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Lost histories: why films are failing the past

  • Written by  Sarah L Evans
  • Published in Opinions
Lost histories: why films are failing the past The Lost City of Z
03 Apr
Despite the many claims of authenticity, modern filmmaking is still struggling when it comes to depicting history

NB – The views expressed below are the personal opinions of Dr Evans and are not intended to reflect the official position of the RGS-IBG.

Over the years I’ve read enough columns from Reel History or An Historian Goes to the Movies to know the cardinal rule of critiquing an historical film – treat it as fiction. While there’s enormous fun to be had in pinpointing each and every historical error you can find (‘Ha! He was awarded that medal eight years earlier than the time you suggest, you buffoons’; ‘I think you’ll find that that particular style of hat was definitely passé by the time of that party if you check the relevant back copies of Vogue in the British Library’), this kind of nitpickery doesn’t add much value to the conversation that can be had about that particular film, the period, stories and characters that it dramatises, and the larger themes and narratives with which it may be trying to engage.

Histories, whatever their medium, are all, inevitably, reconstructions of the past, created at a particular point and from a particular perspective, and with particular flaws and omissions. Of course, different media operate under different conditions and standards; we can and should have different expectations of a peer-reviewed paper or doctoral thesis as opposed to a popular film, television series or videogame.

The key point remains that the past as it ‘actually’ happened is forever lost to us, even to those of us who lived through particular moments. As Carolyn Steedman notes in Dust, the past is just that – passed – and forever inaccessible to us. Instead, we reconstruct ‘practical pasts’, for a variety of different purposes, and based on the evidence available to us.

A really fantastic example of a recent ‘popular’ history work which illustrates how this kind of history-making operates is Mary Beard’s SPQR, where Beard takes pains to show her workings at every stage – again and again presenting the standard narratives, describing potential counter-narratives, and relating what evidence is actually available, showing you how she has tried (and by extension, how you could try) to sift that evidence and come to particular conclusions.

historyHistory [citation needed] (Image: 300)

Historical filmmaking represents the making of a particular kind of practical past, bound by particular conventions, and operating with a number of purposes other than that of accurately representing the past as based on currently available evidence and scholarship. Filmmakers are obliged, by both commercial pressures and dramatic necessity, to produce a work which is engaging and entertaining. With a short run time, they have to abbreviate and summarise; and for all but the most experimental filmmaking they have to craft a compelling narrative which draws out particular themes and emphasises particular values.

Knowing this, it’s important to engage with historical films as historical fictions, and to look at the stories that they are trying to tell, and the themes that they are seeking to illuminate. This is the frame of mind that I was consciously trying to adopt when I recently saw The Lost City of Z (2017, dir. James Gray).

The film dramatises the life and career of Percy Fawcett, a soldier, surveyor and explorer active in the early 20th century, whose chief claim to fame is that he vanished while on his last expedition in the Amazon in 1925, searching for evidence of a lost indigenous civilisation which he termed ‘the lost city of Z’. Subsequent expeditions found no trace of Fawcett or his companions, and there has been a subsequent cottage industry promoting fascination with his career and the mystery of his end, largely eclipsing his actual, rather modest accomplishments as an explorer, of which the controversial book by David Grann on which this film is based is but one example.

As a high-profile representation of European exploration in the early 20th century, I was interested to see how the film engages with ideas about exploration and its close links with European colonialism, its representation of local and indigenous people, and of the relationships between the European and South American team members; how it presents the idea of the explorer as hero; if it acknowledges women’s involvement in exploration; and its depiction of the Royal Geographical Society (my own doctoral research on the Society’s Collections having considered women’s participation in expeditions supported by the Society in the early-mid 20th century).

