“Lost City of Z” is a biopic about Percival Fawcett, a British military cartographer who became obsessed with the notion that a highly advanced civilization existed in the Amazon on the scale of the great empires to the North–the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans. The film starts in 1906 when he is sent by his commanders to the Royal Geographical Society to get his marching orders for a map-making project. In a border dispute between Brazil and Bolivia over access to rubber trees, a third party would be tasked to define the exact borders between the two nations and Fawcett would lead that expedition.
Probably the best thing about the film is a stunning performance by Charlie Hunnam, a 37-year old British actor best known for his portrayal of a gangster biker in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”. When Brad Pitt decided not to play Fawcett, it opened the door to a much more qualified actor in every sense. Growing up in England, Hunnam embodies the stiff upper-lip demeanor of Captain Fawcett, an artillery officer and to the manor born. When he is being interviewed by the Royal Geographical Society’s top men, he is told that doing this job would redeem his family’s honor. His father had been a member of the society but died in shame as a squanderer of his family’s fortune.
Writer-director James Gray claims that class distinctions between Fawcett and the RGS’s establishment was paramount in his mind when he began developing the project. If so, he didn’t really succeed since Fawcett comes across just as Colonel Blimpish as all the rest of the men who were an integral part of the imperial mission of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Indeed, as Brian Hudson argued in “The New Geography and the New Imperialism 1870-1918” (Antipode, September 1977), exploring and mapmaking–the mission of the RGS–was at the heart of the late stage of capitalism examined by Hobson and Lenin:
In Britain officers of the armed forces, acting through the Royal Geographical Society, were amongst the most energetic champions of advanced geographical education The strength of military and naval influence in the society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is indicated by the fact that during that period normally between a third and a half of the thirty four council members were officers of the army and navy. Through the society these men helped to establish the teaching of geography in British universities. The Royal Geographical Society delegation to Oxford which made arrangements for the first British school of geography there, included representatives of both the army and navy. Holdich [RGS chief] himself, was amongst those who gave advice and assisted in the preliminary negotiations for the Oxford School of Geography which was established in 1899.
Gray also misses his target to some extent by overplaying the conflict between Fawcett and James Murray, an RGS fellow who accompanied him on an expedition to find the lost city in 1911. Murray, who oozes privilege from every pore, turned out to be ill-prepared for the grueling trek through the jungle, became seriously ill, and was sent home by Fawcett to save his life and allow the mission to plow ahead. Since Fawcett’s antagonists for the better part of 20 years were snakes, mosquitos, spiders, hunger, thirst, and hostile indigenous people rather than fellow Englishmen, Gray hoped to jazz up his screenplay with a subplot that does not mesh with the truly riveting central theme, namely the all-consuming drive to discover the lost city that Fawcett thought might have been covered in gold.
Gray makes no attempt to develop indigenous people of the rainforest as three-dimensional characters. Mostly they are stick figures to help advance the plot, often by drawing sharp contrasts between the Civilized and the Savage. In a key scene, as Fawcett and his crew are heading down a river, arrows and spears come raining down on them from a hostile tribe on the banks. He urges his not to use firearms against their attackers but to instead charm them by playing instruments they had brought along for entertainment and singing “Soldiers of the Queen”–almost like a snake-charmer and a cobra. This incident actually occurred on one of Fawcett’s expeditions as related by David Grann’s 2005 New Yorker magazine article titled “The Lost City of Z” that was expanded into a book and served as the foundation of Gray’s screenplay.
In order to understand why indigenous peoples were so hostile, one statistic might suffice. In 1540, there were about 100,000 native peoples living in the northeast region of Brazil. A hundred years later there were 9,000. Most had died because of a lack of immunity to European diseases just as was the case when another white explorer named Napoleon Chagnon came into their lives.
Unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Percival Fawcett was a complex figure. Despite his colonizing mentality, he considered the indigenous peoples to be of superior ability, especially considering how they mastered their environment. Gray was faithful to Grann’s description of Fawcett’s contradictory attitudes toward the natives. From the New Yorker article:
As Fawcett completed his maps of the Amazon, he became fascinated by the tribes populating the region. Like many Victorians, he held views of indigenous Americans that were often blinded by racism. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people. . . . The second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third a robust and fair people who must have a civilized origin.” He shared the widely held notion that any advanced civilization in South America, if it had ever existed, must have had a European origin—in Phoenicia, say, or even Atlantis. John Hemming, a distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, has called Fawcett a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.”
