Long Journey to The Lost City of Z

I know this is going to sound crazy, but I thought The Lost City of Z, clocking in at 141 minutes, was too short. Or maybe that’s not it — it was, like so many other biopics, too shallow. In it’s epic-ness, it failed to really grab me in a memorable way.

The film starts out wonderfully, setting up Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) as an ambitious soldier who is never going to get a promotion due to being “rather unfortunate in his choice in ancestors.” What can he do but risk his life mapping the Amazon for the Royal Geographical Society?

Then suddenly we are in a very interesting place — not just geographically but also cinematically. We are in one of my favorite places, Werner Herzog territory, taking a trip down the Amazon with inadequate preparation or resources. There was even opera in the jungle! It also felt a bit like Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now territory, with strange sights to be seen and “savages” unexpectedly letting arrows fly from the banks.

The first expedition ends abruptly and of course just on the edge of discovery. Fawcett brings back a cache of pottery he believes are evidence of an early civilization, what he calls the Lost City of Z.

And then there’s the rest of the movie/Fawcett’s life…

Charlie Hunnam is fantastic as Percy Fawcett

What sets Fawcett apart from the conquistadors of Herzog’s portrayals is that he is driven by a desire to contribute to history, not find gold. The gold is, clearly, in the rubber business. This is a 20th century story, which means values and intentions have changed. Exploration itself has changed. In fact, it is the Americans who are putting money and efforts behind this kind of exploration. Theodore Roosevelt was president at the time of Fawcett’s first expedition, and the Americans appear first as competitors in archaeological discovery and then later as funders of Fawcett’s final expedition.

In the end I wanted more, but maybe it was actually less — a sharp focus on this search for beauty for its own sake or for civilization as its own end and as transformative for how we see people. The struggle between rubber business interests initially funding a map in order to define trade borders to exploration that could actually help the indigenous people. Or, you know, a focused story in the jungle that reveals the heart of Fawcett and in the end, his personal tragedy.

I blame the biopic genre, really. About two-third of the way through the movie, my husband said, “How are they going to end this movie?” “When he dies,” I said. It was clear the filmmakers were going to have to see this through to the end, whether that end be dramatic or peaceful. We were just going to have to see it through with them. But the ultimately dramatic ending, though another gorgeous scene, didn’t deeply impress me, maybe because we’d had to wait for it through too much that was mundane (or unfocused). “Oh, that’s what happened,” was our general response.

I’m interested in everything that went on in The Lost City of Z, but I wanted to be told a great story, not learn about the life of Percy Fawcett. In some cases I prefer a good fiction to the true story, and this is one of them. All I could think of afterwards was a great novella I read 20 years ago when I was teaching Latin American Literature to junior college students. It was about an explorer (Latin American himself) who goes deep into a jungle and due to the vagaries of flooding enters a lost city. He is trapped there for many years. There is no paper but he tries to record as much as he can of the story. There are strange and beautiful instruments. He gets out eventually but can’t take anything with him. This itself is a big question — should he leave to get paper or just stay and live in this marvelous city? He is determined to return with paper for recording the story and with a boat that will allow him to get some of those instruments out for study (I’m not sure if I’m remembering this exactly right). But he can never again find the entrance. If anyone knows the title of this novella, please remind me! It is lost to me like a lost city! But ultimately my memory of this novella has and will remain longer than The Lost City of Z. Because there’s nothing like a great story.

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