The film sketches out Fawcett’s early career in the British army while stationed in Ireland, demonstrating physical courage and prowess but failing to advance in his career due to the snobbery of the top brass about his apparently socially inferior origins. ‘Major Fawcett has been careless in his choice of ancestors’, one dignitary confides in another, in a fine example of the sledgehammer subtlety with which the script makes its points. In another early scene between Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his wife Nina (Sienna Miller, in a thankless role for all the very excellent hats), we learn that she is an independently-minded woman by virtue of her complaining about the corset she’s forced to wear to a regimental gala, and threatening to wear trousers instead, a thematic point made by the first Pirates of the Caribbean film well over a decade ago with far greater subtlety.

hatsAn independent mind (Image: The Lost City of Z)

Fawcett is given a chance to prove himself by the Royal Geographical Society – which is seeking a trained surveyor to map out the border between Brazil and Bolivia – and embarks on his first expedition alongside Henry Costan (Robert Pattinson, in his second recent stab at an early 20th century surveyor/explorer after his turn as TE Lawrence in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert about the archaeologist, Arabist and explorer Gertrude Bell).

On this expedition Fawcett encounters for the first time the particularly hostile conditions of the rainforest – piranha, mosquitos, and the like; appalling treatment of the local people by European colonists and rubber planters, and tantalising traces of a previous civilisation in parts of the forest where previously no man was thought to have reached (‘no white man’, Fawcett corrects Costan portentously).

This inspires a series of expeditions in search of a lost civilisation, each doomed to failure yet with tantalising further glimpses of what might be hidden deeper in the forest. As his family relationships deteriorate and his reputation sours, Fawcett cannot give up on his quest, with only a spell in the trenches of the Somme and serious injury in a chlorine gas attack preventing him from returning to South America. In the end, he embarks upon that last fatal expedition accompanied only by his young son Jack, in what is as much a bid to repair their fragile and damaged relationship as it is to find Z.

son Worst Bring-Your-Son-To-Work-Day ever (Image: The Lost City of Z)
Worst Bring-Your-Son-To-Work-Day ever (Image: The Lost City of Z)

The film suffers from a reliance on clumsy shorthand and semi-caricature throughout, with all the usual tropes present and correct: stuffy old gents in leather armchairs at the RGS; piranha devouring a man in seconds; letters from the patient wife and children back home which Fawcett cannot bear to read; that old line that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Nonetheless, the production quality is excellent, with costumes, set design and cinematography all evoking the period, even if the script is frequently clunky.

To the film’s credit, it foregoes presenting European exploration as a straightforward heroic endeavour, instead choosing to more accurately portray the racial and gender politics of the time and the colonial underpinnings of geography and exploration. It’s at its most interesting in the way it plays with the tropes around darkness and enlightenment, hinting at the inevitable comparisons with Heart of Darkness which it cannot help but evoke. This is the most successful of the ways in which the film walks a fine line between deeper underlying thematic truths and details which are needlessly, irritatingly wrong or sensationalised.

One example is the depiction of Fawcett’s lecture as a rowdy space of shouting, unsupported assertions and personal attacks, when evidence suggests that these were very formal spaces governed by strict protocols (lecture read, invited comments, discussion), and outward politeness even if the content of comments was scathingly caustic (try reading the archived correspondence of Arthur Hinks, Secretary of the RGS from 1915, for a wild time in this regard). The caricature undercuts the underlying truth of the depiction of the RGS as a colonial institution, many of whose Fellows would have indeed shared the racist and colonialist views shown, in common with wider Edwardian society.

The Lost City of ZEarly RGS Explore weekends were somewhat more formal affairs (Image: The Lost City of Z)

Similarly, while it is true that women were not afforded equal status within the organisation until 1913, when they gained the permanent right to become Fellows of the Society, I still cringed at the depiction of physical separation of women on a balcony at the back of the lecture, when they had been granted access to lectures as guests from the 1850s, are noted in contemporary sources as making up an important part of the conviviality of such meetings, and a number of women had already lectured to the Society by 1911 (the date of the meeting depicted in the film), with Isabella Bird the first in 1897. Women’s participation within European exploration and within the Society was far more complex and contested than the film suggests. In one key scene where Nina begs to be allowed to accompany Fawcett on his next expedition, as he refuses on the grounds that no woman could possibly contend with the rigours of such an undertaking (an attitude shared by many but certainly not all of his contemporaries), I couldn’t help but start silently counting on my fingers the women that Nina could have cited – would very likely have been aware of, given the Fawcetts’ connection with the RGS, with which these women were also connected) – in her favour: Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, Kate Marsden…

womenFrom L to R: Kate Marsden, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, Katherine Routledge. Not pictured: Y chromosomes

This tension between thematic truth and surface caricature arises partly from the tension between the different stories that the film is trying to tell. It aims at critiquing Fawcett for his obsession with Z, particularly with regard to the damage that it does to his relationship with his family, and appears to be taking pains not to depict him as some lantern-jawed hero.

