The thrilling story of British explorer Percy Fawcett dramatizes our search for a transcendent home.
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z opens with a rousing sequence of sport: British army officers on horseback, galloping through the picturesque Irish country on a stag hunt. Complete with a bagpipe score, sweeping vistas, and shots of adoring wives and children cheering on their men, the scene embodies masculine attraction to danger, adventure, exploration and competition. When Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) wins the hunt and shoots the stag, he raises a toast with his fellow hunters, with words that should resonate with those of us who just celebrated Easter: “To death, the best source of life.”
The scene is important for character development, positioning Fawcett as an ambitious, genteel, but insecure man seeking to prove his manly mettle and bolster his soldierly reputation. But the scene also introduces some of the film’s questions about the nature of man: What are we really after when we seek to hunt a stag—especially when it’s an animal we don’t need to eat? When we aren’t fighting for survival (as in war or wilderness exploration), why must men seek to fight in sport, game, politics, and more? Need there be a concrete mission or prize, or is the point simply in the struggle itself, the test of strength? In what sense is death the best source of life?
Based on David Grann’s 2009 book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon—and, before that, Grann’s 2005 New Yorker story—the film follows the adventures of Fawcett, who pioneered multiple explorations into the Bolivian jungle between 1906 and 1925. At first commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to survey the land for mapmaking purposes (and to act as a third party between …