The Lost City of Z

A biopic of Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam), The Lost City of Z is a fascinating account of efforts to find a lost civilization in the upper Amazon based on a 2009 book of the same title by David Grann, though with a revealing subtitle A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. After serving in the Royal Army in rebellious Cork, Ireland, the British government sends him in 1906 to head a crew in order to mark the border between Bolivia and Brazil so that the two countries can avoid war over which rubber plantations are on the two sides of the border. But during the arduous task, Fawcett hears from an Amazonian guide that there was once an advanced settlement of “gold and maize” with thousands of residents, and along the way Fawcett befriends a tribe of loosely clad natives. When Fawcett finds archeological evidence, presumably corroborating the native’s claim of a civilization long before the rise of the British Empire, his life’s purpose changes from being a soldier to becoming a famous explorer. To gain support on his return to London, he addresses the Royal Geographic Society, where Amazonian natives are considered “savages,” urging the Society to finance the expedition. They do so in 1911 with the apparent condition that corpulent James Murray (James Macfadyen) will go along. Murray, who previously gained fame from exploring Antarctica, obviously wants credit for finding the Lost City, but he is unable to adapt to the rigors of the trip and is sent home by Fawcett and his group to find a cure for his ills, saving his life. However, when Fawcett returns without finding anything new, Murray accuses him of misconduct, whereupon Fawcett resigns from the Royal Geographic Society. Then Fawcett is called up to join the battlefield in World War I, including the fateful Battle of Thiepval Ridge on September 26, 1916, when the British army clumsily uses chlorine gas against the Germans, leaving Fawcett nearly blind. His family, previously unhappy that he has been absent while his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) has struggled to rear their children (though she wanted to go on one expedition), then rallies to his side. After recovering his sight, while still living an ordinary life, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) decides that he has also found meaning for his life—by accompanying his father in one more expedition, starting in 1925. Since the two never returned, director James Gray then spins a tale speculating what might have happened and indicates in titles at the end that archeological evidence has recently been found of an agricultural civilization between 200-1600 that built roads and bridges.

Decades ago, the journal National Geographic was filled with pictures of semi-nude natives throughout the world at a time when pornography was banned. The Lost City of Z, which brings that era to the screen along with magnificent cinematography (though filming is in upper Colombia), is destined to be a classic anthropological film. MH