The first time we see Percy Fawcett in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” he’s in the middle of a hunt. Thrillingly shot, with a pounding drum beat in the background, Gray is able to make an inconsequential scene really accelerate. This is more than just a flashy opening. It cues the audience into the thrill of the chase. As the film progresses, this idea begins manifesting itself in different, darker ways.
“The Lost City of Z” comes with a lot of baggage. Maybe exploration movies about white colonists infiltrating native jungles held a lot more excitement several decades ago, but now, they’ve kind of lost their appeal. Gray knows this. So he contextualizes the narrative of his film into something a lot more character-driven and, ultimately, respectful towards the indigenous population of Amazonia. The story is structured elliptically, allowing Fawcett to go on three major expeditions, then seeing how each of those expeditions impacts his life back at home. Ultimately, this isn’t a film about a group of white guys parading around in the jungle. Instead, through the structure of the narrative, it turns into a character study on obsession, purpose, class, and racism.
The best way to view how “The Lost City of Z” treats Fawcett’s relationship with the native populations is to observe the various ways he interacts with one particularly violent tribe. Upon his first interaction, Fawcett fights back at the first sight of violence before fleeing, causing several casualties amongst his crew and supplies. However, the second time he encounters them, he tries communicating with them. “Amigo!” becomes kind of his mantra. Eventually, he is accepted by the tribe. However, he doesn’t interact with them like a colonizer. He isn’t outwardly fearful or disgusted by their practices. And he doesn’t bother trying to “Europeanize” them. Instead, he tries his best to assimilate, joining them in their practices and customs. However, this doesn’t imply that he’s appropriating their culture or viewing the tribes with a gawker’s fascination. Fawcett’s interactions with them are always respectful. He understands that this world is not his, and so he treats them as a polite guest would treat his host.
On his third visit with the tribe, he brings along his son and decides to record his interactions with them. The way Gray directs this sequence brings to mind documentaries, especially in the montages of photographs that he suddenly inserts into the sequence. The way the sequence is scored and edited, you can tell Gray is practically giddy with excitement. Not only are the European powers learning to get along with the indigenous population, they’re keeping a historical record of their relationship. These are more than just photographs, this is proof to other members of the Royal Society that it is possible to communicate and understand the natives of Amazonia as people instead of slaves.
“I think that if I had approached the movie the way that Francis did “Apocalypse” or Herzog did “Aguirre,” the means of production being different, I think I would’ve made a really bad and fairly racist movie,” James Gray once said in an interview.
This isn’t to say that “Apocalypse Now” or “Aguirre the Wrath of God” are racist movies. As the director himself stated, the characters in “Apocalypse Now” go crazy due to the effects of war, while the protagonist of “Aguirre” started off as an insane warmonger. However, Percy’s growth is dependent on his interactions with the tribes. If his character arc was to go from “civilized white man” to “crazy person gone native,” that would have been a racist concept.
It’s to Gray’s credit that he’s able to make the movie more about Fawcett’s descent into obsession. Instead, he treats the way that he exploits his family as the larger obstacle. It’s through the structure of the story that we get to constantly check in on Fawcett’s family in between his adventures. Here, we see the toll his exploits have taken on his wife, who’s become sidelined in taking care of the children while Fawcett uncaringly avoids his responsibilities as a husband and father. By twisting the adventure movie into a character study, Gray lets us see the real world ramifications of Fawcett’s exploits.
“The Lost City of Z” is the kind of film that gets better with time as more and more of its subtleties reveal themselves. Gray, as a director, doesn’t tend to go for the big or obvious emotions. When you expect the film to be bombastic, it goes contemplative. When you expect the direction to lean into the emotion of the scene, it ends up letting the performances and the script speak for themselves. It’s a style that can be described as “empathetically distant.”
Interestingly enough, it seems like Gray approaches storytelling the same way Fawcett approaches the Amazonian tribes. He feels for these characters, and he wants you to feel for them too. But he makes sure that we realize that this is their story, not ours.