered 62 children.  He also writes that maybe next year he will return to Brazil and get married.  He then complains about the mean and inescapable heat of Dahomey. 

A group of young women make up a choir and they sing for Francisco and the males slaves.  The priest tells Francisco that Pedro Vincente, the captain of the Flor de Bahia, has cheated him.  He gave to the British all his weapons and goods.  And the man's ship is no longer seaworthy and is drifting off shore near Lagos.  The crew mutinied, which means that Francisco has the captain trapped.  Francisco tells the priest to get a message to Captain Vincente to come here and he will re-equip the ship. 

The new King's spokesman arrives at the fort with some men and tells them to take everything.  Francisco is really angry about this and he yells at the spokesman asking him what does he think he's doing?  The spokesman says that the King was only pretending to be insane.  Taparica comes to tell Francisco that things are looking very bad, but as long as the King backs Francisco, he will be safe. 

Francisco speaks with Pedro Vincente and learns the news that Brazil has now abolished the slave trade.  More bad news for Francisco.  His partners have been cheating him for at least one year.  And that's not the end of it.  England has put out a reward to capture Francisco.  Francisco replies:  "Finally, something's happened."  He admits that slavery is a crime against mankind. 

Francisco walks down to the beach and gets in a boat.  He's got a problem.  He can't budge the boat off the beach and into the water.  He tries so hard that he collapses and the waves roll over him. 

 

That Klaus Kinski is really some actor.  As Francisco Manoel da Silva / Cobra Verde he looks like a wild, mad savage.  He is intense like this throughout the film.  It was intriguing just to watch that face and wonder what's going to happen next, because a character so intense as Francisco is bound to get into some big trouble.  He goes from facing very rough situations to life-threatening situations in Dahomey, west Africa where he is sent to restart the Brazilian slave trade in his area of Brazil.  At Dahomey he really gets into trouble and yet gets out of it.  But then he gets into trouble once again.  There is no female star in the film. The women are either the daughters of a plantation owner or black African women.  There is no love story here.  This is partially due to Francisco having access to the women slaves and having fathered 62 children.  Francisco went to Dahomey as a chance to make lots of money and end up a Brazilian plantation owner.  But is that a good way for a man to earn his fortune, trading in the suffering of other human beings? 

The film is a good reminder of the horrors of slavery  and the slave trade. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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