The Lost City of Z — The Movie, the Book, and the Real Story

By Nicholas Asheshov —

The Lost City of Z, the movie of the book by David Grann, has started the rounds at cinemas in the UK and opens on Easter weekend in the United States.  The film covers the expedition in 1925 of the Amazon surveyor and explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett, who was convinced he knew where to find a great lost civilization in the Western Amazon.  He never returned.

Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, first described his quest for the Fawcett story 11 years ago.  Now the book has been taken to the screen and in a review written for CNN, Thomas Page concludes that in “reviving a celebrity and with him lingering questions,” author Grann and film director James Gray “have both illuminated the man and burnished the myth.”

Two explorers today, however, are not so kind, either about Fawcett or the film.  The following reports, by fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, tell you all you need know about the book and the movie, and of Col. Fawcett himself.

It is an irony that a tough but floundering British army surveyor who irremediably and irretrievably lost himself in the Mato Grosso, is being justified today in his basic perception of ancient cultures in the Amazon.  This was for decades pooh-poohed by archaeologists and agriculturalists who maintained that pre-machete peoples could not tame the forest.  Soil experts also maintained the Amazon as a general rule could not provide the soil quality to maintain consistent food production.

Today over 450 pre-Columbian (pre-AD 1492) geometric ditched enclosures, many of them huge, have been uncovered across 13,000 km2 of Acre state, Brazil — only half an hour’s direct flight time from Cusco—  and represent a key discovery of Amazonian archaeology.  Sophisticated, well-organized societies going back thousands of years created these.

The first report is from John Hemming, a leading authority on the Amazon.  Director of the Royal Geographical Society for 21 years until 1996,  he has written several books on the Amazon, including most recently “Tree of Rivers” and “Naturalists in Paradise,” this last an account of the three great English naturalists, Wallace, Spruce and Bates.  He is also, of course, author of “The Conquest of the Incas,” the classic and still the best description of the Inca story.

Hemming’s scathing review of The Lost City of Z, and indeed of Col. Fawcett himself, has a sort of family preview.  Here is Hemming’s own account which revolves in part around the balmy Col. Fawcett using a ouija board to aim artillery at German positions during the 1914-18 War and mark non-existent German guns on their maps.

“It was in spring 1918 when the Germans were moving their army into the Western Front after making peace with Lenin’s USSR.  My father got his batman to triangulate on newly arrived heavy artillery and, knowing the speed of light and of sound, they could pinpoint big guns by the time between their flash and their bang.  In another part of the trenches the same thing was being done by Lawrence Bragg, the same age as my father (early 20s) but already winner of a Nobel Prize for physics jointly with his father.  The C-in-C Field Marshal Haig learned about this and got the two to organize this branch of the Royal Artillery.  It became known as Flash-Spotting and Sound Ranging.  But although my father was a Captain with an MC and about to be promoted to Major, he and Bragg had to report to the elderly regular officer Lt-Col Fawcett, twice their age.

“The two were dismayed by Fawcett and his crazy ouija board; but they could do nothing about it.   My father, who was the most honourable and amiable of men, told me that Fawcett was one of the nastiest people he ever met.  Bragg (later President of the Royal Society, etc., etc.) and my Dad remained lifelong friends. ”

A review of the movie itself follows, by writer and explorer Hugh Thomson, a leading documentary film-maker for, among others, the BBC, and author of two books on Peru, “The White Rock” and “Cochineal Red.”

The Lost City of Z is a very long way from a true story — and I should know

A new Hollywood film hypes Percy Fawcett as a great explorer. In fact, he was a racist incompetent who achieved very little.

By John Hemming

The new film The Lost City of Z is being advertised as based on the true story of one of Britain’s greatest explorers. It is about Lt-Col Percy Fawcett. Greatest explorer? Fawcett? He was a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist, and so incompetent that the only expedition he organised was a five-week disaster. 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. Had the advertisement been about a soap powder, it would fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act.

