It is one thing to want to do something. It is another to be inspired. And it is something else entirely to be driven. Somewhere beyond that third option dwell the truly possessed who lock onto an idea, task or challenge and cannot let it go, no matter how far out of reach it might be, or how much it might cost to pursue. We tend to lionize people like this, for when they succeed, they achieve great feats that inspire everyone else. But we forget how often they fail, and the terrible burdens they place on those who support them. Such figures are complex characters indeed, and their exploits make for awfully compelling stories, which might be why The Lost City of Z is one of the best adventure movies to grace the screen in a very long time.
The story is a fictionalized account of British explorer Percy Fawcett, whose numerous excursions into the Brazilian jungle helped inspire both the character of Indiana Jones and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World. But Fawcett was real, and the thing he so badly wanted to discover—the ruins of an ancient city he called Z—is what drove him again and again into the rain forest. While the movie takes liberties with Fawcett’s adventures for the sake of biopic storytelling, much of it receives and needs no embellishment: that as a capable military officer stuck in a dead-end career he joined an expedition deep into uncharted South American territory and found evidence of an ancient civilization there; mounted numerous subsequent jungle excursions in search of his lost city despite the ridicule of the scientific community; endured disease, bad weather, starvation and hostile Indian attacks; suffered the indignity of unsteady and unfaithful companionship that would later try to smear his good name; put his career on hold to fight in World War I; and ventured one last time into the wilderness, this time with his son, never to be seen again. But most of all, he struggled to balance his call to explore the far corners of the map with his obligation to his wife and children, who became far more familiar with his absence than with his presence.
This is the sort of movie that defies conventional cinematic pacing because it charts the course of a lifetime rather than a particular chain of events. There is no easy three-part structure to rest on, no simple villain, no convenient resolutions. Even calling him a hero seems like a stretch, for despite his obvious skill, endurance and courage, what exactly is more heroic: to venture into dangerous territory in search of the relics of ancient humanity…or to give your family the support, love and attention they deserve and must do without those many years while you are gone? The more we see Fawcett go back into the jungle, certain to fail yet again, the more we ask ourselves at what point he will come to his senses and decide to stay home. But that is the thing here: Fawcett is a creature of absolutes. That voice in his head telling him to wander will never fall quiet. That urge to find the unfindable will never abate. And he will never stop heading back into the wilderness. Even when his longtime traveling companion Corporal Costin finally taps out after accompanying Fawcett on several hard missions, Fawcett still cannot take the hint that maybe it’s time to hang up his Stetson. He simply recruits his son and carries on, with results that are as tragic as they are inevitable.
There is much to commend with this movie. It is superbly shot and is as sumptuous a period drama as one is likely to see. Its cast and director all do a marvelous job of transporting the audience to the final days of colonial ambition where investigating the last blank spaces on the map became an obsession for individuals and entire nations alike. Thankfully, the movie pauses to acknowledge the immense human suffering such colonialism brought with it, but this story is about obsession and compulsion. That it takes the form of geographical exploration here is a matter of staging rather than theme.
What makes this all work so well are the interludes between Fawcett’s adventures, when he must return home to present what he has found, to explain his failures, to live up to his other responsibilities, and to resist the call to return to the jungle for as long as he can. Even after nearly dying at the Somme, he reconciles with his oldest son, angry at his father’s long absences. But even that is bittersweet, for all it does is pass the mania of the father to his boy, dooming them both. Earlier, there is a fantastic scene where he must contend with the slander of one of his benefactors who fails miserably out in the field. Fawcett has only his reputation to sustain him, and yet, will not compromise his honor to save it. There is something to admire in that, despite Fawcett’s obsessive shortcomings.
Perhaps the most compelling character in all of this is Fawcett’s wife, Nina, who is an avatar of steadfast devotion. She quietly sacrifices more than Fawcett ever realizes to support him, and she suffers mightily for being the woman her husband and society demands she be. The moment of truth comes when, having been left behind one time too many, Nina insists on joining Fawcett on his next expedition. Fawcett refuses to let her, and she explodes in fury, reminding him just how much she has set aside so that he may pursue his destiny. It is a mighty reckoning, and one long due once it arrives. Sadly, Fawcett still leaves without her, and one imagines that had he allowed Nina to accompany him into the jungle just this once, he would have found what he was looking for and returned to tell the tale. Alas.