For years now, I have been avoiding The Lost City of Z (2016). I had noticed it a couple of times while scrolling through the offerings on Amazon Prime, but knew nothing about it and dismissed it out of hand. Given the last letter of the title, I assumed that it was some kind of zombie film. I do not know about you, but I have zombie fatigue. I stopped watching The Walking Dead (2010-present) after the season when Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) dies (leaves?), and nothing has interested me since. The Lost City of Z, thankfully, is not about the undead. I did not find this out until recently while watching a brief documentary on YouTube. It talks about the mysterious disappearance of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer with the Royal Geographic Society (RGS). In 1925, on his eighth (unlike the film) expedition into the Amazon jungles, he disappeared in search of an ancient civilization he believed to be in the area. This brief informational video changed my entire perception, and made me interested in the movie. I liked the experience, though I can imagine many of you being bored to tears by it.
When The Lost City of Z begins, I thought there was something wrong with either my Roku device or the television. There is a black screen, but slowly you begin to hear jungle sound effects, and then you see an Amazonian tribesman holding a torch on a river bank. This will be an important theme later, but the next scene shifts to County Cork in Ireland in first years of the twentieth century. Percy is an officer in the British army, and a lowly one at that despite winning the accolades of being the one to take down a deer during a regimental hunt. As he is continually passed over for honors at the ball later that evening because of his “unfortunate choice in ancestors,” you can tell what is driving him. It is for this reason that soon thereafter he accepts a commission from the RGS to help settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. During this first trip he meets his long-time adventure companion Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). Their journey into the heart of the Amazon jungle to discover the source of a river to settle a line on the map and avoid war comes with a great amount of danger and hardship. Yet, they make it to their destination. Along the way, their guide tells of an ancient city in deep in the forest filled with gold. At first, Percy is dismissive, but near their goal he finds remnants of pottery that tell him there is something more in the foliage. Upon his triumphal return to London, he presents his findings to the RGS. Some find his assertions of a lost civilization in such a location laughable. There are others, like famed explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) who believe Percy and wish to see him continue his explorations. At home, the prospect of him venturing off into the wilds is not met with the greatest joy by his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). Though they are considered to be a more progressive couple and she has supported his wanderings in the past, she wants to go with him this time instead of being separated from him for years at a time as happens during these expeditions. He firmly refuses, which is something a man could do in the early twentieth century. Who does come with is Murray, though this turns out to be a mistake. While Percy makes progress in his relations with local native peoples, Murray contracts a blood disease and goes mad. He is sent away by Percy, but before Murray leaves he fouls up their remaining food supply, meaning they have to abandon their expedition. Percy emerges from the jungle in time to serve the British Army once more, this time during World War I. He does so on the Western Front with distinction, though his service is cut short when he falls victim to a gas attack at the Battle of the Somme. Initially he loses his eyesight, and the doctors tell him his days of trekking through Amazonia are at an end, much to his displeasure. As such, it is back home to rest and recuperate, and recuperate he does, regaining his eyesight. In the meantime, with the World War I over, the international community once again becomes interested in antiquities. Percy had earned a name for himself with his belief in the title city, and as other countries like the United States fund teams of explorers to uncover marvels of the distant past, Percy is approached once more to try to reach his long dreamed of goal. Actually, this time it is his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) who is the primary driving force behind getting him back into the field. With Nina’s blessing, they make the trip together, though this time they are not accompanied by Henry. Things seem to be going as usual until Jack and Percy encounter a hostile group of tribesmen, who chase them into an even more hostile group of tribesmen. Father and son are captured, and there is nothing they can do to affect their escape. Percy accepts his fate, and his calmness helps Jack with his nerves. Our last scene is of the Fawcett boys being carried by torch light to the river after being made to drink an unknown substance.
Do Jack and Percy die at the end of The Lost City of Z? Probably, though it is never definitively shown. I have learned in film that unless you see a completely dead corpse, there is always a chance of a character cheating death. The reason for the ambiguous ending to the film is because nobody knows for sure what happened to Jack and Percy. The post-script before the credits tells us that Nina never gave up hope that they could have survived, and there were tantalizing rumors of them being alive for years after their disappearance in 1925. The same is true for them being killed in a variety of ways by Amazonian tribesmen, and that was the official story eventually adopted by the RGS after a couple years of searching. In this way, though the number of expeditions vary between the film and real life, it is as good a representation of cinematic history as these things go. What I appreciated is the way Percy, which also seems consistent with the historical record, treated native peoples with respect. There were, of course, the villains like James Murray. Who knows what specific things he said while hiking through the jungle, and films can take creative license with such moments because we have no record of such things. What we do know is that Murray did not like the way he was treated during the expedition, was sent away from it by Percy and presumed dead, and threatened to sue Percy when Murray returned to London. This is all seen in the film, and since Percy is the protagonist, it makes sense to make Murray the antagonist. What I do not like about his portrayal is the way it depicts his feelings towards native peoples. Percy’s virtues are cast as heroic because he chose give credence to the culture of the Amazonians. He even blames the church for informing the way Europeans have looked at native peoples for so long. Murray spouts all the classic, stereotypical diatribes against the tribesmen, calling them “savages” and “un-Christian.” I have said this in other reviews, such as Black Robe (1991), that Catholic missionaries did not behave in this manner. The results speak for themselves. Today one can look across the majority of the Americas and can see the Catholic Church as the main Faith in most of the countries in this area. This was not achieved by behaving like Murray, otherwise conversions would have been non-existent.
I enjoyed The Lost City of Z because it seemed to get the history right, and my subsequent investigations have not contradicted this notion to any great degree. There are some variances, but otherwise it is pretty faithful to the historical record. If you take this as a recommendation, then be prepared for a slow-moving film. The tension in it comes from wondering how these people are going to manage to survive under such harsh conditions. From this perspective, it is little wonder that eventually they succumbed to what the Amazon had to offer. Despite their death, or whatever it is that happened to them, the film is a story of dedication and vindication. Belief of the caliber that Percy had is something that I wish more Catholics possessed.