Yet some anthropologists have also found in Fawcett’s writings a sensibility that was more enlightened than that of many of his contemporaries. He was an outspoken opponent of the destruction of Indian culture through colonization. “My experience is that few of these savages are naturally ‘bad,’ unless contact with ‘savages’ from the outside world has made them so,” Fawcett wrote. He studied many Amazonian dialects, and immersed himself in the rich legends and artistic traditions of the local tribes. He was amazed by shards of delicate ancient pottery that he had seen along the mouth of the Amazon, and by mysterious raised mounds of earth that were scattered through the rain forest. And he read early histories of South America, which revealed that the first Spaniards who visited the Amazon had described “numerous and very large settlements” and “many roads and fine highways inland.” All this suggested to Fawcett that there had once been a large, complex civilization in the Amazon which had been decimated over the centuries. Moreover, he theorized, remnants of that civilization might have survived in areas that had remained isolated from Westerners.
The epilogue to “Lost City of Z” states that Fawcett was vindicated even if he never found his El Dorado. In a groundbreaking article in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly titled “1491”, Charles Mann describes an Amazon rainforest that had as complex a society as those in Mexico or Peru even if they did not produce immense pyramids or any other institutions we associate with class society including a priesthood. Mann described Beni, a Bolivian province as large as Illinois and Indiana combined. Referring to Clark Erickson, a U. of Pennsylvania archaeologist and specialist in pre-Columbian native society, Mann describes a world that was revealed in part in “Lost City of Z” even if there were no massive stone edifices (the rainforest has plenty of vegetation but hardly any stone.)
The Beni is a case in point. In addition to building up the Beni mounds for houses and gardens, Erickson says, the Indians trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grassland. Indeed, he says, they fashioned dense zigzagging networks of earthen fish weirs between the causeways. To keep the habitat clear of unwanted trees and undergrowth, they regularly set huge areas on fire. Over the centuries the burning created an intricate ecosystem of fire-adapted plant species dependent on native pyrophilia.
In 1925 Fawcett led his last expedition to find the lost city of Z with his son Jack and a small well-equipped group. Deep in the forest, they came upon a group of natives who were not charmed by British military anthems or any other enticement. They were certainly killed and their remains were never found. This gives the story of Percival Fawcett an Amelia Earhart quality that leaves the audience wondering what happened exactly.
I thought Gray lost a big opportunity to depict a possible fatal encounter that might have grown out of the colonizing arrogance that was always close to the surface despite Fawcett’s admiration for the region’s indigenous peoples.
In 2010, an unnamed contributor to “Murder Everywhere”, a group blog made up of “ten renowned crime writers from different corners of the world”, wrote a piece titled “The Death of Percy Fawcett” that relied on the word of Orlando Villas-Bôas, Brazil’s leading expert on indigenous peoples and a Fawcett-like explorer (but without the arrogance) who David Gann relied on as well.
He states that Gann chose not to include an account given to Villas-Bôas by an elder of the Kalapalos tribe who have admitted killing Fawcett and his party:
Grann, however, does not relate, and perhaps never discovered, three additional precipitating incidents. And those incidents, for Orlando Villas-Bôas, were of more moment than sickness and/or the absence of gifts. According to Orlando:
–Jack Fawcett, Percy’s son, urinated in the river upstream of the village, upstream of where the Kalapalos drew their drinking water. It was an affront to the entire tribe to do so.
–One of the members of Fawcett’s expedition shot a small animal. They brought it into the village and hung it up by a cord to preserve the meat from insects and small scavengers. One of the Indians came along and tried to remove a piece of the meat. An expedition member pushed him away. Another affront. The Kalapalos share food. Not to do is unacceptable behavior.
–A small child approached the white men and started playing with their goods. They pushed the child away. The child came back and did it again. One of the white men, in the European custom of the time, struck the child. And that was the greatest affront of all. The Kalapalos never strike their children.
That final incident, according to Orlando, sealed the fate of Fawcett and his men. The Indians waited until the next morning, allowed the expedition to get some distance down the trail and then ambushed and killed them all.
That, of course, would have required Gray to unearth the Mr. Hyde aspect of Percival Fawcett that might have made him appear much more like Aguirre than would have been desirable for a film with a generally likable lead character.
My advice is to see the film and think about a possible ending. Despite its thematic flaws, “The Lost City of Z” will stimulate your thinking, plus it is one of the most cinematically arresting films I have seen since “The Revenant”.