Percy Fawcett joined the army immediately after school, with a commission in the artillery in 1886. The next 20 years involved garrison duty in Ceylon and postings in Malta and England. The only significant events were getting married and becoming a devotee (like many others) of the charlatan psychic Madame Blavatsky. Fawcett’s game-changer came in 1906, when he was 40. The army let him take the Royal Geographical Society’s course on frontier surveying. Far away in South America, Bolivia had just sold its rubber-rich province of Acre to Brazil, so it needed its new north-western boundary mapped. The Bolivians approached the RGS for a mature surveyor to do this. The society’s secretary asked the newly qualified Fawcett whether he wanted to go; he accepted, reported for duty in La Paz and was at work on the new Amazonian frontier by the end of the year. This survey was the best thing Fawcett did. But he described it as boring, because the new frontier was all along rivers. This was the height of the great Amazon rubber boom, so he and his team cruised from one comfortable rubber barraca to the next, taking their regular measurements.

Fawcett’s only publications were a series of papers in the Geographical Journal about his mapping work. But he kept a journal, and in 1953 his son Brian edited this and other papers into a book called Exploration Fawcett. He emerges from it as a typical Edwardian colonial officer — friendly with South Americans but looking down on them, appalled by the cruelty at some rubber stations, full of gossip about life on this remote but boom-rich backwater, and uninterested in nature apart from banalities about dangerous snakes and irritating insects.

In 1908, the Bolivians asked Fawcett to survey another of their frontiers with Brazil: a small river called Verde, far away at the north-eastern corner of the large landlocked country. The preparations were appalling. Fawcett took minimal supplies, since he was accustomed to being fed by rubber stations. This was the end of the dry season with the river at its lowest. So they soon had to abandon their boat and continue on foot. After only a week, all food was exhausted and they were really starving. Fawcett casually remarked that five out of his six peons died from the effects of this five-week disaster. This was the only expedition he led into unexplored territory.

The Bolivians invited Fawcett back in 1910, this time to map part of their boundary with Peru. It involved paddling up a frontier river called Heath and two meetings with indigenous peoples on the banks. The first group fired arrows and guns over their heads. But Fawcett waded ashore with presents and shouting a few words of ‘Chuncho’ (the Peruvian word for all forest peoples) that he had memorised but did not understand. That was the only time that Fawcett attempted any language other than Spanish. Further up the Heath river, Fawcett met a tribe he called Ecocha (now Ese Eja) whom he really liked. They were ‘embarrassingly hospitable’ with their food, so Fawcett spent a few days with them and recorded something of their ethnography. He returned for a second visit in 1911.

After a final survey for the Bolivian government in 1913, of the upper Beni river in the Andes, Fawcett went sightseeing in central Bolivia. He and two companions were paddled down the big Guaporé river. They stopped at Mequens on its Brazilian bank to visit the Swedish anthropologist Baron Erland Nordenskiöld and his attractive wife, who provided guides to take them on a walk inland to visit a people they called Maxubi (now Makurap). The Maxubi were friendly and hospitable, but continuing on a forest trail Fawcett met another tribe (probably Sakurabiat) to whom he took a violent dislike. When one aimed a drawn bow at him, Fawcett shot the man with a Mauser revolver — absolutely forbidden by Brazil’s Indian Service. He described them as he imagined Neanderthals or Piltdown Man to have looked: ‘large hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and foreheads sloping back from pronounced eye ridges… villainous savages, hideous ape men with pig-like eyes.’ No Amazonian Indian has body hair or looks remotely like this — I know, because I have spent time with over 40 different peoples. These two groups, and the two on the Heath, were the only tribal people seen by Fawcett. He liked two of them. So it was strange that he wrote racist gibberish that ‘there are three kinds of Indians. The first are docile and miserable people, easily tamed; the second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third, a robust and fair people, who must have a civilised origin.’

When Fawcett was in the cattle country of central Bolivia in September 1914, news came of the outbreak of war. So he hurried home and by January 1915 was back in the artillery. In his late forties, he was too old for frontline service; but he fought a good war, ending as Lieutenant-Colonel.

