“The Lost City of Z” — A Brave Explorer Sails Into the Depths of the Amazon Jungle. But Why?


APRIL 26, 2017

One of the several movie genres that has blessedly disappeared from the nation’s theater screens is the jungle movie.  By that, I don’t mean “Apocalypse Now” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — what I’m thinking of is the kind of jungle movie that stars The Great White Hunter, who’s after some rare animal or a treasure chest or something equally nonsensical.  There’s usually a motley collection of crew members who mostly serve as cannon fodder for the bloodthirsty savages and, of course, a beautiful woman who doesn’t want to be treated as a beautiful woman so she sneaks on board so that she can prove that she’s as tough as any man.  You know the one.

“The Lost City of Z” is nothing like those films…kind of.  Yes, there are still natives who attack the explorers’ boat with a shower of spears and arrows headed their way.  But The Great White Hunter here is a man who takes on what he thinks is a job but which soon becomes a lifelong obsession.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Based on the 2009 book by Henry Grann, “The Lost City of Z” centers on the real-life Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a bold British Army officer in the early 20th century who longs for recognition but never receives it, probably due to his station in life.  (With his father a well-known gambler and a drunk, it is said of Fawcett that he is “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”)

With his path to Army glory blocked, Fawcett jumps at the chance offered by the Royal Geographic Society to lead an expedition into remote areas of the Amazon in order to find promising locations for the lucrative rubber trade.  (It’s always been all about money.)  So Fawcett teams up with his best bud Cpl. Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, virtually unrecognizable in a full bushy beard) along with the usual motley cannon-fodder crew (see paragraph 1), and along the river they go.

The spears and arrows come fairly early into the trek, but Fawcett attempts to make friends with the natives and even leads the crew to a jolly time with a group of cannibals.  When Fawcett & crew finally reach the end of the journey, the explorer finds shards of ancient pottery, leading Fawcett to conclude he has found proof of an ancient society, which he calls “Z,” that could perhaps even predate civilization in the Western World.

Fawcett returns to England a hero and is reunited with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his family.  Much as he is happy to be back with them, Fawcett’s mind is still back in the Amazon to which he hungers to return and with the help of the Geographic Society, he does.

And it all goes downhill from there.

Film buffs might be surprised that “The Lost City of Z” was written and directed by James Gray, a New York-centric moviemaker whose filmography largely consists of a jungle of city-based street stories.  So what’s he doing tromping around the Amazon jungles?  Much as I have some problems with “The Lost City of Z,” it’s evident that this film is a passion project for Gray, so bravo to him for getting it made.

Still, there’s just too much story to fit into an already overlong 2 hour & 21 minute movie.  Gray can only fit in 3 of Fawcett’s expeditions, the last with his eldest son (Tom Holland, the new “Spider-Man”), even though in real life Fawcett had a total of 8 Amazon expeditions.  Of course, if we fully understood why he was obsessed with returning to the jungle, we might be more forgiving.  But here, Fawcett comes across at times as simply a nut, which puts up a roadblock to audience empathy.

However, there’s so much to like about “The Lost City of Z,” beginning with the large scale in which Gray envisioned the film.  (If you want to see “Lost City,” by all means, try to see it on the big screen, since it was filmed with a scope that will be severely lost on your tablet.)  And Gray has put together a first-rate cast.

First of all is Charlie Hunnam, a British actor who gained TV fame in the States as a biker leader in the FX motorcycle drama “Sons of Anarchy.”   I dipped into the series now and then, and Hunnam seemed to be solid without being particularly outstanding.  But here he carries the whole weight of the film (and it’s a heavy weight) and really triumphs.  Pattison creates a character about whom you want to know more (always a good thing), and Miller, an actress of whom I’ve never been fond, strikes a career-best performance as a wife who deeply loves a husband who desperately seems, for whatever reason, to want to return to the jungle.

I’ve got to give “The Lost City of Z” props for its huge old-school movie scope, even as I was looking at my watch through most of it, and there’s certainly nothing like it out there, another big plus.  I guess that I just wanted more.