The Lost City of Z

I love a true story, but I think this movie would have been better if it wasn’t. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, an ambitious British Army officer who goes to South America to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia in 1906. It’s a perilous assignment, one that will keep him away from his young family for a long time, but he accepts it in hopes that it will get him over the career disadvantage of having had a disreputable father. On his first attempt an Indian guide tells him there’s a lost city hidden in the jungle, and he devotes the rest of his life to finding it.

On the face of it the story has everything: a real life Indiana Jones type, the Amazon River, fierce tribesmen, dangerous wildlife, adventurous companions (one of them played by Gen Y heartthrob Robert Pattinson), a loving wife, a young family, the First World War, hospital scenes, tantalising ancient relics, the English class system, skeptical opponents at the Royal Geographic Society to win over, supportive ones to cheer him on, a son who comes to idolise his father and join him in his crazy, romantic enterprise, even an outdoor opera in the jungle run by a cruel rubber baron. (A robber rubber baron, even.)

It’s got that same up-the-river-into-the-heart-of-darkness trope as Apocalypse Now, but because our man did it three times, it kind of loses its punch. How many times can you see the scene where there they are, gliding slowly up the Amazon, when suddenly a shower of deadly arrows flies in from the jungle, followed shortly after by the naked menacing savages who fired them?

The first time it happens, an unsuspecting wretch catches it in the throat. Wow. Second time, our hero manages to hold up a bible just in time to catch the first arrow. Nice one, but ….. really?! By the third expedition they must have wised up and acquired a boat with a stout cabin impenetrable to arrows, because that scene was dispensed with and they proceeded straight to their fate in the jungle.

I think the main problem is that the true story was so epic and eventful that it just couldn’t be telescoped into the time-frame of this relatively short and low-budget movie. Because of this some important story elements are treated perfunctorily. Fawcett is depicted, for instance, as having an interest in Indian culture and customs, but how did he acquire it? It’s not shown. We see him learning a bit of Spanish on the boat from England, and he gets by for a while by shouting ‘Amigos!’ whenever hostile Indians turn up, but by the time of his second expedition he’s mysteriously become savvy enough to know the Indians will down their threatening spears and be up for a parley if his men sing ‘Soldiers of the Queen’.

The historical and social context is also treated cursorily. Fawcett’s first expedition is prompted partly by the British need to protect their interests in the cruel and exploitative rubber industry. The Indian slave guide who tells him about the lost city has obviously been flogged by the ruthless rubber baron, but this whole element of the story passes quickly out of it without comment or consequence.

We know it’s not a documentary, we know it’s a story of one man’s obsession and endurance, but we need to know more about Fawcett’s character and attitudes. Perhaps he was a man of his time, but given his interest in Indian culture, what did he think about cruelty to the enslaved natives? In contrast, when he gets badly injured in the trenches during the war, his suffering and the subsequent hospital scenes are depicted lavishly and at length. They are overcooked emotionally and they didn’t jerk any tears from me.

It occurred to me that the movie might have worked better if it had been longer; if they’d taken more time with the narrative and maybe had an intermission or two like they used to do in the olden days with epic stories spanning decades, like Gone With The Wind or Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia or War and Peace.

Of course my lack of enthusiasm might be put down to the fact that I dozed off a couple of times. Z has had pretty good reviews and my movie-going companion liked it.