[Film Review] The Lost City of Z, by James Gray

We are introduced to Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as he leads a deer hunt. A talented shooter and military man of ambition, his career is constrained by a shameful family history. Fawcett’s father was a gambler and a drunk, pastimes of ill repute. He may not have passed on his defects to his son, but in Edwardian England, the shame of it is still inheritable. Restrained as he is by the rigid conceptions of class structure and masculinity of the time, he finally sees an opportunity to transcend his status and prove his worth as a man when the president of the Royal Society of Geography assigns him to map an unknown part of the Amazon. Driven by the promise of personal gain, he sets off. His journey begins in the pure logic of Empire. He is a cartographer, a soldier whose weapons are the sextant and the pencil. He is out to help subjugate and control land, by mapping a river, and a border, so that wealth can be drawn from within these boundaries. This selfish desire to move up in the world in the context of imperial domination is the first facet of his nascent obsession for the Amazon.

The first voyage channels many of the elements of the great jungle films. It taps into Apocalypse Now, with a journey up a river unknown and inhospitable, dangerous encounters with a panther and the sharp end of spears flying from the bushes on the banks of the river. His raft recalls that of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as do the rotting flesh and starving frames of his comrades. It also reminded me of The Orthnitologist by Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues, a modern-day parable inspired by the life of Saint Anthony of Padua – where a man wanders the forest, lost. The common denominator in all these films is the hardship, and the creeping madness.

The Lost City of Z could have just been a “white man in the jungle film” (James Gray’s terms), but it instead becomes much more as the trip abruptly ends and we are sent back to England, where Fawcett shares his discoveries with his RGS colleagues and a public avid to hear of his conquests. He recounts how, at the head of the river he was sent to map, a place no white man has ever been, he discovered pieces of pottery littering the forest floor. These relics of a lost city, which he comes to call “Z”, have convinced him that the British sense of superiority is misplaced, not to say a sham. He passionately challenges the hierarchisation of cultures in front of his RGS colleagues, who bristle with disdain at the “savages” of south America. From this point begins a series of expeditions, as Fawcett tries to prove his point, and his colleagues wrong. Two facets of his personality thereby combine: his quest for glory, which is exacerbated when the Americans join the “race” to discover Z, and his desire to demonstrate and protect the value of the culture he expects to find, which he fears his armed competitors will only destroy.

On the second trip Fawcett and his faithful right-hand man Mr. Costin (a very bearded Robert Pattinson) are accompanied by Mr. Murray, whose credentials include an Antarctic trip with the famed Shackleton. An encounter with a tribe of cannibals brings them head to head and shows how flawed the polar logic of exploration is. The twin exercises of exploration and empire are there pared down to their bare elements when nearing the poles: the physical toil of conquest, glory in pain and the knowledge of truly having reached further into unknown land than any man before. In the jungle things are never so simple. It is inhabited, it has a history. The white man is never first, and faced with the incomprehensible vitality, the heat, and hostile animal life of the jungle, the explorer must see that others have learned to live within an environment he will never truly understand. Fawcett, unlike Murray, realises that this should not be the cause for vexation, fear and disdain, but admiration and respect.

That is not to say Fawcett’s vision of the indigenous people isn’t racist, it is in fact such that he doesn’t even blink when offered an indigenous slave for a guide, but it is particularly open for the period. He is quite ready to contemplate the possibility that the “savages” are in fact capable of much more than is typically ascribed to them (like making pottery of equal quality to the Greeks), and is able to see past the fear and prejudice of his comrades (accepting the offer of a meal from “cannibals”, which naturally turns out to be something other than human flesh). The film itself goes a step further than in its portrayal of the indigenous people than the character is capable of. They are shown as human beings with their own qualities and imperfections, their own rituals, their own fights. Most importantly, they have little interest in this white man, or any other. They recognize that he is unlike his belligerent countrymen, so engage with him, but then just let him go his way. They do not need him. He has nothing to teach them. 

Fawcett’s public advocacy for the Amazonian’s value does not carry into his home relationships, and so we see how constrained his wife is by her gender. He dismisses her desire to join him. Prevented from ever participating in his expeditions, she is left to play her role of mother, caring for the children during his long absences, and of faithful wife, accepting of all the sacrifices she must make for her husband. Most striking in this regard is the unexpected friendship struck between Fawcett and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) in the final part of the film. The son had long felt abandoned, hating his father for it. Yet once grown, he develops the same obsession for the Amazon, even reviving it in his retired father. There is a highly telling scene is when Fawcett agrees to set off once again, but only if Jack obtains the authorization to leave from the “higher power”: his mother. To his surprise, she agrees quickly, saying:  “what choice did I have?” She is in no position to deny her son his obsession, just as she could not deny it her husband. Equally striking is the declaration of love between father and son, as they are inducted – in a hallucinatory sequence – into a ritual of which they have little understanding. In a way, it felt as if he had stolen the boy from his mother. This is followed by a striking final scene, which adds subtlety to Nina Fawcett’s character. Even years after the disappearance of the two men, even though she never could partake in their expeditions, she still chooses to believe, to share in their obsession. The film closes on a beautiful, unexpected shot of her entering a shimmering jungle she could only think of.

I had no idea what I was in for when I walked into the cinema, and The Lost City of Z surprised me with its depth. Central to The Lost City of Z is a rather subtle, intelligent treatment of the questions of race, class and gender relations. It is also a great character study, about how a man can challenge some modes of thought, and fail utterly to recognise others for what they are, let alone overcome them. Fawcett was far ahead of his time. He never found the lost city he searched for, but he let the jungle and its people change him, and history has proved him right. It is nonetheless clear that he was, in many other significant ways, a man of his time – and he did not rise above it in many respects. The film is well paced, never lingering in a place too long, rarely rushing any significant episode. The cinematography is beautiful, the actors talented, each character allowed plenty of complexity. I highly recommend it.