The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

2017 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

A journey to find a lost city is always about more than finding the city itself. Conquistadors set out to “discover” the Americas and explore the new world for three reasons, “God, gold, and glory”. Facing horrific conditions in the jungle and squaring off with the naturally confused and hesitant natives of the land, the men - for all of their faults - embarked on a journey that changed the course of human history. Yet, being willing to embark on such a journey naturally calls for a man that is willing to get away. One that is willing to leave his homeland and take on such an arduous with the odds being against him ever returning home again. Either disease or conflicts with the natives would prove to be the end for him and others in his party and, as such, is always a journey to find more than a city or explore a civilization. It is a calling for people that are missing something and want to find something in those jungles that is more than a city of gold. What they hope to find is unknown to even them and is one that will undoubtedly forever change their life.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was one such man. Initially sent to Bolivia on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society and British Army in order to end a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil over where the border actually is between the two, Fawcett quickly becomes obsessed with the Amazonian jungle. In his initial mission to find the source of a river known to the British that holds the key to where the border lies, he stumbles across pottery and a carving in a tree. Around him is nothing but jungle, except for these small trinkets. Upon returning to Britain, he immediately calls for his return to find a lost city he is calling “Zed”. Despite the fact that his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is pregnant with their second child and his son Jack (soon to be Tom Holland) does not remember him, Percy believes he must go back to the jungle. With the backing of a few investors, he does set out to find this lost city, returning with Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Corporal Arthur Manley), and explorer James Murray (Angus Macfayden). Upon there, illness and a loss of rations prevent them from completing the journey. Finally, years later after spending time in France for World War I, he returns with son Jack to complete his journey for this lost city.

However, in spite of its apparent set-up as a film about a man embarking on a life’s journey to find a city and throwing away his family in the process, The Lost City of Z is mostly a character study. Percy Fawcett is a man who has made Major in the British Army at the beginning of the film, but without a medal. He has received some distinctions in the past, but is the only man to have the rank of Major without a medal. Compounded by the fact that his father was a drunk with an infamous reputation that ruined the Fawcett name, Percy first accepts the surveying mission to Bolivia in an effort to restore his name. Calls from Britain for him to return immediately due to adverse conditions on his first trip are met with stubbornness from Percy, who insists on completing the mission given to them nonetheless. Though he loves his wife Nina and loves his children, he is on a search to find himself in this Amazonian jungle. He feels destiny calling him with even a psychic he visits in the trenches of World War I telling him that his soul will never rest until he finds what he is looking for in the jungle. To Percy, this means the lost city. If he just finds the city, he will be okay and will stop hearing the voice in his head to run. However, what he is running to is an illusion. There has been a possible city found there in this century, but it is not what was calling Fawcett. His call what one of self-identity. Who is he? He has no rank. His father was a drunk. All he has is this city and it is the only accomplishment he could ever dream of having that will define his destiny and leave a mark on the world. If he could find this city, he would be remembered and revered for his bravery. If he fails, he is seen as a crazy person who fell for the old “El Dorado” mirage that explorers and conquistadors had fallen prey to throughout time.

Percy Fawcett is no crazy man. He may be embarking on a journey similar to Klaus Kinski’s in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but he is not losing his mind. He is of sound mind and body. In battle, he ably leads his men. In the jungle, he ably leads his men. At home, he may hit his son Jack, but is otherwise a sound father figure. In the jungle, he finds that the so-called “savages” are more advanced than previously thought and reports his findings to the British. He is met with derision from his countrymen who cannot fathom these “savages” being anything less than cannibals with a blood lust for white men. At home, his children and wife have no idea what he is looking for in the jungle and are frustrated by him constantly leaving them for years at a time. Men such as James Murray believe him to be a fraud who has no proof of this so-called city of Zed. Yet, there is proof. It is out there and Percy knows where to find it, he just has to be able to get there. The years he has spent in the jungle has only made him more determined, not insane. This is his chance. His opportunity to change everything for the Fawcett name and himself. Finding this city would mean he was a success and better than his father who sought to find himself in the bottom of a bottle. Not finding the city is not an option and he has decided that his destiny is to find the city, above all other challenges.

His rejection at home by his peers and his cabin fever at home is only exacerbated by his experiences with the natives. Accepted as one of their own and welcomed into various communities during his time traveling the river in Bolivia, he has finally found a place that accepts him. They do not care about who his father was or what he is doing in the jungle. It is a place separate from a world that has largely rejected him and that had forced him to seek a purpose in this jungle. While his encounters do not quell the fire in his soul for more and to finally achieve something worthy of being rewarded for, they do convince him that the Amazonian jungle is the place for him. Though it may be dangerous for his health and not all of the natives are welcoming, it is the only place that does not make him want to run away from it and find something new to do. No matter where he is in Europe or what he is doing, his soul keeps calling out for him to be in the Bolivian jungle. Once he is there, he must find Zed and stop at nothing to accomplish this goal.

Unfortunately, Fawcett’s issues with his own father and his own self-identity has rubbed off on his family. Feeling abandoned by him and wondering why they must embark on these journeys of sacrifice alongside him, his eldest son Jack accompanies him on his third and final journey to the Amazon. Similarly seeking to find the lost city, Jack’s journey is certainly partially inspired by a desire to see more of his father, but there is more to why he goes to the jungle as well. Initially convinced to go as a way of changing the Fawcett name, Percy has only marginally improved the way the family is viewed. He has improved upon his father to be sure, but has certainly met with his share of detractors due to his obsession with a mythical city of gold. For Jack, he sees it as a way to allow his father to complete the mission. Though the film skips over the time in between the war and his final mission, it can certainly be assumed that Percy was a little disconnected. He left his heart in the jungle and is dying to find it again. Jack is willing to go to see him find this missing piece of himself in the jungle and see his life’s journey to its conclusion. Partially, it would bring joy to his father, but also convince Jack that his father’s efforts were not in vein. For Jack, this journey also personally means that he will be able to restore the Fawcett name. He has seen the newspapers that ridicule and mock his father at every turn. He has seen the name be publically shamed by everybody that matters in Britain and so he seeks out the Americans, who do not know the Fawcett name, to fund the latest adventure. Akin to his father trying to restore the family name, Jack’s journey is one where he hopes that he and his father can together restore the family’s pride and worth in the community.

