In “The Lost City of Z” (pronounced “zed” by us Yanks), writer-director James Gray tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a real-life explorer who vanished in the Amazon in 1925 while trying to prove the existence of a lost, advanced civilization.
In a movie about finding a lost city, why include the extended section about World War I, or the sections about the British class system?
I thought it was very important to introduce this idea of mechanized death, and that this is a product of a so-called “civilized” society. I thought it was centrally important to the idea of the movie, the central question being: What does it mean to be civilized? I found that the class structure of the UK and [Fawcett’s] lack of ability to break out of it is connected to this central idea. Is it civilized to have their hierarchy where we rank people in terms of social standing, class, gender, ethnicity?
You’re using it to compare European ideas of civilization to that of the Amazonians?
Yeah, this whole idea that there are savages, and then you look at World War. … In 1905, 1910, eugenics was a really big deal, this profoundly racist at its core idea of science. It was my intent to show, warts and all, that men of science can actually be quite savage.
So the city’s existence would contradict the idea that Europeans were the most advanced society?
[Fawcett] was a total threat to the entire belief system. There had probably been a very elaborate, rich culture in South America and Amazonia that the Spanish and the Portuguese had pretty much destroyed, starting around 1500. Disease wiped out a huge swath of people and enslavement took care of the rest.
We don’t really know what happened to Fawcett. How do you write a true story when you don’t know the ending?
I don’t think there’s any question about what happened. There was a group [of indigenous people]. He ran into them. That was it. The whole idea that they’re savages, that they kill white people — there’s a reason. So when they encountered white people, their reaction wasn’t going to be, This is going to be a good white guy. It’s going to be, These are the people who enslaved us. We either get sick, or they put us in chains. Their position is logical.