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The Lost City of Z: A White Savior's Tale

by Magebird


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.


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Tue May 25, 2021 11:27 am
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ShadowVyper wrote a review...



Magey! <3

This came up in my "you haven't written any reviews today, why don't you check out ___" box on the homepage, and I saw your name, and knew I needed to come check it out ;) Let's get started... not me promising to do this review like three weeks ago and then flaking

The Lost City of Z is a supposedly biographical film sharing the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman).


Okay, super minor (read: anal) critique here but I'd recommend adding a "played by" or something here because my small-brain moment was confused by it immediately following the name of the explorer. Is Percy an alias for someone actually named Charlie? etc. I probably should have picked up on it but I had to google to confirm that Charlie was the actor playing Percy instead.

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).


Apparently I am a grammar snob when there's no characterization to critique

This sentence reads a bit odd to me. When I saw the colon I kind of just automatically assumed it would be three or more things listed. Because, like, otherwise you could just do a "such as" and a comma and call it golden. So I had to read it a few times to see if the military ranks has anything to do with his wife or if that was a third thing. Also, it might be good to just give a couple words to explain what that "unfortunate heritage" means. I'm entirely unfamiliar with this film so I don't really have much to go on here. Is it a racist issue? A classist issue? An immigrant issue? It's not super clear to me as it stands.

Tadjui makes an offhand comment to Fawcett about a city of gold that was full of people deep in the jungle.


It's probably just tired-Shady-brain, but I don't really understand this sentence. It feels like there are too many?? descriptors?? going on. We have "city of gold" "people" and "deep in the jungle" all mashed together and it kind of confuses me. Maybe something like "inhabitants of a 'city of gold' that's located deep in the jungle" or something?

when they encounter a friendly (but cannibalistic) Indigenous tribe


hahahahah "friendly (but cannibalistic)" -- yeah, yeah, they eat people and stuff but if you can look past that they're really quite friendly people ahahah

Jack declares he hates his father for leaving them and is slapped by him.


This is... passive? language I really be over here critiquing your grammar without knowing the right terms and I think weakens the overall impact of this sentence. The "and is slapped" takes the heat off of his father and kinda makes it seem acceptable, if that makes sense? I think it'd be stronger if you found a way to make it more active. Like:

"Jack declares his hatred of his father for leaving the family, and Fawcett retaliates by slapping him."

Or something? Idk. I feel like I'm not making sense, but hopefully, the gist is clear?

~ ~ ~

Okay! This is a really interesting review! You got me really interested in the film throughout the whole review and made start thinking "huh maybe I should go watch that" until the very end when I was like "oh, ew, maybe not" -- and I think that's a good thing! It means you stayed objective throughout the essay and then only moved to opinions at the end to conclude on the shortcomings of the film and ways you think it could be improved.

I feel like such a brat for pointing out so much grammar because that's not my normal review style, but it did stand out to me that you used a lot of... non-mainstream-punctuation? If that's a thing? Like, I feel like I don't see colons used very often in writing. It feels like that's mostly reserved for things like lists, etc. and, since I don't see them very often, I take note of them. And you have 7 of them in a pretty short essay. And that's not counting the semi-colons and dashes. Obviously, there's nothing inherently wrong with that! I just feel like the punctuation got a bit distracting at points, and that just some basiccc commas and periods would be appropriate in a lot of places.

But, yeah, overall, excellent review! I think you balanced the summary and critiques nicely, and I enjoyed reading it! Great job!

~Shady 8)




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Wed May 19, 2021 8:19 pm
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Elinor wrote a review...



Mage, darling!

I see this has been sitting in the Green Room for a while and I thought I would drop by. I'm curious if you wrote this for school or something else, but I'd be curious to see you write more film reviews. I haven't seen The Lost City of Z, but I remember hearing about it when it came out. It wasn't my type of movie, so I skipped it.

I think this review could be cut in half. For a text review, especially one without film stills to illustrate the characters and key scenes from the film, it's quite long, and through most of it, you didn't do much to convince me that the film is a white savior story. You did at the end, when you mentioned the main indigenous character didn't even have a name and that everyone except Fawcett was portrayed as one dimensional. And titling this "A White Savior Story" kind of rubs me the wrong way, it tells me as a reader that you went into this with preconceived notions of what the film would be and searched for moments that would uphold your thesis.

I'm not saying that your analysis is wrong, or that you're not allowed to dislike it, only that if I didn't know you as well I do I would be more inclined to disregard your review. I'm also trying not to be mean, because I want to help and I can only speak so far having not seen the film. The history of the British Empire is really intriguing to me and I want more content that tells those stories in a nuanced way.

Firstly, early on in this review, you first say it starts in 1905 and then shortly later it's the start of World War 2, which would have been 1914. I read that part of it a few times to make sure I didn't miss something but there was no indication that nine years had passed.

I think I'd be more compelled the premise of your review if you mentioned the fact that the indigenous characters are one dimensional and seem to only exist to serve Fawcett's story from the beginning, and gave examples of how the film fails to do this from the beginning.

Save for pacing, the failings of the film arise from their decision to focus solely on Percy Fawcett’s life.


Huh? He's the main character, so most of the focus should be on him. That doesn't mean the other characters can't be fleshed out, but focusing on one specific character shouldn't be a bad thing.

Obviously, reviews are going to be subjective, and it seems to me like this movie just wasn't for you but even scathing reviews I've read of certain films mention something positive, even if just the potential you felt the story had.

I would spend far less time summarizing the plot and far more discussing these points. I'm also not sure that I understand how he's a white savior, especially when you mention the RGS's racism and the fact that he is kind to the Indigenous tribes. Does Fawcett think "the English way" is better? Does his attempts to "help" actually damage them? I'm not fully understanding the connection here. I also am not finding the connection between mistreating his family and being a white savior.

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.


Why is it necessary to mention that he's white here?

If you come back to this, as mentioned, I would cut down on the plot summary, discuss your thesis, and maybe mentioned something about the film that did work for you, even if it's small.

Again, I'm not trying to be overly harsh, I want to help, especially if you want to write up more film reviews, and I hope you do!

You can contact me any time.

x




Magebird says...


Thank you so much for your review of my review! It was my first time really writing, so your comments on where to cut out details were really helpful. I believed the film was an example of the white savior trope because the indigenous characters aren't really given a voice; it's up to a white character to save them from the persecution that they face from other white characters. And I wasn't aware of how titling the review with the white savior bit could make it seem like I had preconceptions of what the film would be like going in, so thanks for pointing that out! :)



Magebird says...


Thank you so much for your review of my review! It was my first time really writing, so your comments on where to cut out details were really helpful. I believed the film was an example of the white savior trope because the indigenous characters aren't really given a voice; it's up to a white character to save them from the persecution that they face from other white characters. And I wasn't aware of how titling the review with the white savior bit could make it seem like I had preconceptions of what the film would be like going in, so thanks for pointing that out! :)




The snow leopard is absolutely magnificent. It represents really what endangered species are all about.
— Jack Hanna