The Lost City of Z: A White Savior's Tale
The Lost City of Z is a supposedly biographical film sharing the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman). The movie, written and directed by James Gray, is an adaptation of David Grann’s similarly named biography. The story is portrayed as an Indiana Jones-esque adventure in its trailer with its selective choice in scenes, but the actual film is more similar to a war film. The trailer - and the beginning of the film itself - also suggests that the story will tackle British racism towards the Indigenous people of the Amazon.
The Lost City of Z begins in 1905 by showing Fawcett taking part in a hunt for a deer in and the ball that follows. In this scene, we are introduced to several important details about Fawcett: he is an excellent marksman, is unable to climb the ranks of the military because of his “unfortunate heritage” and longs for more despite the comforts of his wife, Nina Fawcett (Sienna Miller). We also introduced to his young son, Jack (later played by Tom Holland), who is mostly unaware of his father’s job and seems to have a strong love for both parents.
Then Fawcett is given a chance to prove himself: the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) of London requests that he goes to the section of the Amazon between Bolivia and Brazil to map their borders and prevent a potential war from breaking out. As the film is set in the early 1900s, it quickly becomes clear that restoring his family’s name - likely after his father tarnished it by being a drunkard and a gambler - will come at a significant price. Fawcett will miss the birth of his next child and miss several years of Jack’s life.
Still, he determines it’s worth the risk. He goes to South America and meets his soon-to-be closest friend Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) who provides the much-needed support on his expeditions. He is also introduced to Lance Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and an Indigenous slave named Tadjui (Pedro Colleo) that he promises to pay a working wage to. It is while they are traveling up the river to their destination that the group first encounters an Indigenous tribe. After miraculously surviving the attack with only a few losses in their crew, Tadjui makes an offhand comment to Fawcett about a city of gold that was full of people deep in the jungle. It isn’t until Tadjui runs off and they arrive at the end of the river that Fawcett believes his story: he finds pottery remains in an area that no white man had ever gone to before.
This is when the story’s titular city becomes Fawcett’s newest obsession. He returns to London and gives a speech at the Royal Geographic Society - only to be mocked when he implies that the Indigenous civilizations in the Amazon may predate the British empire. He takes up a challenge from famed Antarctic explorer James Murray (Angus Macfayden) to return to the Amazon to find the lost city. Several other conflicts begin to rear their head: Fawcett’s sons Jack and Brian are hesitant around him. Nina wants to go with him to the Amazon after studying everything related to it, but Fawcett believes it is no place for a woman; he even implies that men and women’s roles have always been defined the way that they are. And during the expedition, when they encounter a friendly (but cannibalistic) Indigenous tribe, it becomes evident that Murray’s prestige had hidden how terrible of an explorer and human being he was. He sabotages them so they are forced to turn back early, and also tries to dirty the expedition’s name in front of the entire RGS.
This is when the film’s pacing starts to drag. Fawcett’s youngest child, Joan, is introduced. Jack declares he hates his father for leaving them and is slapped by him. The first world war begins and Jack (along with Murray and Costin) are drafted. While on the battlefield, Murray is shot and Fawcett temporarily loses his sight due to gas. There is also an ominous scene with a Russian fortune-teller. During his reading - right before he loses his sight - he is told that he will never be satisfied until he finds the city in the forest. Fawcett seems to agree, but also accepts that he is growing too old for exploring during his following recovery. It is only at the begging of his eldest son, Jack, that he returns to the Amazon. This is his most public expedition yet, and a deeply personal one: Jack is his only companion for it. They do meet some friendly Indigenous tribes, but are caught by a much less friendly one.
Their fate is left ambiguous at the end of the film. It is revealed that they have been missing for many years, but that Nina, dressed in black, is still desperately requesting that the RGS sends more explorers in search for them after hearing from a Brazilian man that her son and husband were still alive. The RGS’ head only believes her when she gives him a compass Fawcett promised to send him if he decided to stay in the city.
The movie ends with Nina exiting the RGS headquarters and walking into what appears to be the Amazonian jungle.
Save for pacing, the failings of the film arise from their decision to focus solely on Percy Fawcett’s life. The film itself is a textbook case of the white savior trope, in which a white man saves the poor non-white characters from an unfortunate fate. In Fawcett’s case, he attempts to save the Indigineous people from being seen as savages. The film is mildly successful in promoting this narrative. He shows pity towards Tadjui. He argues for the existence of the missing city. He also is the first white person who is actually friendly towards the second tribe they encounter. Furthermore, the film does try to show the racism of the RGS. Fawcett is told not to share his findings because it would be elevating the status of the “savages”. When Murray first becomes interested in the expedition, he describes the Indigenous people of the Amazon as “poor savages” and refuses to interact with the tribe the second expedition encounters.
But the Indigenous people themselves are never given much agency. Tadjui’s name is not even mentioned in the film itself; I only learned it by reading the subtitles. We also never learn his story, or the stories of the tribes that Fawcett and his expeditions encounter. It is a story of protecting them, but they are portrayed as being mythical as Fawcett’s lost city.
The film also fails to give agency to Fawcett’s family. Though he does face some conflict for it, his decision to leave his family to find this mythical city is heavily romanticized. He never apologizes to Nina for doubting her abilities, but also never truly acknowledges how hard it would be for a woman in the early 1900s to raise a family of three children on their own. He never apologizes for slapping Jack, but Jack miraculously decides after his father almost dies on the battlefield that he wants to go to the Amazon with him. Brian is shown in the background for the most part; Joan is even less evident in the film. And when the film ends, Nina is forced to remain at her husband’s whims: she is portrayed as a grieving, somewhat mentally unsound widow completely dressed in black that disappears into her husband’s jungle. It is also important to note that Nina was unaware of the compass's significance. She was just told to give it to the RGS; Fawcett never outright informs her that he plans to stay in the city if he finds it.
The Lost City of Z argues that Fawcett is obsessed with discovering his mythical city, but repeatedly fails to fully address the consequences of his obsession. The film would have been much more successful in portraying the failings of the British empire if its other characters were not one-dimensional. Instead of slow, tiring scenes of Fawcett traveling and being enamored with Z, the film should have utilized its entire cast to their full potential so the story held more weight.
Yet doing so would force the film to address how its protagonist is not truly a hero: he was a white man seeking glory at the cost of his family’s well-being and the agency of the Indigenous people he claimed he cared about.