Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 21 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex 1; Nudity 2
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
If you enjoyed the Indiana Jones adventure films, writer-director James Gray’s is the film for you, based on the 2009 book by David Grann. Not quite as dark as the recent Embrace of the Serpent, it also takes us back to the early 20th Century when the jungles of South America were being penetrated by scientists intent on studying (and exploiting) it. Whereas the earlier film took place in the Amazon basin, the scientist looking for a legendary plant with curative powers, Gray’s film is set on the western side of the Andes in the uncharted region between Bolivia and Brazil, its hero obsessed with finding a lost city he calls “Z.”
The film opens in 1905 in Cork, Ireland where we meet Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British officer happily married to the beautiful Nina (Sienna Miller), but haunted by his lack of a medal that would elevate him to the level of respect enjoyed by his fellow officers. This is unlikely to happen during this peaceful era. We also see that he is victimized by the class prejudice of the time, one upper-crust officer observing, “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” It seems that his drunken father had disgraced the family by his gambling and womanizing, making the road to success for his son almost insurmountable.
In 1906, when the Royal Geographical Society offers to send him to survey the unmapped region and establish an acceptable border between Bolivia and Brazil, he jumps at the chance, even though it means a long separation from Nina and his young son Jack. After an arduous trek, he succeeds in his surveying, but feels unfulfilled because of being unable to press on to seek a city that is indicated by his finding in the jungle a broken piece of pottery of a sophisticated design. He had at first disbelieved his Indian guide’s stories about a city of gold, but the pottery plus a few small statues had convinced him there was a city awaiting discovery.
Upon his return to England he is greeted by crowds cheering him as “England’s bravest explorer.” However, during his speech before the Society there are those who jeer at his claim to have found evidence of a great civilization in the jungle. This would conflict with their prejudiced dismissal of the people of the area as far beneath the enlightened British. One audience member challenges Percy, “Are you insisting of these savages, they are our equals?” It is as much to dispel such prejudice as for honor and glory that Percy is determined to return to the jungle and find the lost city.
The Royal Society lacks the funds, but the expedition becomes possible when the wealthy biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) agrees to finance it, providing that he can go along.
Returning means for Percy the further sacrificing of his family. He had been gone so long the first time that his little son, upon their reunion had asked, “Are you my father?” During his absence, Nina had given birth to a second son, and now a daughter. Nina has always supported her husband, even doing some helpful research in the Dublin library into an old text by a conquistador claiming that there was a fabulous city deep in the jungle. Indeed, she wants to go with her husband, but though he is somewhat progressive in his views on the female sex, he is not that progressive. Hence, she waves goodbye to him along with the three children, with Jack being angry over the separation.
In the jungle, the party faces many obstacles, one of their chief burdens being their egotistical patron, whose obesity makes it difficult for him to keep up the pace. One day a hail of arrows fly out of the jungle, killing one man outright. The party takes shelter behind the canoes, and then Percy does a surprising thing. Instead of firing back at their attackers, he urges his men to join him in a song. As they commence singing, he exposes himself, holds out his hand as a sign of peace and repeats “Amigo, amigo.” The natives are so startled that they emerge from their cover in the forest. Soon they are conducting the whites to their village, decorated with grislily corpses and hundreds of skulls of defeated enemies. In the welcoming ceremony, Percy gives the chief’s son a talisman, and the natives insist that they all eat the flesh of some of their slain enemies. All do but James, who insists on consuming more than his share of the rations they have brought with them.
When the biologist injures his knee, it becomes infected, bringing their trek to a halt. They are already short of supplies because the rotund man has consumed so much of their food. To save his life, Percy mounts him on one of their precious horses and sends him back with a guide to a rubber plantation where he can receive medical attention. The rest of the party presses on. In the midst of a rainstorm, all but Percy become convinced that they must turn back. Their leader, however has caught a glimpse of stone statues in a narrow canyon just as a flashflood almost sweeps him away. Despite this, his companions, pointing out that they have no more supplies, insist that they go back.
Back in England Percy must contend with the lies of James Murray that Percy had abandoned him in the jungle; the resentment of son Jack due to his father’s becoming a stranger during the years of his absence; and then World War One. Percy is severely wounded by a gas attack in the trench warfare, requiring extensive nursing and recuperation. Nina stands by him through all this, and Jack, at first rejecting his father, at last reconciles with him. In fact, it is he, now 20-year-old (Tom Holland), who in 1923 raises the idea that he and his father continue the search for the city. Percy agrees on the condition that Nina assent to another long separation. Bowing to the inevitable, she does, her observation including the famous quote from Browning, “To dream to seek the unknown. To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Thus, father and son set forth on their journey into the dangerous jungle. What happens to them is a mystery that the filmmakers speculate upon, but which cannot be asserted is what happened, plausible as it is. The ending of the film focuses upon the stoic bravery of the loyal wife and her refusal to give up hope for her lost husband and son throughout her long life.
Although Percy sacrificed much physically and mentally for his obsessive search, the film makes it clear that it is Nina who gave up the most. At first the presence of her husband while she coped with the raising of their three children, and then the sacrifice of her oldest son. Actress Sienna Miller is not given a great amount of screen time, but she is so capable that she quickly wins our heart-felt sympathy and admiration for her character. Her co-star Charlie Hunnam displays tenacity and the qualities promoted by the apostle Paul, especially in his rejection of the prejudice against the natives so prevalent then. However we might question his giving in to his son’s request to return to the jungle, we admire his tenacity, bravery, and genuine love for the family he leaves behind for duty. And even more, his broad mindedness and creativity to deal with a lethal situation in a non-violent manner there in the jungle. Not even Indiana Jones would have thought of that.
This review with a set of questions is in the May 2017 issue of VP.