Loving the Natives Even When They Want to Eat You - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Loving the Natives Even When They Want to Eat You

A rugged outsider disappears into the jungle. Angry natives, wild animals, violence, and hunger close in with every step in the mud. Lonely and obsessed, the outsider wanders into the wilderness around him. It symbolizes, of course, the wilderness within.

Does that sound like the exploratory films of the German adventurer/filmmaker Werner Herzog, like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 masterpiece Heart of Darkness? In The Lost City of Z, director James Gray doesn’t try to avoid comparisons. Just like Conrad’s protagonist and like Herzog himself, Percy Fawcett is a man obsessed. He is deeply curious about the world outside Europe. Combined with the skills and bravery he gained as a hunter and soldier, this obsession makes Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett a perfect candidate to vanish into the South-American jungle.

On three expeditions Fawcett (a very good Charlie Hunnam) travels to the Amazon, “going native” and looking for a lost city he names Z — here pronounced “zed,” as the British would have it. Gray builds a meandering three-act film around these trips. For months, Fawcett leaves his wife, Nina (another exquisite role by Sienna Miller), and young kids. With little help, he manages to be the first white man to explore these regions of the Amazonian jungle as he tries to find a lost civilization beyond the edges of the known world and make it out alive.

Gray weaves in detours to Fawcett’s troubled home life and his tour of duty during World War I. The vivid scenes on Europe’s brutal battle fields were, for me, the highlights of this movie as was a terrific hunting sequence in the English countryside. Another fine moment comes when someone says of Fawcett that he chose his ancestors rather poorly. It is an excellent commentary on Europe’s unforgiving class system: no matter how hard you work, regardless of courage and skill, “born a dime, never a quarter,” if you’ll pardon the Dutch expression.

The dark heart of The Lost City of Z is on the dangerous river, on the muddy trails, among the “savages.” Some of it is compelling stuff. The impenetrable jungle, disappearing in our own time, is shot slowly and gorgeously. A quietly confident actor, Hunnam is easy to watch as he tries to convince the natives to 1) not kill him and 2) help him find Z.

But if you invite comparisons to a singular filmmaker like Herzog, you’d better be very good at portraying the epic struggle of man versus wilderness. Like his outsized personality or not, Herzog is uniquely mad and brilliant at what he does, inviting you along on his chaotic cinematic journeys — see: Grizzly Man. Gray’s movie cannot compare.

That may be because an artist like Herzog is brutally honest, not in the first place culturally sensitive or politically correct. Fawcett and his wife, on the other hand, become out-of-place virtue-signalers, being good 21st century liberals a century too soon. Sienna Miller is a great actress — incidentally, why is she always cast as the supportive spouse? — but it’s hard to believe that a British housewife back then would seriously suggest leaving the kids behind and following her explorer husband into the unforgiving jungle without any sort of qualification to survive such an ordeal. Yet that is exactly what the film says. Today’s feminists may not like it, but Nina’s suggestion in the movie hardly fits the mores of Edwardian society.

For his part Fawcett, a kind-hearted surveyor turned archeologist, defends cannibalism when he argues the locals are really just ingesting the spirit of the dead. He also earnestly corrects the aristocrats who financed his trips when they call the natives “savages.” To many millennials’ ears this probably sounds plausible in the realm of speech codes and safe spaces. For a man who nearly dies many times at the hands and poisonous spear tips of the furious locals, it sounds contrived.

Is every culture equally wonderful, as they say in Berkeley? The axiom only holds if you accept the oppression and slaughter of women, Christians, Jews and gay people (in today’s Islamic world), if you view the eating of humans as wonderful, too (in the regions Fawcett found).

David Grann’s nonfiction account of Fawcett’s misadventures was terrific, as Grann’s writing in the New Yorker tends to be. But Fawcett had more or less disappeared from collective memory until Grann revived him. He may have been brave, romantic, and naive. His hubris may have been impressive. But was he all that interesting?

In this movie, only moderately.

Still, Z is worth seeing for Hunnam’s and Miller’s performances, especially outside the jungle they adore. You’ll just have to swallow a somewhat PC current-day interpretation of a past when Europeans actually did speak of savages, as my gentlemanly late grandfather, born in 1911, could have told the filmmaker. Especially when native people tried to kill and eat them.

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