The Egotism of Explorers in The Lost City of Z

The Atlantic looks back on the key film scenes of 2017, this time a moment in James Gray’s odyssey of expedition and failure in the Amazon rainforest.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) speaks to the Royal Geographical Society in 'The Lost City of Z.'
Amazon Studios

Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. (Read our previous entries here.)

The Lost City of Z is a film about the siren song of the unknown—the chance that just around every bend of the Amazon River could be evidence of a forgotten civilization, or even better, its ancient capital, a place of art and industry that flourished long before European colonists had ever dreamed of invading South America and draining its resources. That song is why Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) keeps coming back to the Amazon rainforest in James Gray’s swooning, sweltering epic. The explorer wants hard evidence of a hunch he’s had ever since his first trip to the Bolivian jungle: that there was a world there uncharted by his superiors in the British Army.

What Fawcett was saying is commonly accepted now—of course the Roman and Greek empires were not the only ones with advanced technology (pottery, roadbuilding, irrigation) in ancient times. But in one pivotal scene where Fawcett
(a real-life explorer whose multiple odysseys into the Amazon are dramatized in the film) takes the stage at the Royal Geographical Society, his beliefs are treated as heresy.

One thing overlooked by so many tony period biopics of Britain is just how ridiculous and rambunctious the country’s people could be—far from the genteel, tea-sipping upper-class folk of Masterpiece Theatre episodes. The Royal Geographical Society is the toast of British high culture in 1911 when Fawcett stands up and makes his pitch to lead a new expedition back up the Amazon River. But even though his audience is dressed in black tie, they aren’t far removed from a soccer crowd, yelling and jeering at each of Fawcett’s most controversial arguments, and then stomping their feet in approval whenever he holds his own and shoots back an insulting rejoinder.

James Gray, a Russian Jew who grew up in Flushing, Queens, had until The Lost City of Z never made a film set outside the Big Apple (even his sumptuous The Immigrant is set in Manhattan in the 1920s). His movies, like The Yards or We Own the Night, are often about cops and gangsters; perhaps that understanding of his characters’ street spirit is what makes The Lost City of Z so distinct from other period pieces. Fawcett knows he doesn’t just need scientific evidence or research papers to convince the Royal Geographers (who can fund his next trip into the Amazon) of his theories. He also has to put on a confident display of male ego. This is an arena where the loudest voice wins.

As his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) looks on from the balcony (“It’s men only, I’m afraid,” she’s told when she asks to sit in the audience), Fawcett makes his case. “Amazonia is far more than the green desert which many of us had supposed,” he argues. “Perhaps it is too difficult for some of you to admit. We, who have been steeped in the bigotry of the church for so long cannot give much credence to an older civilization,” he continues to boos. “Especially one created by a race the white man has so brutally condemned to slavery and death!”

“Are you insisting that these savages are our equals? Savages in Westminster Abbey?” protests a member of the audience. “Consider my evidence,” says Fawcett, holding up archeological pottery he found in the jungle. “Pots and pans!” replies another heckler, leading the entire crowd in that chant. But Fawcett silences him, not with further evidence, but with a bossy zinger: “Settle down, children!” The scene goes on like this, with Fawcett’s charismatic roadshow eventually proving persuasive enough to get him funded.

The Lost City of Z is predominantly set in the jungle, and Gray does a magnificent job presenting how simultaneously hostile and enticing this environment is for Fawcett. But his carnival-barker speech, even if it’s for the largely noble purpose of demonstrating that civilization could exist outside the Western world, is just as crucial to the film. This movie is in part about the passage of British colonialism into near-obsolescence, covering Fawcett’s life from the turn of the century (when the whole world is his oyster) to after the First World War (a conflict depicted as a pitiless nightmare).

Gray understands that the Royal Geographical Society’s infrastructure depended on a bunch of preening rich men, all seeking to prove themselves smarter and better than anyone else, and respecting that same arrogance in others. It’s a notion that’s surprisingly relevant in our current political sphere—that seizing the bully pulpit and having the purest conviction are often the surest ways to get what you want. As the story’s hero, Fawcett may be in search of something honorable. But he’s also propelled by a genuine vanity, believing he can be the first to crack open the mysteries of the Amazon and experience something truly sublime. In the end he does, but at a great cost, and in this early self-assured speech, Gray sets the stage for Fawcett’s own hubris, and his eventual downfall.

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