In cinema and literature, there exists a rich history of stories featuring driven men who voyage deep into the unknown along jungle rivers, exposing themselves further and further both to the madness of their own ambition and the all-consuming darkness awaiting them in the jungle. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a literary classic, plumbing a wide range of themes from colonial exploitation to the meaning of civilization to the existential dread of the human condition, all filtered through a journey down a jungle river. Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation, Apocalypse Now, takes up these themes, lays them over the Vietnam War and props them up with the bloated, mesmerizing corpse of Marlon Brando uttering horrified pleas to the blackness of eternity into the ether.
Werner Herzog’s two bona fide masterworks, Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, are also river journeys about penetrating into the unknown with inhuman intensity, equally renowned for their cinematic genius as for the tortured madness of their productions, which somehow managed to capture the caged insanity of star Klaus Kinski and Herzog himself. These works about river journeys that flare into existential treatises on the meaning of life are, without exception, all masterpieces.
Can we add The Lost City of Z, which the AV Club has already dubbed the first true masterpiece of 2017, to this group? Maybe — at the very least, a compelling case can be made. Written and directed by James Gray, and starring the World’s Most Handsome Man Charlie Hunnam, The Lost City of Z is based on the true story of early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett and the numerous jungle expeditions he mounted into the Amazon rain forest. The book, originally written by David Grann as a series of pieces for The New Yorker, is an exceptional biography and provides solid source material for what ends up being an intense, ambiguous and beautifully languid exploration of upper-case Man, civilization, progress and the things that drive us as individuals and as a species.
The visual look of the film is old-school 1970s Hollywood, with ethereal lighting, generous use of shadows and no fear of long takes. Unfortunately, I was forced to watch it on a multiplex screen which distorted and condensed the aspect ratio, robbing me of the full visual experience. But even without seeing it in its full glory, the otherworldliness of the jungle manages to come across because — how could it not? The unknowable depth, danger and seduction of the rain forest is something universal.
The film is about one thing: Percy Fawcett and his single-minded mission to penetrate and discover an unknown part of the world, revealing its secrets both in the name of progress and to satisfy his own personal desire for greatness. Thankfully, there is no manufactured drama, no shoe-horned character arcs or silly moments of feel-good redemption. It is simply the story of an obsessed man driven by his obsession, and it tells this fascinating story in a lean and mesmeric fashion. In real life, as in the film, this obsession eventually pulled his son in as well and on their final journey to the Amazon they disappeared. The film tries to pull of a bit of a winking nod at the end by suggesting perhaps he became deified by a native tribe deep in the Amazon — but almost certainly they both died of malaria or were killed by natives.
In either event, the film manages to convey on a visual level the deep insanity of this obsession. Long stretches are just images of harrowed men — including a totally unrecognizable Robert Pattison — losing body weight, wracked by infection and fever, huddling in boats and dying one by one as they travel ever deeper into the jungle. The book conveys the physical hardship even more explicitly. Drawing from Fawcett’s letters and diaries, it is basically a non-stop description of traipsing through impenetrable jungle, contracting malaria, huddling in the rain while enduring crippling fevers, peeling off leeches and powering through bouts of skin infections and other illnesses while searching for a lost civilization, charting rivers and mapping out the Amazon.
Of course, the real meat of this film — and the book — is the why? Why are people driven to risk death in the pursuit of discovering the unknown? There are some practical, superficial answers. They do it for fame, to place their name upon a discovery for all of history. They do it because accurate mapping of the jungle allows for more efficient exploitation by mining and lumber companies and plantation owners. They do it, perhaps, for the sheer thrill. But then there are the deeper, less tangible reasons. They do it because it is what has driven human progress since the beginning. There is something innate in the human condition that drives us to seek out and explore the unknown, even if it might kill us. I think this was especially so in the age before technology could reveal every corner of the Earth to us from the comfort of our living rooms.
This film functions as a window into a past when the extent and secrets of our own planet were less known, when explorers risked death and fever and mutilation and destroyed their families in order to set out and conquer the world and tame it through the acquisition of knowledge. Even though Fawcett was journeying to the Amazon only about one hundred years ago, it seems like the world in which his quest takes place is completely removed from the one we know today and in some sense this drive to discover has eroded in all of us. Consider, for instance, the modern day reluctance to lose human lives or expend too much capital on exploring the next frontiers, like space or even the deepest reaches of the sea. This is a far cry from one or two hundred years ago, when explorers set off into the heart of dense jungles just so they could see what was in there and, as often as not, never returned. This drive has sustained us as a species for hundreds of thousands of years. It would be a shame to lose it now.
I doubt that was the explicit message this movie was trying to make, that humanity needs more Percy Fawcetts today to embark on self-destructive quests as they seek to expand the limits of human knowledge. But that is at least one of the takeaways. It is also the mark of a great work of art — it says many things to many people and they can all still be right.