“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 foothills 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!”
—“The Explorer,” Rudyard Kipling, 1898
“Something hidden. Go and find it,” whispers the divine voice to the pioneer in Kipling’s poem as Nina Fawcett (Sienna Miller) reads it to her husband, Percy (Charlie Hunnam), in the lush and languid The Lost City of Z. Living in the early-20th century British empire, Percy is a man of such torn ambitions. He strives for further up military ranks for the sake of his family’s name, in order to be free of the past peccadillos of his alcoholic father, and to secure a comfortable future for his wife and children. Nina, too, has her own conflict between being an equal partner in her marriage and subservient in British society due to her sex. They both want great things, and are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of them. So, when the Royal Geographical Society offers Percy a cartography assignment, to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil in deep Amazonia, he reluctantly but unshakably takes up the task. He will be separated from his family for years, trading the stuffy collars and aristocracy of Britain for the weltering wilds of South American jungles. He thus becomes a man living between two worlds, two vocations, two callings. He lives for one of them; he is most fully alive in the other.
Director and screenwriter James Gray chooses a hazy, shadowy lighting and color palette, with warm tones and soft edges, imbuing a fantastic naturalism within every image. An epic, classical adventure, there is something dream-like about the whole narrative, as if it was conjured up in the imagination and memory of the characters themselves. The green-and-gold visual aesthetic alludes to both the sepia tones of bygone photography and the sweltering humidity of the Amazonian rainforest. Indeed, the heat literally undulates across the screen in waves, creating a distorted image of the filmic reality, like seeing the world through the reflected ripples on a river. The painterly compositions and framing, the patient dissolves and wide shots of landscapes, all add to the romanticism of Percy Fawcett’s idealistic ambitions.
I grew up in a generation told that we could be anything we wanted to be. Follow your dreams. Be yourself. Life is a grand adventure. At first glance, these lofty ideals sound like empowering invitations towards personal freedom and self-created glory. The horizons are wide open—go explore, discover, conquer! It’s the kind of privilege granted to those born into a certain time and place, a certain class and race, whether in 21st-century America or the aristocracy of the early 20th-century British empire.
But what happens if my dreams can’t pay the bills? How can I be myself if I don’t yet know who I actually am? Where is the map or compass for this adventure? Sometimes, the horizons of life rush up and crash into us, destroying all sense of artifice—I think of Truman’s boat slamming into the studio wall in the finale of The Truman Show—and we are left dazed and disillusioned. The glory seems beyond our reach.
“We shall find the glory!” Percy Fawcett fervently tells the RGS upon returning from his first adventure with tales of lost civilizations and a golden city of Z, stories based on rumors and readings of pottery shards. It’s a city he has never actually seen, and he carries strikingly little evidence of its existence, but that doesn’t dissuade his enthusiasm. Hunnam imbues Fawcett with a set-jawed zeal–he’s obsessed and ardent without being maniacal, wholly fixated on his dream of glory.
Still, the glory of what? For whom? Percy’s choice to return to the Amazon is also a choice to leave his family once more. He’s following his dream and being himself, but at what cost to others? In a bedroom conversation following his pronouncement to the RGS, Nina confronts Percy on his hypocrisy, how his personal ambitions may have blinded him to her desires and sense of vocation. She invites herself along for the adventure, which he promptly refuses. “It’s not a place at all for a woman,” he tells her. “We believe firmly in the equality between us,” Nina retorts. It’s a conflict of wills, where hopes and dreams collide on their divergent trajectories. “You could not bear it, and I could not bear that either,” Percy tells her firmly, to which she reminds him that he has never experienced, even witnessed, the pain of bearing a child into the world. “And in this fantasy of yours, what happens to the children?” he asks. She could ask him the same thing. In this fantasy world of Amazonian aspirations, what will become of the children who grow up without a father? Percy turns away from Nina; the scene cuts once more to the lush heat of the jungle.
A friend recently asked a hypothetical question to a carload of young married men: If somehow your family all died or disappeared today, and you suddenly no longer had responsibilities to spouse or children, what would you do with your life? I confess, there are moments in my life where I wonder how much more I could accomplish were I not married and the father of three young children. Yet as I understood the underlying query—if you were single, what could you be doing now?—I found it to betray an unsettling understanding of freedom. The question suggests that one’s identity and vocation will be suddenly free and clear once the trappings of traditional familial fidelity are tossed aside. Without these other people to define me, I can freely define myself, become who I truly want to be, was meant to be, to fulfill my destiny, to find the glory. Yet the various sources of self—not limited to, but including one’s role as spouse and parent—cannot be discarded so easily, as if they were exterior husks hiding one’s true interior identity. What initially may sound freeing is simply imprisonment of another sort, namely bearing the whole existential weight of having to figure myself out by myself, without my beloved best friend (my wife) as a companion and partner in that process. The freedoms I have personally experienced as a husband and father far outweigh the supposed freedoms of unattachment.