In one of his pre-war lectures to the RGS, Fawcett had spoken of possible ancient ruins in the Amazon forests. He was now told about a scrap of paper dated 1743 in which bandeirantes imagined that they had seen a deserted city in the jungles. (The bandeirantes were slavers who scoured the interior of Brazil for Indians to capture. Although most of these thugs were illiterate, others did write reports about their travels — none of which said a word about seeing ruins.) Fawcett gave this imaginary ‘lost city’ the codename Z, and finding it became an obsession.

The easiest forest tribes to visit in Brazil were on the headwaters of one of the Amazon’s southern tributaries, the Xingu. A German anthropologist had contacted a dozen amiable peoples there in 1884; and since then they had been visited by seven groups of anthropologists or Indian Service officials. All had walked in by the same trail. So in 1920 Fawcett tried to follow this route — even though it was nowhere near where the chimera city might have been. His plans went wrong, so he got no further than a ranch halfway along the trail. In 1921 he searched for the mythical city down on the Atlantic coast, by train inland from Salvador da Bahia; but, hardly surprisingly, the miners there knew nothing.

In 1925, by now penniless but desperate, Fawcett tried again to reach the upper Xingu tribes. He now took two inexperienced ex-public schoolboys, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmel. The old surveyor made two suicidal pronouncements. One was that the trio should travel light, with nothing more than small packs. Everyone in Amazonia knew that you could not cut trails and keep your team fed with fewer than eight men. (I can confirm this, having done months of such cutting and carrying.) But Fawcett sent their pack animals and porters back, and continued with only his two novices. His other dictum was that Indians would look after them. This was equally dangerous. The Xingu tribes pride themselves on generosity; but they expect visitors to reciprocate. All expeditions in the past four decades had brought plenty of presents such as machetes, knives and beads. Fawcett had none. He committed other blunders that antagonised their hosts. So it was only a matter of days before they were all dead.

Twenty years later, Chief Comatsi of the Kalapalo tribe gave a very detailed account of Fawcett’s visit, reminding his assembled people of exactly how they had killed the unwelcome strangers. But the German anthropologist Max Schmidt, who was there in 1926, thought that they had plunged into the forests, got lost and starved to death; this was also the view of a missionary couple called Young who were on another Xingu headwater. The Brazilian Indian Service regretted that Fawcett, who was obsessively secretive, had not asked for their help in dealing with the Indians. They felt he was killed because of the harshness and lack of tact that all recognised in him.

Such was the sad tale of this incompetent, whose only skill was in surveying. But the disappearance of an English colonel while searching for a mythical ancient city in tropical rain forests was a media sensation. Two expeditions went to try to learn more. There was revived interest in the 1950s with the publication of Exploration Fawcett and the Kalapalo chief’s account of how they killed the Englishmen. Then it was forgotten until 2009 when David Grann, a talented writer, published The Lost City of Z. Unfortunately, Grann hyped the story out of all proportion and wrongly depicted Fawcett as a great explorer.

As he cheerfully admitted, Grann had no experience of rainforests. But he let his imagination run riot, with pages about ferocious piranhas, huge anacondas, electric eels (actually a fish that has never killed a man), frogs ‘with enough toxins to kill 100 people’, ‘predator’ pig-like peccary, ‘sauba ants that could reduce the men’s clothes to threads in a single night, ticks that attached like leeches (another scourge) and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The cyanide-squirting millipedes. The parasitic worms that caused blindness…’ and so on. Everyone who know tropical forests, including me, knows that almost every word of this is nonsense.

Fawcett himself gave a simple account of his four surveying journeys for the Bolivian government. But for Grann, ‘in expedition after expedition… he explored thousands of square miles of the Amazon and helped redraw the map of South America’. Fawcett admitted that he was ‘a greenhorn in the jungle’ and knew nothing about nature. But Grann wrote that he moved ‘inch by inch through the jungle, tracing rivers and mountains, cataloguing exotic species… [until] he had explored as much of the region as anyone’.

