An adventure into the unknown

Charlie Hunnam has been unlucky in Hollywood. His generically handsome white looks made him the latest victim of the industry’s trend of forcing every such man into the standard hero mould. Like Colin Farrell and Armie Hammer before, he’s been confined to playing bland action leads, from his memorable role as Protagonist Man in Pacific Rim to his upcoming performance as Bro-Hipster King Arthur. But like those two men he’s really a character actor in the body of a leading man, and in The Lost City of Z he’s finally found a cinematic starring role that lends itself to his talents.
The film tells the true story of Col. Percy Fawcett, a British soldier and explorer in the early twentieth century. Hired by the British Geological Society (which may or may not be the one from Paddington) to map out the then-uncharted country of Bolivia, he discovered relics leading him to believe it was once the site of an ancient civilisation. Over the next two decades he made several expeditions with the aim of proving the existence of what he dubbed the lost city of Z (that’s ‘Zed’ for you bleedin’ Yanks).
Fawcett’s personal story focuses on his self-destructive obsession with finding Z, and Charlie Hunnam does a great job conveying it. His compulsive adventuring drags him from his family time and time again, even as he recognises the toll it’s taking on them all. As the setbacks and failures mount Hunnam visibly ages emotionally over the course of the film, and while the aging makeup is less than convincing you can see beyond it right into his soul. This is compounded by how startling it is to see how much his children have grown every time he returns from a multi-year trip, reinforcing how far removed he becomes from them as a result.
There’s also a heavy theme of the corrosive forces of European imperialism, which had been plundering South America for over a century by Fawcett’s time. This is presented both through his experiences in Bolivia and in his conflicts with the Geological Society over his theories. Early on he stumbles into an opera performance in the midst of the jungle, put on by Franco Nero, the owner of a rubber plantation that resembles hell. Fawcett tries to hire a guide, but Nero gives him one of his slaves for free on the grounds that his military-funded mission will help maintain his plantation. As a man whose goals further the cause of the establishment he will always be complicit in its crimes, no matter how he goes about them.
And Fawcett himself is presented as something of a progressive for his time. His main conflict with the Geological Society who refuse to believe him is in his disbelief in the inherent superiority of the white man. Throughout the film he insists on the cultural sophistication of the ancient societies he believes he has found, and refuses to allow his men to visit violence upon native tribes, even when they’re being fired upon by natives who want them to leave. However, as this is a story of an Englishman adventuring into the wilderness there are no scenes from a native perspective, and no natives are ever developed as characters, so the film’s progressive intentions are somewhat stunted.
And it is very much a story in that old-fashioned sense of English tales of exploration, which nowadays have fallen very much out of fashion. Stories of white men travelling to the uncharted corners of the world were popular back when parts of it still seemed mysterious and unknown, and even after those corners became well-known they received a fresh coat of paint in films like King Kong. But with the emergence of satellites and the ability to see the world from afar even that lost its lustre, and now tales of the glory of human exploration extend to the stars.
What The Lost City of Z reminds me most of is another wildly uncommercial film I really liked: Martin Scorcese’s Silence. In that film a Catholic priest undertakes a journey to a distant, hostile land, intending to further the cause and ideals of his society by doing so. And just like Percy Fawcett he fails.
Fawcett never returned from his last expedition to find Z, but the film argues he is no less admirable for it. I’m fascinated by stories about people who fail in their aims. We have many stories about noble figures who overcome all odds to achieve their dreams, but what of those who don’t? Does their failure make them any less noble despite their struggles? And while his real fate will likely remain unknown, the film posits that Fawcett’s endless persistence to achieve his dreams is to be celebrated regardless. As his wife tells us, man’s noblest quality is that his reach exceeds his grasp.