In the car that day, I couldn’t answer the question. I wonder if Percy Fawcett would have had the same hesitancy.
Fawcett’s second exploration becomes a nightmare as blowhard patron James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) proves to be a source of frustration and ruin, unable to carry his weight while dragging down the cadre of adventurers. Unlike Fawcett’s capable companion Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Murray has his own fantasy ambitions which need fulfilment. Where Costin is content living in Fawcett’s shadow, riding in his zealous wake, Murray has a reputation and image to uphold, one which ultimately leads him to sabotage the mission, causing a rift between Fawcett and the RGS. None of them seem to grasp the historical significance of Fawcett’s goals—for him, it’s not just about map-making or bits of pottery, it’s about understanding the human race itself. Fawcett wants others to see the human beings he sees in the native tribes of South America, to adopt postures of humility and equality. “We’ve been so arrogant and contemptuous, I no less than others,” Fawcett confesses to Costin as he scans the mathematically precise agricultural practices of a native tribe in admiration. “Well, it’s what you’ve been saying,” Costin replies with a grin. “Imagine what Z must be like,” Fawcett whispers aloud in wonder, his hand clutching Costin’s shoulder in the grip of friendship. Costin reveals a glance, ever so brief, of patronizing pity, what one might feel when an eager friend describes their outlandish plans and you smile and nod in approval, not wanting to squelch their enthusiasm.
In an era of systemic racism in which “humanity” is determined by skin color or ethnicity, Fawcett is depicted as fairly woke to progressive ideals (his response to his wife’s entreaties notwithstanding). Racial equality, the dismantling of slavery, and the pursuit of knowledge regarding human origins and understanding—surely these are worthy endeavors. But what if the world isn’t ready yet? What if it never will be? There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation.
As we’ve seen in recent years, racism and injustice have not been purged from Western culture, despite progressive ideals. Are these ideals still worth pursuing? Of course. Yet are they worth the abandonment of one’s marriage and family, even the loss of one’s life? That’s a difficult question to answer. Is progress a zero-sum game?
Even as The Lost City of Z presents Fawcett as being ahead of his time, the bluster, deceit, and vanity of James Murray lingers in the immoral political leadership of our own era. Fawcett is caught between familial commitments and societal significance, these dual (or dueling) callings manifested in a single person living in the tension of the personal and the political. To abandon one’s marriage or children in the name of progress feels unctuous and errant; yet to say or do nothing in the face of systemic injustice is also unacceptable. Fawcett takes a path less travelled: he listens to and believes in the voices and visions of those often not given a platform in his society—women, children, the working class, and people of color. Still, the film is no hagiography, as Fawcett’s dreams of progress border on mirage in his inability to address his own privilege. Progress is not a zero-sum game; it will require finding the glory not in personal status but in persons themselves.
Fawcett’s aspirations are interrupted by history as the chaotic heat of World War I calls him and his fellow explorers away from the organic heat of the jungle. Fawcett finds himself in the dank recess of a bunker, surrounded by his men and sitting across from an elderly palm reader. “You dream to be in a forest,” she whispers. “I wish to find a lost city,” Fawcett replies. She asks him to picture it, and the walls of the bunker fade into the steamy green foliage of the Amazon, the sound of insects buzzing with vigor. “You cannot blind yourself to this vision,” the prophetess tells him as the forest envelopes them both. “What you seek is far greater than you ever imagined. A vast land bejeweled with peoples. Your soul will never be quiet until you find this new place.”
“Our world has set itself afire; we must look elsewhere to quench the blaze,” Fawcett whispers in reply. The glory glows like embers from a fire burning against a starless night sky.
Years pass, and with an injury from the war and the wisdom of age, Fawcett settles with his wife and three children in the isolated beauty of rural England. His temporary loss of sight from chlorine gas corresponds with his loss of vision for Z. His eyes are reopened when his now-adult son Jack (Tom Holland) invites an American reporter to interview Percy and Nina about the increased interest in exploration which Fawcett’s pursuits have engendered. We see Jack on the hunt in pursuit of a rabbit, framed by the enchanting beauty of the English landscape. It echoes an earlier scene in the film, Percy on a stag hunt trying to prove himself to his superiors, a visual mirroring revealing the parallels between father and son in their mutual ambitions for adventure. Following the rabbit hunt, Percy gives Jack a necklace he received from a Guarani chief, another parallel to an earlier scene where Percy gifted a necklace to a tribal leader’s son. “It must have been a glorious day,” Jack says. Percy nods with a knowing smile, his eyebrows raising in resigned memory of the past. The glory was once within his reach.