Yet at the same time Fawcett is still presented as a visionary and a pioneer, who inspires great loyalty among his closest colleagues and gives a rousing speech to the men about to die as they go over the top at the Somme. It is as if the film cannot bear to entirely do away with the romantic view of exploration, and with presenting Fawcett as a great explorer, with him becoming yet another avatar for Tennyson’s Ulysses who must pull against the constraints of society and rebel against its norms.

As a result, the film seems caught between focusing tightly on Fawcett and his own internal struggles and obsessions (resulting in neglect of historical detail and nuance), and not fully committing to this approach and thus allowing him to become the anti-hero or even the villain of the piece. The end result is yet another portrait in the ‘great man’ line of history, even if it stops short of presenting him as some kind of ‘Fawcett of Amazonia’. Given that extensive research in recent years demonstrates the fundamentally collaborative nature of expeditionary work and exploration, including the importance of collaboration between both European and local team members, this is disappointing to say the least.

locals copyA little local knowledge goes a long way (Image: The Lost City of Z)

What is particularly irritating, especially given the efforts made by the film to confront the colonial underpinnings of European exploration, is the suggestion that Fawcett is the first to seek to work with local people and draw upon their expertise, or to see them as other than ‘savages’, or the first to scandalise his colleagues by doing so, or the first to take an interest in non-European civilisations of this kind. This, bluntly, is nonsense, and particularly aggravating given that the historical Fawcett does not appear to have been particularly noteworthy in this regard.

For an explorer annoying the establishment in general and the RGS in particular with his unwelcome discoveries, look to John Rae, an Arctic explorer who worked with local Inuit people to uncover the fate of the lost Franklin expedition (several decades, I might add, before Percy Fawcett either thought of South America or, indeed, took the trouble to have been born). Rae drew on testimony from the local Inuit people as to the whereabouts of the lost expedition, as part of his wider practice which involved drawing on their expertise about how to survive in this harsh environment, and shocked polite Victorian society with evidence that the starving survivors of the Franklin had resorted to cannibalism, later proved by subsequent expeditions and discoveries.

If you want an archaeologist working closely with local people to uncover more information about an unrecorded civilisation in remote conditions, you want Katherine Routledge, a near-exact contemporary of Fawcett whose expedition to Rapanui (Easter Island) in 1912 (precisely the time Fawcett is depicted as refusing to allow Nina to accompany him) sought to map out and investigate the famous statues and their origins in the first systematic archaeological survey on the island. Routledge worked closely with local people, including Juan Tepano in particular, and lectured to the RGS about her work on her return in 1917.

For an explorer suffering arduous conditions to chart a route to a city previously almost unreached by Western exploration, find out more about Ahmed Hassanein Bey, whose expedition to Kufara in 1923 was acknowledged with the Society’s Founder’s Medal in 1924.

And if you want an archaeologist insisting that the colonial establishment recognise clear evidence of a non-European, highly advanced civilisation in the face of racist opposition and attacks, you want Gertrude Caton-Thompson, whose work in the late 1920s demonstrating that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were of African origin deserves far more recognition (an amusing summary is available on the Trowelblazers blog in cartoon form).

exploreJust off to do a bit of exploring (Image: The Lost City of Z)

I cite these examples not to suggest that these figures be added to any pantheon of explorer-heroes, but rather to note that the history of exploration is complex, contested, and multi-faceted. In acknowledging this, we might finally move away from this breathless focus on the ‘great men’ and ‘visionaries’ of exploration in popular culture and tell fuller, more nuanced, and more critical histories of exploration and imperialism, in which the whole cast of players may get their turn in the spotlight. In turn, this might help us actually engage with some of the themes which the film raises but frustratingly fails to take forward, and continue necessary conversations about geography’s history, and also its future. Let’s have those conversations.

Dr Sarah L Evans completed her doctoral research on the Society’s Collections as part of the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme, in partnership with the University of the West of England. She now works in Research and Higher Education at the RGS-IBG.

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