I first read ‘Exploration Fawcett’ when I was about 18 (I’m now 60) and it made a deep impression on me. The story of a ramrod-straight, tall army officer with a big moustache and his young companions, including the improbably named Raleigh Rimmel exploring the wildernesses of South America was unbearably romantic for a callow youth confined to the cloudy wastes of Croydon. And the fact that on their last expedition into the Amazon jungle they disappeared and were never seen again only added to the sense of unbearable adventure.
Kipling’s epigraph at the start of the opening chapter resonated and continues to resonate to this day and fuelled my latent wanderlust.
‘…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!”’
Not that I went to South America either then, or since, but I had plans, oh I had plans. I thought I would be the one to find them – maybe living quiet lives amongst Indians who had captured them and refused to let them leave, just like Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ which could have been, and maybe was, inspired by Fawcett’s story.
In 2009 David Grann published The Lost City of Z which related Fawcett’s story and sought to find an explanation for his disappearance; a book which I felt I should have written. James Gray has now written and directed a film of the same name to tell Fawcett’s story.
The film is described in the publicity as an ‘epic’ which is often the kiss of death – an epic doesn’t need to be described as such; it either is or it isn’t. The start of the film was not promising – horses, hunting, starched dresses, army officers, stiff upper lips, moustaches, hands clasped behind backs – I was worried it would be Downton Abbey but with snakes. But it grew on me.
Fawcett mounted several expeditions to South America over a period of about 15 years and I was worried as to how they could compress these into a movie with a coherent story arc. However, Gray manages it largely successfully although the expeditions are mostly reduced to sweaty shirts, bugs, big hats, beards and the occasional shrunken head. I emerged from the cinema having enjoyed an epic which did deserve the epithet. It really came alive for me during the scenes in the Great War. Fawcett was called up as an ex-officer and fought on the front line where he was injured by chlorine gas. These scenes were movingly and succinctly filmed and conveyed in a few minutes the horror and heroism of that conflict.
In the film, Fawcett departs on his final journey in search of the Lost City of Z with his son Jack, just 21. In fact, Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmel was the third member of the party. There is an awkward scene before their departure where Fawcett’s wife Nina (played by Siena Miller – excellent) asks to come too, demonstrating (in case we missed it) that she is an independent woman capable of withstanding hardships as well as any man. I dislike this tendency to try and rewrite history – it was the lot of women at that time to remain behind (often for years), bringing up children for fathers who had, intentionally or otherwise, abandoned them. We deduce for ourselves Nina’s anger and frustration at her lot – it doesn’t need to be spelt out in dialogue that has Miller’s hand all over it.
The very title of the film (and its source, Grann’s book of the same name) suggests a slightly mad quest which I feel cheapens Fawcett’s motives. Fawcett’s own book – Exploration Fawcett – was compiled by his younger son Brian from Fawcett’s notes and presents him (although that could be Brian’s dewy-eyed view of his usually absent parent) as more of a serious explorer. However, it cannot be denied that Fawcett’s journeys and dreams meant many, many years away from his wife and family and resulted in the death of several people and not just his own party. Grann relates numerous expeditions which were mounted after his disappearance to find him – in many of which the participants also disappeared. The film leaves Fawcett and his son’s fate open – as indeed it was and remains to this day; it shows them captured by Native Indians and then drugged and borne away but to a fate that is unclear and isn’t specified.
Nina narrates Kipling’s lines in a rather forced way to explain Fawcett’s wanderlust at the beginning of the film and then book-ends the film by intoning Browning’s lines about a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for, just in case we missed the message.
Charlie Hunnan plays Fawcett and he’s workmanlike but never really takes flight in the role. Robert Pattison is bespectacled and bearded and largely unrecognizable as George Costin, Fawcett’s regular companion, and mumbles most of his lines.
It is interesting to compare the film to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, which it somewhat resembles. Herzog’s film was about a mad dreamer (Klaus Kinski in the title role) who drags a steamship over a hill in the Amazon jungle in order to make his fortune from rubber. In Herzog’s film, a ship really was dragged over a hill – the madness of Fitzcarraldo’s dreams and the strength of his vision and Herzog’s will was thus clear to see. The Lost City of Z never really brings the madness of Fawcett’s dreams alive – it’s an enjoyable, well-made and worthy 2 hours or so but in the end, it’s Downton Abbey with snakes (but better).