For Grann, Fawcett was competing against other explorers ‘who were racing into the interior of South America’. The only study that Fawcett made after leaving school in 1886 was his RGS surveying course. He never mentioned any library research. But for Grann he was ‘almost unique’ in viewing 16th- and 17th-century chronicles ignored by other scholars; he re–evaluated El Dorado chronicles and consulted ‘archival records’ and ‘tribesmen’ in ‘piecing together his theory of Z’. Not a word of this was true, either.

Grann wrote that, as an author, he would have been lost without my three-volume, 2,100-page history of Brazilian Indians and five centuries of exploration. He quotes quite often from my books. So he had no excuse for describing Fawcett’s brief visits to three indigenous villages as the ‘discovery of so many previously unknown Indians’, from whom ‘he learned to speak myriad indigenous languages’, and adopted ‘herbal medicines and native methods of hunting [so that he] was better able to survive off the land’. Equally absurd was his rubbish about cannibalistic tribes, blow guns with poisoned darts, or Kuikuro menacing him with ‘gleaming spears flickering’ from the undergrowth (they never used spears, or had metal even, before their contact 130 years ago).

When the colonel vanished, Grann writes that ‘scores’ of explorers tried to find him, and that ‘one recent estimate put the death toll from these expeditions as high as 100.’ Actually, only one search expedition reached the Xingu, led by George Dyott in 1928. (It found that the three Englishmen had been killed by Indians.) The only other expedition was in 1932, but it got only as far as the Araguaia river far to the east. The death toll from these two attempts was zero. In 1935 a ridiculous actor called Albert de Winton went by himself to the Xingu and was killed by Indians who wanted his gun. So if we count him, the death toll is one — well short of Grann’s 100.

These and a great many other passages are artistic licence and hype of an absurd order. Hollywood believed everything Grann wrote, and then hyped it up more. People wishing to learn about the maverick colonel should consult his own fairly modest memoir — not the recent fantasy book and film about him. But I could recommend scores of writings by real explorers.

This review was first published in The Spectator.  Reproduced with permission from the author.  The three volumes of John Hemming’s history of Brazilian Indians are “Red Gold” (1978), “Amazon Frontier” (1985) and “Die If You Must” (2004).


Lost City of Z: Hollywood wanted Indiana Jones; but Percival Fawcett was a rude racist

By Hugh Thomson argues that the new movie Lost City of Z gives a totally false impression of its real-life hero

The Lost City of Z celebrates the life and particularly the death of British explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s.

Watch the movie and you might come away impressed by the dedication and perseverance of Fawcett.  He is portrayed as a misty-eyed and misty-voiced romantic, inspired by Kipling’s poem to ‘Go and look behind the ranges – Something lost behind the ranges.  Lost and waiting for you.  Go!’  The movie is played out as one long elegy, with accompanying strings.

But the reality is rather different. The distinguished historian of the Amazon, John Hemming, has described Fawcett as having ‘ugly racist notions about the Native Americans.’  Fawcett described one tribe he encountered as ‘large, hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and with forehead sloping back from pronounced eye ridges – men of a very primitive kind… villainous savages… great apelike brutes who looked as if they had scarcely evolved beyond the level of beasts.’

Nor is the argument that he was just ‘of his time’ admissible. There were plenty of contemporary explorers of the Amazon who recognised the qualities of the indigenous people. Theodore Roosevelt , no less, before he became president, had been impressed by precisely the same Indian tribe of Nambiquara.

Hemming has described Fawcett as a Nietzchean explorer, who sprouted ‘eugenic gibberish’ and was obsessed with the exotic and the occult. Later explorers have found him something of an embarrassment. He is not listed in most of the official anthologies of exploration. If anything, he is thought of as the Lord Lucan of the exploring world, whose most dramatic achievement was to get himself lost.

For he never found anything of particular value. First sent to Bolivia and Brazil to do map surveying work  in 1906, seconded from his duties as a British officer, he returned in 1914 after having heard stories about a huge ruined city ‘said to have been seen by Portuguese bandits north of Minas Gerais in 1743’.  Even by the standards of South America, that is old and second-hand information, from an unreliable source.

