Movies about real life are not real life. We all know that. And it’s no different with “The Lost City of Z,” which follows British explorer Percy Fawcett — or a version of him, anyway. Born in 1867, the actual man was a product of his generation, with all the racism and myopia that might entail. But the character on-screen, played by a charming Charlie Hunnam, is kind, brave and open-minded. In other words, the perfect hero for progressive sensibilities.
There’s an inherent difficulty in presenting historical figures to modern audiences. Notions of basic human decency, especially the kind peddled by Hollywood, have changed, and viewers see injustices on-screen through contemporary eyes. One way filmmakers avoid alienating the audience is by excising any offending material. In “The Lost City of Z,” the plan works. The movie, in which Fawcett goes in search of a previously unknown civilization in the Amazon, is a throwback to old-school cinema, a thrilling adventure epic about a character worth rooting for.
But in an era of heightened awareness around fake news, does it matter that the image of a complicated real-life figure had to be photoshopped to suit 2017 tastes?
Movies have a long history of massaging the facts to make stories more dramatic, dazzling or appropriate for contemporary viewers. For every “Spotlight,” which hewed closely to the facts, there are a handful of movies like Disney’s “Pocahontas,” which fabricated a romance, among other plot points. “A Beautiful Mind” left out John Nash’s extramarital dalliances, illegitimate child and divorce, and Chris Kyle spouted neither lies nor epithets in “American Sniper.”
There are two schools of thought when it comes to historical movies, according to film scholar Robert Burgoyne, a professor at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, who wrote “Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History.” One camp believes fact-based movies should let the past be the past and capture the relative strangeness of the era. Another group argues that all historical films are presentist — they use the past to illuminate modern conundrums. And how can a filmmaker do that if viewers are turned off by characters with ideas that, by current standards, seem so outdated?
“In order to be effective, we need a point of entry after all,” Burgoyne said. “We can’t be looking at something that is so repulsive, foreign, racist [or] extreme that it is just repellent.”
In “Lost City,” Fawcett winces when his British compatriots refer to indigenous tribesman as “savages” and concludes that all men are made from the same clay. During a lively debate at the Royal Geographical Society, which funded Fawcett’s expeditions, snobby Brits ridicule the brave explorer for saying that indigenous people are the equals of refined Europeans. But our hero remains steadfast.
“Their civilization may well predate our own,” he bellows over the din of the peanut gallery.
John Hemming, a modern-day explorer, author and expert on the indigenous people of the Amazon, has a few thoughts on this particular portrayal.
“He was a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist, and so incompetent that the only expedition he organized was a five-week disaster,” Hemming wrote in a recent op-ed for the Spectator. “Calling him one of our greatest explorers is like calling Eddie the Eagle one of our greatest sportsmen. It is an insult to the huge roster of true explorers.”
(The movie is based on a book by David Grann, which was less hagiographic than the film it inspired.)
As another modern-day explorer, Hugh Thomson, wrote for The Washington Post, the book documents how Fawcett could not reconcile the advanced civilization he encountered with “his poor opinion of the Indian tribes, so he postulated the existence of ‘white Indians’ who had somehow traveled across the Atlantic from Europe and brought civilization with them.” There’s no mention of this in the movie.
The film’s writer-director, James Gray, pushed back on Hemming’s criticism during an interview with Inverse. Although he admitted that Fawcett was indeed racist, the filmmaker also said that you can’t judge a person outside of their own historical context.
“Mr. John Hemming is a great man in many respects and I’m not diminishing his accomplishments,” Gray said. “But he’s not a movie critic, nor is he a literary critic, and sometimes there’s a greater truth we aspire to. It’s not the facts on the ground.”
Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), is even more conspicuously up-to-date. She’s pregnant with her second child when her husband leaves for a journey that could take him away for years, but she tells him not to worry because she’s an “independent woman.” She also complains about the unfairness of corsets and, at one point, tries to persuade Fawcett to take her along on his next adventure. Having survived childbirth, she can handle the difficulties, she assures him. Nina’s practically one pink hat away from a women’s march.
This debate is similar to the one swirling around memorials to Founding Fathers and Confederate fighters, about whether ugly history should be erased. Because slavery is unthinkable now, does that mean all traces of Thomas Jefferson should disappear from the university he founded? Some students at the University of Virginia think so. At Ole Miss, a Confederate statue remains but received an updated plaque, explaining how the monument got there and why it hasn’t been removed. “This historic statue is a reminder of the university’s divisive past,” it reads.
Movies, though, are primarily for entertainment and business. It’s risky to present audiences with a complicated hero who isn’t sympathetic. It’s not a movie’s job to teach us, even if some viewers misunderstand that.
For his part, Burgoyne doesn’t worry about movies spreading false information.
“The film doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “It exists in a cultural dialogue. . . . There’s going to be commentary, there’s going to be reviews, there’s certainly going to be a kind of backlash if the film is controversial.”
He’s right when it comes to “The Lost City of Z.” The question is how many moviegoers know about the conversation.
The Lost City of Z PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity. 141 minutes.