Percy Fawcett might have had Hollywood in mind when he named the lost city he obsessed over discovering in the midst of the Amazon jungle ‘Z’. That a big screen adaptation of his story on this scale hasn’t surfaced before is in itself remarkable, especially since Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 was one of the great unsolved exploration mysteries of the 20th century – Mallory’s did he/didn’t he near the summit of Everest the previous year not withstanding. Therefore, with such a long time to prepare, we might have expected something worthy of such a wait.
Sadly not. We first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) living in Ireland with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), being ribbed for his age and sidelined due to his lack of medals and ‘unfortunate... choice of ancestors’. The dialogue may be one dimensional, but it at least establishes the main characters and Fawcett’s turmoil over the fate of both himself and his family. Thankfully, in steps the Royal Geographical Society to help him ‘reclaim [his] family name’. Sir George Goldie, depicted with a distinctly sinister edge by Ian McDiarmid (here in full Emperor Palpatine mode), requests his assistance in surveying the remote Amazon rainforest in order to act as ‘referee’ in deciding upon the exact location of the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett reluctantly accepts, and soon finds himself aboard a steamer bound for South America.
With new accomplice Henry Costin (a bearded and bored-looking Robert Pattinson) in tow (‘I might be a bit too English for this jungle,’ quips Costin, swatting insects), Fawcett begins his jungle expedition, marching on despite stern warnings from his team to turn back. His river journey is interrupted by generically violent natives and a constant inability to catch food in the ‘green desert’, yet somehow they reach the source of the river in question, allowing Fawcett and Costin to take official readings for their location and conclude the task assigned to them. However, before they return, Fawcett finds pieces of pottery in the jungle, evidence, he later argues, of a lost civilisation, ‘one which may pre-date our own’. This is framed as the pivotal moment where his obsession with finding the ‘lost city’ began.
And so follows a relentless infatuation with ‘Z’, enduring further – failed – expeditions, as well as the dramatic intervention of the First World War. Given the most common knowledge of Fawcett is that he vanished in the Amazon, we pass a very long way through the film before reaching this most key and unexplained final act of his life. Finally, Fawcett and his son Jack (Tom Holland) set off in 1925 to find the city and prove the doubters wrong once and for all (Raleigh Rimell, friend of the younger Fawcett, has apparently been written out of history entirely). With the backing of several American newspapers and the Royal Geographical Society (which according to the film apparently decided that this was the most opportune time to give him the Founder’s Medal he was actually awarded back in 1916, almost a decade earlier) the pair return to the jungle, with the eyes of the world eagerly following their exploits.
How should a film proceed with telling such a story, given how murky the details of Fawcett’s disappearance subsequently become? Surely, given the mystery over what became of the explorers, the many attempted rescue missions which themselves received so many fatalities, the many conflicting stories from natives who might or might not have been perpetrators in their deaths, and even the persistent rumours of white men living among the indigenous people of the Amazon, the one key component would be to leave the mystery intact? To allow this tale which has captivated imaginations for over a century to keep its cryptic, unexplained ending, where the truth is as opaque as the rainforest which has swallowed up so many adventurers over the years?
Not in this version of events. Here Fawcett’s failure is underlined in a way which is both cruel and unbelievably dull. Furthermore, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, it contains no overarching message beyond the notion that ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’. No room is found for the incredible tales brought back by those who tried to find Fawcett, the adventures of George Dyott or Peter Fleming, or even David Grann, whose 2005 New Yorker article and subsequent book investigating Fawcett’s disappearance, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, formed the inspiration for the film. It is as though the remarkable explorations following in Fawcett’s footsteps – Grann himself notes the 1955 New York Times claim that more people had gone searching for Fawcett ‘than those launched through the centuries to find the fabulous El Dorado’ – simply never happened.
Fawcett, of course, was never looking for the conquistadors’ dream of El Dorado, much as the two tales have often merged and become intertwined over the years. His interests were archeological, even anthropological, and it’s worth crediting the film for making this point. Indeed, such a grounded viewpoint is what brings us to the remarkable conclusion that, despite the doubts and jeers, Fawcett was probably right. The 2003 revelation that the Amazon was once densely populated supports Fawcett’s assertions, and illustrates the misfortune of the man to have been unable to prove his beliefs during his own lifetime. It’s the closest the film comes to rounding off Fawcett’s story with any hint of a silver lining (although his altruistic concerns about the welfare of the indigenous Amazon people may well be far less fact than fiction).
More wooden than the trees which haunted Fawcett for the two decades over which the film stretches, such an iconic story deserves a far better telling than this.