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.