‘The Lost City of Z’ Points to the City That Is to Come

The thrilling story of British explorer Percy Fawcett dramatizes our search for a transcendent home.
‘The Lost City of Z’ Points to the City That Is to Come
Image: Courtesy Amazon Studios

James Gray’s The Lost City of Z opens with a rousing sequence of sport: British army officers on horseback, galloping through the picturesque Irish country on a stag hunt. Complete with a bagpipe score, sweeping vistas, and shots of adoring wives and children cheering on their men, the scene embodies masculine attraction to danger, adventure, exploration and competition. When Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) wins the hunt and shoots the stag, he raises a toast with his fellow hunters, with words that should resonate with those of us who just celebrated Easter: “To death, the best source of life.”

The scene is important for character development, positioning Fawcett as an ambitious, genteel, but insecure man seeking to prove his manly mettle and bolster his soldierly reputation. But the scene also introduces some of the film’s questions about the nature of man: What are we really after when we seek to hunt a stag—especially when it’s an animal we don’t need to eat? When we aren’t fighting for survival (as in war or wilderness exploration), why must men seek to fight in sport, game, politics, and more? Need there be a concrete mission or prize, or is the point simply in the struggle itself, the test of strength? In what sense is death the best source of life?

Based on David Grann’s 2009 book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon—and, before that, Grann’s 2005 New Yorker story—the film follows the adventures of Fawcett, who pioneered multiple explorations into the Bolivian jungle between 1906 and 1925. At first commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to survey the land for mapmaking purposes (and to act as a third party between rival border nations vying to claim the territory), Fawcett soon becomes driven by his own obsessive mission: to uncover a lost civilization (“Z”) he suspects is hidden beneath centuries of vines and underbrush. The evidence for his theory of Z’s existence is scant, but his curiosity and drive are unquenchable. He devotes the rest of his life to searching for his mythic El Dorado, spending years at a time away from his wife (Sienna Miller) and children.

Shot partially in Colombia, Lost City is a thoroughly immersive film, and not because of 3D technology or state-of-the-art CGI. Like an old-school, 35mm, classic Hollywood film, it engages you so deeply that you rarely register that you are, in fact, watching a film. This is not to say Gray’s filmmaking style is boring or unoriginal. On the contrary, it is so stealthily skillful, subtle, and confidently cinematic that it draws little attention to itself, instead serving the story and setting a formidable mood. Even Christopher Spelman’s gorgeous, sprawling score fits the world of the film so well that we rarely process it as non-diegetic. Its orchestral swells interplay seamlessly with the symphony of Amazonian bird, insect, and howler monkey ambience.

The classical, subdued elegance of Gray’s style (see also his 2008 film Two Lovers, and especially 2013’s The Immigrant) is beautifully paired with the context of unruly, fog-enveloped, panther-and-snake-filled jungles. The juxtaposition embodies the film’s exploration of the borderlands between order and chaos, toggling between the “civilized” (corsets, balls, and pastoral domestic life in Edwardian England) and the “uncivilized” (tribes of cannibals, rivers of piranhas, and ghastly Amazonian humidity). And yet, occasionally the lines are blurred. In one scene, for instance, an opera company stages an elaborate production in a Bolivian jungle theater, and the brutality of trench warfare in scenes at the Battle of the Somme show that “civilized” modern Europe has, at times, looked awfully savage.

Fawcett’s explorations in South America do indeed challenge his own colonialist assumptions and broaden his understanding of the human story. In one scene, in which he reports on his explorations to the Royal Geographic Society in 1911 London, he positions himself as a progressive against the cultural and religious supremacy of his peers, accusing them of being so “steeped in the bigotry of the church” that they cannot conceive of an advanced civilization built long before—and without the influence of—the empires of Europe.

But make no mistake: Fawcett’s intentions in his explorations are not first and foremost political, or progressive, or humanitarian. Nor are they economic or religious. He’s not on a mission to bring the gospel to unreached people groups (though many may watch his ominous journeys down jungle rivers and think of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and the Ecuadorian martyrs). No—Fawcett’s mission is for the sake of adventure. Wanderlust. Exploration. Life-threatening expedition.

Fawcett is a sort of prototype for today’s Bear Grylls–style professional adventurers who star in popular reality TV shows. His 1925 quest to find the “Lost City of Z” was largely financed by American newspapers who chronicled the journey for the masses, via play-by-play telegrams from the jungle. His intriguing expedition in exotic lands—“the most hazardous and certainly the most spectacular adventure of the kind ever undertaken by a scientist,” declared the LA Times in 1925—became a pop culture spectacle that served as an inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones and, probably, much of Disneyland’s “Adventureland.”

Fawcett wasn’t attempting to become a celebrity or a pop culture icon, though. He was at heart an explorer, driven by the same instincts that drive Boy Scouts to build fires and Huckleberry Finn to raft down the Mississippi. It’s the risk of danger that is the draw, the same sublime mysteries of the unmapped and unknown that drove Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica and Chris McCandless to Alaska.

If this all sounds very gendered and stereotypically “boy”—well, it is. Aside from one brief, vaguely anachronistic moment when Nina Fawcett argues that she should accompany her husband on his jungle exploits (a notion he dismisses resolutely), the film is radically comfortable in its traditionalist skin. Z’s world is one in which men and boys hunt, fight in wars, blaze trails with machetes, and dodge spears in the Amazon while their wives and mothers keep the homestead going and mail them letters with Rudyard Kipling poems enclosed. Take Kipling’s “The Explorer,” for instance, which Nina sends to Percy as a poetic affirmation for his journey:

“There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”
So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foot hills where the trails run out and stop.

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

It’s a testament to Nina Fawcett’s longsuffering fortitude (played brilliantly by Miller in one of her best performances) that she not only manages her household solo for years on end, but does so while encouraging her husband’s dangerous ambitions. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” she says near the end of the film, quoting Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” and underscoring the film’s eschatological resonances.

Indeed, Lost City is a romantic, grandiose, spiritually haunting film. It invokes a sense of curiosity, awe, and enchantment that feels foreign to the safe, enclosed, buffered existence of our modern era. The film recalls a pre-Google time when there were still undiscovered lands and unanswered questions, when navigation still required physical maps and compasses, when intriguing mysteries still prompted sleuthing beyond Wikipedia.

“So much of life is a mystery,” says Hunnam at one point in the film. “We know so little of this world.” This humility and curiosity before the world’s vastness lends Lost City a transcendent flavor. The “Z” of Fawcett’s pursuits is never truly the end of his exploring—and even if he had found it, there would have been another mystery, deeper into the jungle, that would beckon him forward.

In an interview about the film, Hunnam said he related to Fawcett’s “sense of trying to fill the great and terrible hole we spend our lives trying to fill, and trying to figure out what it all means.” More than to find the lost city of Z, the jungle was the setting for Fawcett’s spiritual quest. The search itself provided him touches of transcendence. The quest itself was the prize.

Who of us cannot relate to that? The joy of life is so often in the longing, in the here-and-then-gone glimpses of what is always beyond our grasp. It’s the sense we all have that the dream “cities” we seek—whatever they may be—will never be found in this life. “For here we have no lasting city,” writes the author of Hebrews, “but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:14 ESV).

It’s the same “inconsolable secret in each one of you” that C. S. Lewis describes in The Weight of Glory—“the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” It’s the fleeting encounters with beauty that are but foretastes of Beauty: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

It’s the relics and rumors of a city unseen.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles–based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker). His website is brettmccracken.com.

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‘The Lost City of Z’ Points to the City That Is to Come