The journey undertaken by the Fawcett’s is a fruitless one, however, due to the expectations of Percy and, later on, Jack. Both of them are convinced they will find this city hidden by time. Everything they encounter hints at it with hidden statues. An opera house that Percy went to in his first journey is now nothing but sticks and rubble. The jungle consumes all and stops at nothing to reclaim what Europeans is stealing from it whenever they arrive. It only stands to reason that a city could be similarly consumed by the trees and brush that surround its every edge. Yet, they never actually find this city. It may be out there, but they never set their eyes on any such lost city. Instead, they are met with constant hurdles and lose sight of a simpler goal. In a flashback scene, we see Nina read Percy a letter that she had written in the event of dying during the birth of Jack. In it, she asks him to encourage their son to dream and to always remember that seeing beauty is its own reward. Thinking back on this letter, it is clear that Percy has misunderstood its message. Daring to dream is not dragging your entire family into a fruitless and hopeless journey to find a city that may or may not be there. He is just running away to try and restore his father’s name, while simultaneously neglecting his own family. Along the way, he overlooks everything. No matter how many tribes extend a warm welcome to him and no matter how much he talks about how advanced the natives are with brilliantly designed farming methods, Percy is never satisfied. He soaks in the beauty of those moments, but it is not rewarding to him. He needs to find the city. At home, simply being with his family is not enough. He needs to be busy restoring their name. There is no reward for him in the simple moments. There is always a beacon calling him elsewhere and one that he will never be able to actually reach. In the meantime, he has forgotten to live and to actually experience things outside of the jungle. It, like it consumes everything within it, has consumed him and left him a broken old man. The only portion of Nina’s letter that really speaks to Percy is how a man’s ambition should always exceed his grasp. His guiding light in taking on this ambitious venture, it is clear that it should only be undertaken with the other two pieces. On its own, it only opens him up to losing him in his ambition and forgetting that which he already has around him.

A classically-styled film with hints of Herzog’s aforementioned Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as well as the film directly inspired by that one, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, The Lost City of Z shows a man consumed by the jungle. Yet, as previously mentioned, he is not insane. He is just a man who sees the jungle has his only option. The only way he can leave a mark and change history. Without it, he is a failure and cannot rest until the city is actually found. With scenes set on a river with land on either side akin to the films that influenced it, The Lost City of Z’s style screams of being from the 1970s, even if its ambitions often feel similar to the epics of the 1950s and 1960s. Attempting to depict 20-or-so years of this man’s life, director James Gray quickly flips through time and gives highlights from each time period that all play a role in building his character. From his quiet English home to the jungles of the Amazon to the trenches in France, the film wears many hats and attempts a variety of things. Yet, no matter how grand its scale or how far-reaching its sweep is, the film remains an intimate character study of a man that never was able to accomplish his main goal in life: find a city in the forest.

With exquisite cinematography, the film’s old school appeal translates to its imagery with somewhat washed out scenes set in England with stuffy period clothing and roudy Brits boasting about their superiority to the rest of the world. In the jungle, cool blues and greens surround everything before a final goodbye to the jungle that sees fire all around and smoke billowing from the top of the trees. This color combination is a feast to behold throughout, especially when Gray introduces candlelight to the equation. As with all great epic journeys, The Lost City of Z presents incredible staging, lighting, and framing of shots with each frame firing on all cylinders.

However, no matter how striking its imagery is and how ambitious its scope, Gray’s film often gets out of his reach. At times, the way in which it skips through time feels like a highlight reel. Its slow pace and Gray’s willingness to not cut too quickly allows this issue to be somewhat mitigated as each moment is given its due, but there is simply too much going on here. In particular, the war sequence is simply bloat and its only thematic contribution is the introduction of the belief that Percy’s soul will never be quiet until he finds what he is looking for in the jungle. At the end of the film, the final tribe they encounter state that they will put Percy’s soul to rest. Tying these two together is nice and highlights how detailed and nuanced the script by Gray is, but the war sequence hardly contributes much otherwise. It goes on a bit longer than needed and shows unnecessary battle scenes that could have been short-handed as simply temporarily blinding Percy and reuniting him with his son Jack. While well shot as always and representing the ambition undertaken by Gray in making this picture, it is an unnecessary diversion from the film’s thematic considerations in both Bolivia and England and its only contribution is a brief sentence that could have been introduced elsewhere.

A somewhat haunting tale of a man consumed by a destiny that he believes awaits him in the Amazonian jungle, The Lost City of Z is not so much an adventure film about a man trying to find a city. Instead, it is a character study of Percy Fawcett, who is consumed by a desire to find what he believes to be a lost city in the jungles of Bolivia. Spending years of his life trying to find this city and missing the births and youth of all of his children as a result, Percy unwittingly takes them in the jungle with him. By leaving his heart on the road to El Dorado, he has condemned his wife and children to forever search the jungle for where he left it, wondering what made the man they called their father or husband leave them for this mess of heat, poisonous animals, and trees. However, they will never know. Instead, as the brilliant final shot of Nina walking into the jungle in a mirror shows, they are doomed to walk the paths of the jungle for the rest of their days as the seek the answers to why Percy felt the jungle held the keys to his destiny and that only its branches could reveal the lock.

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