Film: The Lost City of Z
Director: James Gray
Running Time: 141 Minutes
*This review contains spoilers*
It is the greatest joke of colonialism; the white man stands at the foot of a waterfall in a distant jungle and exclaims that he is the first person ever to stand there. For those of us familiar with Rider Haggard, or Rudyard Kipling, or Joseph Conrad, the problematic eurocentrism of this trope is what has contributed to the decline of the exploration genre over the decades and has made the concept of yearning to go to ‘dark continents’ to ‘discover lost worlds’ leave a bitter taste in the public’s mouth. Racial undertones aside, there is something enjoyable about these exploration tales that appeals to a society trapped in their lives, looking for an escape, and something new or something greater than themselves. There has been a trend in recent cinema to reflect this desire to experience, vicariously, the frisson of adventure and exploration whilst attempting to remove the racially complicated connotations. Narratives such as The Lost City of Z do this by claiming historical biography. Through adapting David Grann’s novel of the same name, the director, James Gray, is able to present the experience of British explorer Captain Percy Fawcett as he explored the Amazon Jungle looking for a lost civilization – before going missing with his son in 1925 – and dismiss any colonial denial of coevalness as a product of depicting a true story as accurately as historical record permits.
It seems fair to suggest that the creative process of filming The Lost City of Z is as much a tale of adventure as the the narrative itself. Gray decided to direct the feature between Santa Marta in Colombia and Northern Ireland to recreate the contrast between the densely populated Europe and the experience of jungle’s heat and danger, a process which enabled actors Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam to bond as though on a real expedition:
‘It’s definitely a bonding experience when there’s no way to hide from extreme conditions. I remember we pushed a wooden raft with horses on it upstream. After just one day of that, you’re completely done, yet the real guys did this for three years every single day, going against the river. It’s complete madness.’
James Gray even spoke to Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola for advice on how to film in the jungle, to which this response was simply not to go. Even throughout the fictive events of The Lost City of Z this advice seems wise; a snake slithers over Fawcett’s (Hunnam) boots whilst he surveys the land, Murray (Macfadyen) falls ill on the jungle floor and eats the team’s rations whilst Costin (Pattinson) struggles to save himself and Fawcett from the maddening crew aboard the raft.
Despite these moments of peril, the segment of the film set in the Amazon is one that boils slowly in the humidity of the jungle and crawls along, keeping pace with the fatigued explorers. There are a few moments that the expeditionary force come under fire from hails of arrows from the local tribes people, much like Marlow on the Congo River, and brief moments spent amongst a camp of cannibals, but ultimately, each delay of the explorers delays the progress of the film until Murray’s betrayal halts the expedition to a grinding halt.
Fawcett’s return to England and resignation from the Royal Geographical Society following the behaviour of James Murray, the polar explorer once with Shackleton during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, coincides with the outbreak of the First World War. Fawcett’s early return makes him an inactive officer and requires him to report to the War Office for duty and revives hopes for receiving the commendation he yearned for prior to the expedition.
Two years later at the zenith of the war, Fawcett finds himself in the trenches of the Somme. Hunnam, after surviving the trial of the Colombian jungle, requested to sleep in the trenches in an attempt to better understand the mindset of the soldier he was portraying, however, an insurance policy prevented him from realizing this. It is perhaps this prevention of method acting that makes the trench scenes appear less than realistic. Whilst it is true that war involves great periods of waiting, so to does exploration apparently, there is little suggestion of the German’s being there at all. Admittedly, from the interaction with the soothsayer, the viewer learns that the fighting has not yet begun when Fawcett arives, but as time leaps forward to 1916, it still seems as though the German army have yet to arrive.
It is in the trenches that Fawcett learns that Murray has embarked on another polar expedition, this time with Canadians, and mutinied against his party. This revelation creates some bittersweet reaction for Fawcett, Manley (Ashley), and Costin, knowing that Murray’s treachery will be exposed to the Royal Geographic Society, but knowing that they may face death.
The intense fighting at the Battle of Thiepval Ridge (Detectable through the date at the bottom of the screen – 26th September 1916) offers a brief burst of action to what is a predominantly slow film, taking the life of Manley, a member of Fawcett’s Amazonian team with a shot through the eye. The real strength of the incongruousness of the war to the plot is that it serves to be an interruption from the narrative to us as equally as it is an interruption to Fawcett’s quest for Z, something felt tri-fold when Fawcett is hospitalized through exposure to chlorine gas and he is told that he may never be able to return to the jungle.
Drawing The Lost City of Z into its final quarter, a healed and now decorated (with the Founder’s Gold Medal from the Royal Geographic Society), Percy Fawcett makes one last journey to the Amazon with his son Jack (Holland) to discover the lost city. Complete with false mustache, Jack learns that the indigenous people have become accustomed to the variety of nations hacking through their forests since his father’s first journey as they are not met peacefully and they are not invited to villages as honoured guests. Instead, one tribe chase the father-and-son team through the dense jungle, charging them down until they are surrounded by the tips of their spears.
When they are brought to the tribe’s encampment, Fawcett is referred to as ‘The Christian’, demonstrating the increasing rate of expeditions since his first visit, and casts doubt on the validity of their presence in the Amazon. Whilst the two await, what they perceive to be, their deaths, there is an episode of analepsis revealing a memory of Fawcett’s wife, Nina, reading aloud a letter at a dinner party, intended to be delivered in the event of her death in childbirth. She claims to Percy ‘To look for what is beautiful is its own reward… A man’s reach should extend his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?’.
It is suggested that, instead of being carried to their deaths, Jack and Percy were accepted by the tribe of ‘Indians’ and permitted to live amongst them in a classic phase of ‘Going Native’ so prevalent to films of this genre: Silence (2016), or Apocalypse Now (1979). The return of the pocket watch to the Royal Geographic Society seems to suggest that the underwhelming settlement was the legendary ‘Z’. There can be no denying that many of us were expecting something equating to El Dorado with elaborate architecture and natural riches. The reality of their discovery is something that uses our expectations to deliver the harsh reality of the danger of creating more than what should be.
True to reality, Percy and Jack Fawcett evaded detection from the countless search parties that were sent for the pair, and were never returned to Nina before she died in 1954. It was only recently that architectural and archaeological discoveries were made which gave credit to the reports that Percy made during his time in the Amazon. However, it is to the benefit of the film that more was not made of ‘Z’, for the impression is that if he did, nothing short of a bald Marlon Brando rolling around a dimly-lit hut whispering about ‘horror’ could have sufficed, or like Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, he would discover an English gentleman keeping him hostage until he reads aloud the entire bibliography of Charles Dickens.
The Lost City of Z is a film that, despite its slow burning narrative, is something that has a lot to offer its viewers. It has been marketed as an ‘immediate classic’, however, it positions itself as a film that you’ll most likely encounter on a rainy Sunday afternoon whilst you’re at your grandmother’s house. This is not because it is a ‘bad’ film, but one that fails to completely mask its status as a biopic and sacrifices the regular cliché action sequences and tropes of jungle exploration. Naturally, for cinema as a whole, this is a move that benefits Gray’s reputation, demonstrating his prioritization of capturing a narrative accurately and with dedication rather than adopting the explosive and cheap drama that Michael Bay would be proud to claim. Hunnam’s understated Englishman, and Pattinson’s acting development from Twilight is something worth appreciating, providing that you can remember that viewing an actor playing a reserved character is not an example of poor acting, but in fact, the opposite.