Despite their previous misunderstandings, the two men find sudden alignment as Jack suggests they go back to Amazonia together to find Z. “I’m an old bastard now,” Percy tells Jack with a smirk. But the glory has been glimpsed yet again, a younger generation reminding the elder of its lingering dreams in the glimmering heat.
As a father, I can empathize—in our family, we strive to live a great story, and to live that story together in shared adventure. Jack’s eager invitation is that of a child grown into adulthood longing for a meaningful experience with his father in a shared shot at greatness. When asking Nina for permission to go, Percy is surprised by how quickly she agrees. “What choice did I have? It’s his essential nature,” she replies, gesturing towards Percy. Like father, like son. Something hidden. Go and find it. And so they go, leaving Nina and the two other children behind forever.
Before embarking on their quest, Percy tries to persuade Henry Costin to join the father and son duo, only to be turned down by his old friend. “We came so close, Henry. Think of what it would mean to finally find it together,” Percy pleads. “Chief, I have a wife and child now,” Costin replies, eyes downturned, perhaps knowing how Percy will respond to this excuse. A smile comes over Percy as he nods and rejoins, “My own children were younger than yours is now when we went on our first trip. Can’t say it was not a sacrifice.” In reply, Costin chooses his words carefully, but his face reveals his doubt about Percy’s decision to leave wife and children once more: “This search for Z…I can no longer bear the cost.” Percy smiles sadly, “You’ve come to doubt its existence.” “No,” Costin replies, “I only doubt that Z can provide all the answers you seek from it.” Costin makes the choice Fawcett could never imagine: he chooses one vocation over the other.
There follows a scene where Percy and Jack are on a train approaching a station of cheering onlookers in the jungles of South America. The two earnest men hang their heads out the windows and wave to the celebrants. As they do, a series of match cuts appear of Nina and children sleeping, a cinematic montage between life in the jungle and life at home. The camera mimics the movement of the passing train, almost as if the locomotive were passing through the family’s bedrooms, juxtaposing the dozing family with the exotic journey, Percy and Jack rushing past their own homestead with abandon.
Percy and Jack strive to live a great story together, but it is not the adventure either expected. The father and son find themselves in captivity, surrounded by a circle of warriors and kneeling before a trio of native leaders who will decide their fates. “Be brave,” Percy tells a trembling Jack with spiritual tranquility. “Nothing will happen to us that is not our destiny.” One of tribal leaders, observing Percy, remarks, “The Christian is not one of us.” Another leader replies, “He is not one of them either. Let us find a home for his spirit.” A wandering soul, a pilgrim in time, a man torn between two callings—this is Percy Fawcett’s identity and legacy as a vagrant pneuma in search of an abode in glory.
What follows in the final 10 minutes of The Lost City of Z is impossible to wholly describe in prose; it demands to be sought out and experienced. Gray, like an explorer, pushes the boundaries of the filmic medium, using image and sound to exemplify the cinematic possibilities of humanity reaching for the transcendent. As Percy and Jack prepare for what seems to be an inevitable death, father comforts son: “So much of life is a mystery, my boy. We know so little of this world. But you and I have made a journey that other men cannot even imagine. And this has given understanding to our hearts.” The two men share verbal affirmations of love as the tribe takes them up and carries them into the twilight, flames illuminating their bodies as they approach the rippling waters of eternity in search of a home. Wherever they are going, they go together.
I am slowly recognizing that the greatest adventure I could ever embark upon, the best aspiration I could ever imagine, the most significant mark I can make on human history, is the faithful practice of being present with my wife and children, wherever our adventures might take us. I feel I’ve found the glory, and it is in the everyday beauty of human relationships marked by unconditional love. Even on the days where I long for glorious adventures and to make my mark on history, I am no Percy Fawcett. For my spirit, this is home.
In a haunting climactic memory (or is it a dream?) in The Lost City of Z, Nina Fawcett shares a note with her husband, one she wrote in the event of her death giving birth to their firstborn: “Always teach him to dream, to seek the unknown. To look, for what is beautiful is its own reward.” Then, these words: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” A man’s, a woman’s, a child’s grasp—we stretch out and reach for the heavens. Seek the glory. Live a great story. Do it together. Something hidden. Go and find it. Lost and waiting for you. Go!