“The Lost City of Z”: A Nickell-odeon Review

April 28, 2017

The Lost City of Z is the story of an alleged indigenous city in Brazil’s Amazon, its name given by British soldier, surveyor, and explorer Col. Percy Fawcett who sought to prove its reality. To understand Fawcett’s quest, we must see it in the context of such myths generally, which—pursued from the fifteenth century—helped lead to the development of archaeology.

There were many “lost cities”—some real, some not. In the Americas they were inspired by Spanish conquistadors who sought El Dorado—initially a supposed Columbian tribal chief who ritually covered his body with gold dust, but later a legendary city and then a fabled empire of gold, variously located. Two unsuccessful expeditions were led by Sir Walter Raleigh. Various real “lost cities” were discovered, including the Maya city of Lubaantun in southern Belise, Central America. (First investigated in 1903, it is now associated with the notorious Crystal Skull of Doom which F.A. Mitchell-Hedges falsely claimed to have found there in 1924 but which he actually purchased at a Southeby’s auction in 1943 [see my Secrets of the Supernatural, 1988, 29–46].)

Another was the Inca citadel of Machu Pichu, known only locally (after it was abandoned at the time of the conquistadors, who never found it), but discovered for the outside world by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet another, called the “Lost City of the Incas,” was Vilcabamba, discovered and destroyed by the conquistadors in 1572, but rediscovered in 1911. Many, many more lost cities have been found and are still being discovered.

Sometimes listed with the lost cities is the sacred citadel of Pachacamac (near Lima). In 2006 a guide took me there and I climbed the stepped pyramids where an oracle had assured the last Inca ruler Atahualpa that he would defeat the Spaniards. The opposite happened. Though he bargained for his life with a king’s ransom—a room filled with gold and two with silver—he was hanged anyway, after a hasty baptism. (See Skeptical Inquirer 31:4, 15–19.) Though Pachacamac was never really lost, it nevertheless helped further the legends of such citadels as troves of gold.

Enter Percy Fawcett (1867—disappeared 1925) who made seven expeditions to South America— the first to map the Brazil-Bolivia border for the Royal Geographic Society. His career was interrupted by the First World War in which he served as an artillery commander (although he was almost fifty) and received the Distinguished Service Order. The Lost City of Z (after David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same title) tells all of this, slowing the narrative, but it is still a good movie with uniformly fine acting and, of course, gorgeous visuals (shot in Northern Ireland and Colombia).

In his travels, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnan) hears of a fabled advanced civilization in “Amazonia” that he again and again searches for, while his long-suffering wife (Sienna Miller) is left to raise their three children. Finally with his oldest son Jack (Tom Holland), he returns in 1925 to cannibal country and the fate that we can only assume from his mysterious disappearance—despite a touch of Hollywoodization to muddle the mystery. His is a special breed, more driven and daring than deluded—even for skeptics, an adventurer after our own hearts.

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels