Using the wildly diverse 4,300-mile South American mountain chain as a backdrop, filmmaker and writer Kim MacQuarrie revisits the triumphs and depredations of such varied figures in the region as Charles Darwin, Che Guevara, drug cartel chief Pablo Escobar, Machu Picchu “discoverer” Hiram Bingham and the ever-mythic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But MacQuarrie is no hit-and-run chronicler cherry-picking fables. He immerses himself in the territory he’s been exploring since the late 1980s, when he first journeyed to Peru to interview imprisoned members of the Shining Path guerrilla movement. His account of how Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán was finally run to ground is both a rousing good yarn and a case study in political error.
The author shows that Guevara’s undoing was an instance of revolutionary fervor overriding common sense. He brings fresh details to the narrative by tracking down the teacher who fed and conversed with Guevara in the hours before a Bolivian soldier executed him.
Although famous names provide much of the material in Life and Death in the Andes, they occupy only a part of MacQuarrie’s attention. He also delves into local cultures, explaining, for example, how an American helped found a thriving cooperative that rekindled interest in traditional Peruvian weaving. He retraces Darwin’s steps on the Galápagos Islands and travels to the tip of the continent to meet the last speaker of the once flourishing Yamana Indian language, destroyed by the ravages of colonialism. MacQuarrie is a master storyteller whose cinematic eye always shines through.