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Film / The Lost City of Z

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"Have I ever read Joseph Conrad? Why do you ask?"

The Lost City of Z is a 2017 film written and directed by James Gray, based on the non-fiction book of the same name telling the story of British adventurer Percy Fawcett's quest to find a lost civilization in the Amazon.

In 1906, the Royal Geographic Society asks then-Major Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) to trace the border between Brazil and Bolivia, as the two countries are seeking a neutral party to head off a boundary war. Despite enduring a classic River of Insanity voyage, Fawcett and his faithful aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) succeed in the mission and become fascinated by some pottery and carvings deep in the jungle where supposedly no humans — let alone civilized humans — had ever lived. Fawcett takes the then-unpopular position that the peoples of the Amazon built a sophisticated culture, which doubles as a critique of imperial attitudes toward the land and its natives. He becomes obsessed with proving his case, rather to the detriment of his family life, but learns a great deal about the jungle, its inhabitants, and himself.

This film contains examples of:

  • Action Prologue: The movie starts off with a rollicking stag hunt, which Fawcett wins.
  • Adapted Out: Raleigh Rimmell, best friend of Fawcett's son Jack (Tom Holland), actually accompanied them on their last voyage but didn't make it into the movie.
  • The Alcoholic: Fawcett's father was this, leaving him with a chip on his shoulder regarding the family honor. Costin also appears to be this at the beginning, but surviving the enforced sobriety of the jungle seems to set him straight.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Percy and Jack are captured by natives and taken through some kind of ritual, but their ultimate fates are not seen. Fawcett's wife, Nina, says that she's heard a report that they're living among Indians, and produces Percy's compass as evidence.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When biologist and polar explorer James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) accuses Fawcett of abandoning him (see Hate Sink below for the back story), Fawcett protests that not only did he save Murray's life, he did so facing resistance from his men, who by then were ready to Just Eat Gilligan. When Murray continues to insist that he apologize, Fawcett finally says, "Very well, I will my men!".
  • Beauty Inversion: Robert Pattinson's million-dollar cheekbones spend the movie buried in thick facial hair. The exposed part of his face also spends a fair chunk of the film inflamed with a rash.
  • Blood from the Mouth: At one point, when the team is hauling their raft through a shallow stretch, Fawcett notices that crew member Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) is vomiting blood. Since there's no chance to convalesce, all that he can do is trudge on.
  • Bold Explorer: While Fawcett's initial mission was political, after that he's driven mainly by the pursuit of knowledge. And he's certainly bold, given the death rate on such journeys.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When Jack learns that Percy might be called into service in World War I right after he returns from another years-long journey in South America, he attacks his father for neglecting his family in pursuit of glory.
  • Cannibal Tribe: Played with. At one point Fawcett's team encounters a tribe who have a roasted human corpse hanging over a fire pit. However, it turns out that this is their Due to the Dead, as they believe that eating their kinsman's body will pass his spirit into them.
  • The Determinator: Fawcett. Despite the constant threat to life and limb — and to his relations with his family and colleagues — he keeps looking for his city.
  • Dwindling Party: Fawcett's expedition teams tend to become this, due to diseases, infections, Indian attacks and (in one especially unpleasant scene) piranhas.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Fawcett will die in the jungle having never found the Lost City of Z.
  • Fortune Teller: While he's at the front during World War I, Fawcett visits a classic Romani-styled woman fortune teller who affirms his belief that finding Z is his destiny.
  • Gorn: Yes, despite the PG-13 rating. When going down the river on their first trip, Fawcett and his companions end up falling off of the boat while being attacked by the natives. One of them ends being eaten alive by Piranhas and it shows it in great detail.
  • Hate Sink: The film's main antagonists are the Native Amazonians who are just defending their home, and are accordingly treated with a great deal of respect by the narrative. More properly loathsome characters are:
    • The rubber tycoon, DeGondoriz. He's only in one scene, but that's all it takes to establish him as a Smug Snake slavedriver who chains up and beats his native workers. He provides aid to Fawcett's first expedition, as the possible war between Brazil and Bolivia they're trying to prevent would be bad for business; Fawcett's expression in this scene indicates that he's pondering whether a war would actually be worth it if it means shutting this guy down.
