"The Lost City of Z" is a pretty good movie about what would have been an irresistible subject 40 years ago: a stubborn and real British "explorer" named Percy Fawcett repeatedly traveling up the Amazon River because he thinks that somewhere in the darkest and most impenetrable jungle he's going to find "The Lost City of Z." That's what he calls the remains of an ancient advanced civilization that may have been the fabled "El Dorado."
But the movie is overloaded with oddities and perplexities.
Why does Christopher Spelman's music make so much use of Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe: Suite no. 2"? It's standard practice for filmmakers to score their films with pre-existing "dummy music" to hold the place for the scores being written for the film. (Steven Spielberg used Howard Hanson's marvelous Second Symphony as the music for "E.T." before John Williams was able to finish the soundtrack.)
But leaving a classic completely identifiable as the music for the film when it's surrounded by otherwise negligible music seems awfully cheesy to me, rather than elegant and extraordinary the way Terence Malick uses classic scores.
Why was this subject the one that got James Gray out of his cycle of grubby, tough movies about the more exploitative ethnic facets of life in New York City--"Little Odessa," "The Yards," "We Own the Night," "The Immigrant." It's a little like finding out there's a secret jungle novel by Bernard Malamud written in thrall to the fiction of H. Rider Haggard.
In 2017, the most passionate movie lovers can't help but watch this and be reminded of masterpieces about traveling up river through jungles: Herzog's amazing conquistador film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" starring that brilliant actor and horrific man Klaus Kinski; Coppola's version of "Heart of Darkness" in Vietnam, "Apocalypse, Now." These are tales with the direst of conclusions, all of which are belied by "Z."
The movie is from Brad Pitt's production company Plan B. And way back in its history, Pitt undoubtedly envisaged himself as Fawcett. But now you've got the most New York-centric filmmaker alive prowling English museums, Scottish Pastorales and Brazilian jungles to tell us the tale of an English explorer who is not actually an exploiter, i.e. he's actually out to prove that the native civilizations of "Amazonia" were not savage at all but developed in isolation in their own civilized ways.
In the film, he gets as far as discovering one jungle tribe that had its own system of crop cultivation and farming and the jungle floor littered with shards of crockery which indicated the need for massive archeological investigation.
The movie, then, is out to give a portrait of Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) as a noble sort habitually up against some of our favorite 21st century villains, i.e. preposterously self-satisfied, culturally myopic and condescending Brits, who can't imagine a sun that preferred to set anywhere but the British empire.
There's a lot of harrumphing by colonizing Brits here. Even the one "liberal" among Fawcett's establishmentarian allies in the Royal Geographical Society turns out during one expedition to be a faithless, useless drag on the whole enterprise who's good only for endangering everyone else's life. (Played with Fustian colonial relish by actor Angus MacFayden.)
The movie, frankly, takes a while getting started but once we get away from British isle greenery and into the jungle, things pick up. The tale takes us up river to where the cannibals are and where tribes can be pacified by music played and sung very badly. When World War I comes along, Fawcett distinguishes himself in combat, gets gassed with chlorine for his troubles, and makes up to the rank of Lt. Colonel, which his son thinks inadequate to his heroism.
Once upon a time, the story of Fawcett captured the turn of the century world. Gray's film tells us it still should but for different reasons than once thought. (The "heroism" of white people traveling among "savages" just isn't a 21st century bedtime story.)
There's visual beauty to all this. And fine performances -- especially by Hunnam and Sienna Miller as his long-suffering proto-feminist wife.
But the movie tosses out everything contrary or ambivalent in David Grann's book of the same title only to invent a bit of magic narrative to make it all end on an upbeat.
Which is difficult to believe but, like the whole movie, can't help but give you some regard for the effort that went into it.
But, like that musical score that, in lieu of creativity just steals from a masterpiece, it only seems to go halfway.
"The Lost City of Z"
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus MacFayden
Director: James Gray
Rated: for PG-13 for violence, brief strong language and some nudity.
Running time: 141 minutes
The lowdown: British explorer Percy Fawcett makes repeated journeys up the Amazon to find "The Lost City of Z."