Writer/director James Gray’s adventure epic, The Lost City of Z, follows British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) through his many voyages into the unknown jungles of the Amazon in the first part of the 20th century. Leaving his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), behind in England, Fawcett and his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), disappear into a world few Europeans had ever experienced to uncover a lost land no one anticipated. In adapting David Grann’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name, Gray was fascinated by Fawcett’s unquenchable spirit of adventure and exploration. “Here was a person for whom the search meant everything,” explains Gray. “His dream of finding an ancient Amazonian civilization sustained him through unimaginable hardships, the skepticism of the scientific community, startling betrayals and years spent away from his family.” Fawcett’s numerous trips to the region unlocked endless secrets about the Amazon’s flora and fauna, as well as its geography and local populations. But it is what happened to him during his last expedition in 1925 alongside his son, Jack (played by Tom Holland), that remains perhaps his greatest mystery.
Shooting the film on location in Colombia, Gray and his cinematographer, Academy Award®-nominated Darius Khondji, strove to recreate the wondrous sights and sounds that Fawcett experienced at the turn of the century. Today one can visit the Bolivian town of Cobija. But that modern metropolis is a far cry from the lawless outpost that greeted Fawcett after a grueling climb over a 17,000 foot-high Andean pass in 1906. One can even raft down the Rio Verde in the Mato Grosso area of Brazil. But it is nearly impossible to imagine how such a river trip felt at the turn of the century when every noise signaled the existence of a strange new creature, or perhaps something more ominous. When the Royal Geographical Society first approached Fawcett to survey the wilderness between Bolivia and Brazil, they pointed to a map of South America and said, “Look at this area. It’s full of blank spaces.” Fawcett’s desire to fill in those spaces underscores a unique emotional experience cherished by every adventurer, that ineffable moment when the unmapped and unknown world reveals itself.
So mysterious was the Amazon at the time that many Europeans believed anything was possible, while at the same time scoffing at actual field reports. The scientific community roundly derided many of Fawcett's discoveries, including his belief that shards of pottery uncovered during his first trip pointed to an ancient empire buried in the jungle. He would spend the rest of his life looking for definitive proof of that lost city. In the process, he would uncover many new worlds. During his second voyage, the sight of the breathtaking Ricardo Franco hills filled him with a profound sense of awe and humility. “Time and the foot of man had not touched these summits,” he wrote in his journal. “They stood like a lost world, forested to their tops, and the imagination could not picture the last vestiges of an age long vanished." His wondrous description of the area inspired Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to write his 1912 novel The Lost World, about an imaginary land filled with ape-men and dinosaurs in the heart of the Amazon.
In bringing to the screen Fawcett’s experience, Gray needed to capture not only the beauty, but also the danger that lay around every bend in the river. In addition to giant snakes and vampire bats, not to mention swarms of bugs and incurable diseases, Fawcett was acutely aware of the imminent violence posed by indigenous tribes. Locals warned him “to venture up into the midst of them is sheer madness.” Believing that the native people, who had been abused for decades by rubber plantations, were basically peaceful, Fawcett devised nonviolent strategies to disarm them. On one occasion, he met arrows with music, singing out popular tunes until the locals put down their bows to listen. Over time, Fawcett championed the local tribes as being as unique and complex as the jungles they occupied.
Today it may be impossible to recreate the surge of wonder, excitement, and danger experienced by Fawcett in his exploration of the uncharted Amazon. In 1953, the London Geographical Journal proclaimed, "Fawcett marked the end of an age. One might almost call him the last of the individualist explorers.” While Fawcett’s time has passed, every explorer can still relish the spirit of adventure that fueled him. What traveler does not know that strange emotion that washed over Fawcett upon his return to England after his first expedition: “Inexplicably—amazingly—I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.”
The Lost City of Z opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 14 and then nationwide on April 21.