    • James Murray, a companion of Fawcett's on his second expedition and likely the closest thing to a flat-out villain in the film. He's rude, arrogant, and feels the fact that he's been to Mysterious Antarctica makes him perfectly qualified to explore anywhere. In the Amazon, he constantly complains, acts like a complete jerk to the natives, and runs away with his tail between his legs when he encounters a tribe who have a human corpse on a roasting spit (admittedly an off-putting sight, but as a frustrated Fawcett tries to explain, it was part of a completely non-malicious Due to the Dead ceremony). When they finally find him, he's managed to mangle his leg, and it promptly becomes infected, leading Fawcett to give him a horse and some food to attempt to get back to civilization. When he against all odds manages to survive and get back home, he thanks Fawcett by trying to sue him.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: While Fawcett did generally side with the Native Americans against imperial incursions, the film glosses over his more racist attitudes. For instance, like many at the time, he believed that any sophisticated American civilization must have been built by ancient immigrants from the Mediterranean. The film also undersells his general incompetence, painting him as a Bold Explorer when he made what other historians and explorers considered basic mistakes, was incredibly rude and obnoxious to locals, and more or less got himself and his son killed. As noted by the Villas Boa brothers, famous Brazilian anthropologists, the real Fawcett was a victim "as anyone else would have been, of the harshness and lack of tact that all recognised in him."
    • The movie also severely downplays the real Fawcett's Cloudcukoolander tendencies. Aside from a brief scene with a Fortune Teller, you'd never know that Fawcett was very, very much into occultism, and his expedition diaries are full of claims of cryptid encounters and speculation about Living Dinosaurs.
  • Hungry Jungle: Downplayed. While the explorers and their supplies are munched on by insects, microbes, and in one case piranhas, we also see examples of people who've successfully made the jungle their home, lending credence to the idea that a large society could have thrived there.
  • I Choose to Stay: At the end of the movie, Percy and his son choose to stay in the jungle when they find the civilization that the former was obsessed with finding. This is further cemented when Keltie receives a package from Percy: A compass that he promised he would send if ever found Zed.
  • I Will Wait for You: After her husband and son vanish in the jungle, Nina Fawcett keeps hoping that they're still alive until her death decades later.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: One of the tribes Fawcett encounters is a group of this. However, unlike most examples, their cannibalism is presented in a much more benevolent manner and as a tradition to pass one's spirit to the rest of the tribe.
  • In Harmony with Nature: The Native Americans are implied to be this, especially compared to the Europeans. Costin marvels at one point about how they take only as much as they need from their environment.
  • The Load: Murray accompanies Fawcett on his second journey, but he's unable to cope with the tropical conditions and eventually puts the mission weeks behind schedule. When he develops a severe leg infection and creates more trouble in his delirium, some of the team seriously consider leaving him to die so that the rest of them have a chance at getting out.
  • Lost World: What Fawcett is seeking. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle had Fawcett in mind when he wrote the Trope Namer.
  • Native Guide: On his first trip, a rubber baron gives Fawcett an Indian slave to serve this purpose. He faithfully leads them where they want to go, but then bolts.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: No, this is not a mystery/adventure movie. Nor there is a lot of action in it - the trailer collected almost all of it. What you are up to is a biopic drama that happens to be about a jungle explorer, following him over the course of two decades and few separate expeditions.
  • Piranha Problem: During a native attack on the first expedition, one injured crew member falls into the river and gets tangled up in the fishing nets, giving the piranhas a chance to feast on him.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Costin and Manley are so loyal to Fawcett that not only do they return to the Amazon with him, they arrange transfers so that they can fight in World War I together. Averted in the last expedition, though: Manley has been killed at the front, and Costin has a new family and declines to join.
  • River of Insanity: Fawcett's first voyage looks like this, as various team members meet unhappy deaths and the survivors start to go a little crazy. Ultimately subverted, though: not only is that voyage successful, but by the end of the film he's totally at peace with himself and the idea of dying in the jungle.
  • Übermensch: Baron de Gondoriz, a rubber tycoon who's essentially running his own feudal state deep in the jungle, complete with slavery (in 1906). He clearly knows and doesn't care what outsiders think of him, as he calmly observes to Fawcett, "Negotiating with me disgusts you."
  • Ungrateful Bastard: After Fawcett gives the ailing Murray his last horse and some provisions so that he can find his way to a mining camp for help, the team finds their remaining supplies doused in kerosene. Murray later denies that he did it and indignantly claims that the team abandoned him, threatening to sue. (Though to be fair, Murray was very delirious at the time so might not have known what he was doing.)