Reel Talk

The Lost City of Z and the Obsession of Recognition

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We really take the size of the world for granted. We can now quickly peep in on any place on Earth, seeing what different countries look like, and how people live their lives with a click of a button. But for most of human history we had a shockingly poor understanding of the very world we live on. The Age of Exploration, for all the horrible colonialism it helped create, was a tremendously important time in human history. People literally gave their lives to make maps, just so we could know what our world looked like. And yet, stories about the Age of Exploration and the people who helped map the world are rather far and few between. So it was pretty shocking learning that we were getting a film based around the exploits of Colonel Percy Fawcett, the man who helped map out the Amazon, and whose overwhelming obsession with a lost civilization hidden inside of it. And, to make matter even more interesting, I started hearing nothing but good things about the film. Everyone who saw the film at the festivals it played at began hailing it as an absolute masterpiece, one of the best films of recent memory. And you know what? They were right.

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, the real-life explorer and soldier. We start off seeing Fawcett scraping by in Ireland, desperate to raise above his rank in the British military and make amends for the shame his father brought to their house. And he gets such a chance when he’s sent to London to meet with the geographic society, who have been contracted by the Bolivian and Brazilian governments to find the source of the Rio Verde, and thus the borders between the two nations. This will help avert a war between the two countries, and ensure that the precious rubber that they’re creating doesn’t get caught between them. So Fawcett heads out to the Amazon, along with a man named Corporal Costin and some other crew members. The group head through the jungle, slowly making their way up-river. Things are helped out when they take a native slave to show them the source of the river. However, as they’re heading closer to the source of the river the native man says something that sticks with Fawcett. He claims that there’s a secret city hidden in the jungle, one that’s older than London, and one that the white-man has never discovered. Fawcett kind of blows it off at first, but when they find the source of the river and complete their mission he finds something shocking. Some pottery and engraved images, seemingly proof of the lost civilization that the man told him about.

The crew returns to London, but Fawcett cannot help but become curious about the lost city. He gives a speech in front of the geographic society, claiming that there’s a lost city in the Amazon that proves the people of South America are an advanced people, more advanced than Europeans ever gave them credit for. They find this assertion ridiculous, but when another prominent explorer, James Murray, says that he’s intrigued by Fawcett’s ideas they raise enough money to go on a second exploration. And this one does not go well. Murray turns out to be extremely unqualified for jungle exploration, and drags the group down at every turn. They eventually have to part ways with him, sending him back to London on his own so that he’ll stop hampering them. However, he got some revenge and ruined their supplies, just as Fawcett becomes convinced that they’re close to the city, and they’re forced to return to London. And to make matters worse Murray lies to the geographic society, and gets Fawcett blackballed from further exploration. Fawcett then has to live with becoming a soldier in World War I, still seeking glory and redemption. Fawcett barely survives the war however, and he realizes that he cannot live a happy life without finding his lost city. So, along with his eldest son Jack, Fawcett returns to the Amazon, desperate to find his lost city. And he may have done so. Fawcett and Jack were never seen from again, but stories from the region claim that they became embers of a tribe, and lived out their lives in the Amazon, possibly near the fabled lost city that dominated Fawcett’s life.

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This is a truly hypnotic film that must be seen to be believed. That’s kind of how I’ve felt with every James Gray film I’ve seen, especially the Immigrant, and this film is no exception. It’s a sumptuous period picture, one that throws you headfirst into the brutal world it’s portraying, warts and all. Exploration was not a clean and kind business, and this film showed the colonialism, the racism, and the brutal conditions that entailed it. The Amazon is a beautiful and unbelievable place, and this film treated it with the fascination and respect it deserved, creating an epic film that lavished in the scenery and sheer majesty of the landscape. Which is something you really don’t see from movies anymore. But this film pulls it off. You really get a feeling for how horrifying and all-encompassing the Amazon is. But it’s not just the scenery. This film is what the Revenant wanted to be. The actors in the film didn’t need to be tortured to deliver performances full of pain and horror. You never once question their struggle against nature, doing everything they can to survive. Everyone in this film puts in a hell of a performance, but the real stand-out is the star of the film, Charlie Hunnam. I’ve never been a fan of Hunnam in the past, but he puts in a serious performance in this film. And its Hunnam’s performance that really hammers in the most interesting aspect of this film.

We all want to be remembered. Life is short and fleeting, and one of the meanings of life seems to be the drive to leave a mark on the world. But, even more than being remembered we want to be recognized for what we’ve done. There are plenty of people who get recognized for their work after their dead, not being appreciated in their own lives. And Percy Fawcett was one of them. In recent years there’s been evidence that his lost city most likely did exist, and he probably was pretty spot on about its location. But being proven right didn’t seem to be Percy Fawcett’s main goal, at least in this film. That would have been nice for him, proving to the world that he was right, and that the natives of the Amazon were better than England thought they were. But his real goal in life was to be recognized as the person who proved that. From the very beginning of the film all Fawcett seems concerned with is recognition. He’s irritated that he doesn’t have any medals from the military, and taking his first trip to the Amazon seemed like the perfect way to get recognized as being better than the average person. He’s trying to make up for the mistakes of his father, and be recognized as his own man, and it completely derails his life. Proving to the world that Z exists and that he was right becomes his all encompassing obsession, and when he hears word that some American explorers may get the credit he does everything he can to be sent back to the Amazon. Because finding the city wouldn’t be enough. It had to be him. The drive to be remembered and recognized by the rest of the human race is a powerful influence, and has led to some truly remarkable things in human history. But it’s also led to a lot of pain and destruction. At it’s heart, the Lost City of Z seems to be a warning. Finding a purpose for your life is important, but letting that purpose absolutely dominate your life will bring you to ruin.

The Lost City of Z was written and directed by James Gray and released by Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street, 2017.

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