Who says they don't make movies like they used to? Writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z not only recalls the grand historical epics of eras gone by, but also revives a once-beloved film genre that celebrates explorers who mapped the world's last uncharted territories at the start of the 20th century.
Based on the award-winning book of the same name by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, The Lost City of Z tells the fictionalized story of real-world explorer Percy Fawcett, a British army officer who led several expeditions through the border regions of Bolivia, Brazil and Peru over a period of 20 years. Fawcett initially was sent to map the region and prevent a border war from erupting over the lucrative Amazon rubber boom, but he gradually became obsessed with finding an ancient lost city he called "Z."
Though acutely aware of film history while making The Lost City of Z — specific shots are intended to recall Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now, arguably the two greatest screen epics of the 1960s and '70s — Gray also aims to make Fawcett's tale relevant to the world of today. The effects of societal distinctions in class, gender and ethnicity underpin the story and push it forward, taking the film far beyond the personal heroism and lure of the unknown — central features in decades of explorer epics.
Initially motivated by the military honors and social status afforded by a successful expedition, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, TV's Sons of Anarchy) sees his own worldview evolve rapidly after finding physical evidence of an ancient yet advanced civilization deep in the Amazon jungle. The same cannot be said for the upper-crust members of the Royal Geographical Society that paid for Fawcett's training and sent him to South America.
While Fawcett concludes, "We are all made of the same clay," his colleagues in the organization have a vested interest in maintaining their view of indigenous peoples as "savages," as it justifies the continued exploitation of the people and resources of that region. It also supports — at least symbolically — Britain's rigid class system.
Fawcett's father was a member of the privileged upper class before alcoholism and a gambling problem brought his downfall. In The Lost City of Z, Fawcett's journey of enlightenment involves leaving behind his quest to regain social status and finding deeper meaning in his experience of unknown worlds. This is a welcome addition to the conventions of big-screen explorer epics.
The film also makes room for Fawcett's wife Nina (Sienna Miller), an original suffragette, freethinker and independent woman who suffered greatly because of her husband's unquenchable thirst for discovery and his regard for traditional gender roles. Her story reminds us that enlightenment is an ongoing process.
Ironically, Fawcett's on-screen enlightenment has stirred real-world controversy. Two noted British historians recently wrote op-eds in British newspapers to denounce both Grann's book and Gray's film as historically inaccurate. The authors called Fawcett a "nutter" and a "racist" in voices that sound a lot like the armchair explorers depicted in Gray's film.
The Lost City of Z is not a documentary but a work of imagination. It takes us back to when the world seemed larger and more mysterious than it is today. Most of us could use a bit more of that before suffering through the next 24-hour news cycle.