When Werner Herzog traveled into the Amazon rainforest, he found chaos and madness. But when James Gray ventured into it for his film The Lost City of Z, he found poetry and purpose. Based on David Grann’s book of the same name, the story charts the explorations of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared with his son in 1925 while searching for a lost city in the Amazon. The film skirts traditional biopic trappings by focusing more on the whys of Fawcett’s obsession with exploration than just the whats and whens. It’s not some cinematic riddle or mystery: it makes no guesses as to his eventual fate and seems generally indifferent to it. There was a man who lived and yearned, suffered and sought. He searched and failed, searched and failed, searched and vanished. A lesser filmmaker would have declared his disappearance the climax of some great tragedy. For Gray, Fawcett’s disappearance was the only logical conclusion for a man drawn ever onwards by a force he could barely understand. Indeed, one wonders if Gray would have even bothered with the story if Fawcett had ultimately been successful.
The film begins with Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a career soldier barred from high society by his father’s disgrace—“He has a rather unfortunate choice of ancestors,” one wizened aristocrat mutters to another at a ball—being assigned to officially map the contested border between Brazil and Bolivia by the Royal Geographic Society. During his journey, Fawcett falls under the spell of the jungle’s savage beauty. But his fascination turns to obsession when he discovers bits of ancient pottery among the roots of the antediluvian brush. He becomes convinced that “Amazonia” may contain ruins of a once mighty civilization, one free from the influence of the West. Indignant harrumphs and guffaws meet these claims back in Britain: that a race of “savages” could have built cities without the aid of white people is unthinkable. But the RGS relents and funds another expedition, one tragically cut short by the incompetence of James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a noted Antarctic explorer who tags along and nearly dies. The outbreak of World War One prevents Fawcett from returning once more until the mid-1920s when he strikes out again with his son Jack (Tom Holland) for one last doomed expedition.
During the film’s New York Film Festival press conference, I asked Gray how he tried to differentiate The Lost City of Z from the jungle works of Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. He replied that—in addition to actually including women in the cast and striving to depict the Native Peoples of the Amazon with dignity—he was interested first and foremost in exploring the humanity of his characters. And that is something that comes across beautifully: though the forces that drive Fawcett are universal and perhaps unknowable, Fawcett himself is not some grand metaphor for the human experience. We may see something transcendent in his story, but to discard the man for some supposed allegory would be to miss the point.
I’ve had many lively discussions with friends and colleagues about whether or not The Lost City of Z is imperialistic. After all, it’s core is about a white man “exploring” an area already known to and inhabited by Native Peoples. Just as it’s absurd to say that Christopher Columbus “discovered” a continent populated by untold millions, it’s just as absurd to say that Fawcett could truly “discover” anything in those jungles. Personally, I think there’s a bit of wiggle room in this situation since Fawcett was searching for the ruins of a dead civilization relegated to the realm of myth and legend by the local Natives. In Gray’s defense, the Natives are treated as actual human beings with agency. The film even takes the time to debunk Western misconceptions towards Amazonian cannibalism. But the final judgement about the film’s depiction of Native Peoples and whether or not it is imperialistic should be left to critics of color. Until I hear of a consensus on their part, I will hold my peace.
This a reprint from the 2016 New York Film Festival.