In the second act of The Lost City of Z, we’re introduced to James Murray, a supporting character who initially commands the respect of our Hemingway-esque hero Percy Fawcett. Murray supports Fawcett’s claims of a potential lost city in the Amazon, and joins the explorer on his journey to prove naysayers wrong. We’re lead to believe Murray himself is an accomplished explorer too, having trekked Antarctica sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
But as Percy and crew embark on their second voyage to Amazonia, they quickly learn Murray is a fraud. He can barely keep up with the rest of the explorers, choosing instead to rest under a tree and gorge on snacks prepared by Fawcett’s family, as the other members of the expedition interact with a group of local tribesmen. As they raft down a river, Murray falls out and in turn, causes the group to lose a significant portion of their food. Angered, Fawcett and his team part ways with Murray in Amazonia but then encounter him again when they arrive back in Britain, this time with Murray claiming the explorers left him to die, that he was not in the wrong, and that he was in need of an apology from Fawcett, who went to every length and made every exception for the fat, bumbling man. If you’ve ever worked on a school project with a student who didn’t put in their share of work, or shared an office with a co-worker who proudly wore their laziness on their sleeve, you will instantly see their face in Murray and immediately hate him for it.
Murray’s failed foibles in Amazonia, and his request for Percy to apologize are the moments where we become fully entrenched in this film. Everything prior moves at a slow brisk pace, boring at times, but still fun to look at. With the reveal of Murray’s true character, we’re angered and have a renewed investment in this film and its protagonists, desperately hoping that they will find this mysterious hidden city. Murray is a foil to Fawcett but also his direct inverse. Watching him fail at everything makes us appreciate Fawcett all the more, his determination, his gusto, his character and his undying passion for the city of Z.
Based on a book that was based on a true story, this film is beautifully shot. Every frame of its nighttime scenes are like hand-painted portraits, with the flicker of nearby fires illuminating each frame with life. The performances are endearing but don’t connect on a deeper emotional level, where all the risks are put on actually finding the city rather than developing the characters who are trying to find it. A central plot point is Fawcett’s neglect of his family in favor of his expeditions, with even his son accusing him so later in the film. B
But Fawcett never really comes face-to-face with these accusations to seeks to change, everyone else around him instead changes to adopt a similar passion for Z. Even his crewmates seem like just supporting hands in Fawcett’s life. Sure, they are working for him much more than they are working with him, but they must have some sort of desires, hopes and dreams aside of Fawcett’s. Sadly, we never discover these. When he does meet with villagers, Fawcett is cognizant of their value as humans, but you get the sense he never sees them as equals, just fleshy reminders that there is a world outside of his own, but a world he just wants to depict in a geographical publication. We do see Fawcett encounter tragedy after going to the trenches in World War I and temporarily losing his eyesight. But this tragedy is short-lived as we’re instantly transported years later to where everything is a-ok again.
Character faults aside, The Lost City of Z is a sweeping, majestic film. It brings to mind a more classic form of cinematic storytelling, carefully prodded out and planned, with deep rewards, rather than multiple but fleeting short ones. Out of the movies I’ve seen recently, it most reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s silence, both set in a location that was exotic and new to its central characters, and both featuring those characters grappling with the new worlds and the possibility they might not be ready for them. But like in Silence, even after tragedy and setback, there’s a burning drive at the core of these characters, a higher devotion to something they so desperately believe in that keeps them moving, that is admirable and endearing. Even if you aren’t entertained at every moment, you’re grateful that a movie of this stature is attempting to entertain you.
Another movie The Lost City of Z reminded me of was Into the Wild, not so much because of its highly-idealistic protagonists who were obsessed with nature. But because it was a movie based on a book that recounted a real life event. Into the Wild is a good film, but Into the Wild the book is an immeasurably better experience, because it is John Krakeur, one of the greatest writers living today, telling us Christopher McCandless’ story and his thoughts on it, rather than just the tale of Christopher McCandless. You can’t really translate an experience like that to a film though without it looking silly, so you have to focus on just the story itself without its original storyteller and hope for the best.
I didn’t read The Lost City of Z before I saw the movie, although I was aware it was a book beforehand. But what I wasn’t aware of was that it was a real-life story. After finding that out after witnessing everything grand and beautiful that happened in this movie, I was absolutely stunned. It’s still not known for certain if the real-life Fawcett actually found Z, but his incredible journey to find it has and will remain the stuff of legends, almost as much as the city itself.