But his potential sponsors at the Royal Geographical Society lapped it up. This was an age of heroic exploration, when the poles had just been reached and Machu Picchu discovered.  Fawcett received the financial backing to pursue the glory that he had never found in his military career.  He talked evocatively of ‘ruins incomparably older than those in Egypt’.  Naming it as ‘the lost city of Z’ showed his flair for publicity – and no wonder Hollywood has finally come calling, even if they have taken a century to do so.

After a series of inconclusive expeditions – one lasted just a few days before his horse died and he turned back – he set off in 1925 with his 21-year-old son, Jack, who was desperate to accompany his father.  Fawcett himself was now 58 and aware that he might only have one last shot left at the main chance.

He disappeared in the Xingu, together with his young son and another companion.  It caused a public outcry and journalistic sensation.  A series of expeditions were mounted to try to find him. As with Lord Lucan, occasional sightings of a lone white man somewhere in the jungle – even if thousands of miles from where Fawcett had last been seen – were enough of an excuse for editors of the day to raise the story again.

What most likely happened to Fawcett – not something you will learn from the movie – has been painstakingly recreated by John Hemming and the documentary maker Adrian Cowell.  It seems that Fawcett’s racism led him into ‘dangerous attitudes to the Indians’, risking both his own life and that of his son.  He recognised that tribes could be naturally hospitable; but failed to recognise that they also expected any visitors to be equally liberal.

Previous and current expeditions to the Amazon would always take quantities of presents. Fawcett did not, while still availing himself of anything the Indians could give him.  Moreover George Dyott, the leader of one of the expeditions sent to find Fawcett after his disappearance, was told by Indians that Fawcett had broken an unwritten rule of forest travel.  He had seen two canoes moored up on the back and simply taken them.  Naturally the Nahukwá, whose canoes had been stolen, did not react well.

Likewise when Fawcett shot a duck – and much is made in the movie of his prowess as a marksman – he refused to share it with his Indian helpers.  He also struck a young Indian boy who was playing with his knife. As Hemming remarks, ‘striking an Indian in anger is a deep insult.  The Xingu Indians are infuriated by any aggression against a child, since they are deeply affectionate parents… And native hunters invariably share out their game.’

Brazilian anthropologists the Villas Boa brothers – legendary in Amazonia for their longstanding work protecting the Indians – commented that ‘Fawcett was the victim, as anyone else would have been, of the harshness and lack of tact that all recognised in him.’

So why is none of this in the movie?  The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.  There are some real clunkers in the dialogue:

‘We are thinking of sending you to Bolivia.’

‘In South America?’

Well, yes, of course, it’s the Bolivia in South America, which other one did you think he was talking about!  This is comic book stuff. Every line is either signposted or signalled. Guffaws erupted around me in the preview theatre when for the very first shot of Fawcett in the jungle we see a snake slithering between his legs.  Nor does Charlie Hunnam’s leaden depiction of Fawcett help.  He plays the character as if everything he says are his last words — which over a lengthy 140 minute movie, makes the whole experience feel like the longest dying pause in history.

The only virtue of this lumpen behemoth of a film is if it draws attention to the unfolding discoveries in the Amazon at the moment.  For although Fawcett may have done so for all the wrong grandstanding reasons, his suspicion that there may have been earlier civilisations in the Amazon has proved to be correct.

The problem in the past was that, for obvious reasons, while great Andean civilizations like the Incas could build in stone — and so Machu Picchu, for instance, has been magnificently preserved — in the Amazon, the only available material was wood;  however grandiose the civilization, it naturally rotted away.  Yet recent archaeological techniques have revealed how pre-Columbian tribes successfully converted the shallow topsoil of the rainforest into rich black earth — and has given credence to the early accounts by conquistadors of great civilizations they glimpsed when floating down the Amazon.

There is a fascinating movie to be made about exploration in the Amazon. This isn’t it. Anyone wanting more illumination should see the Oscar-nominated Embrace Of The Serpent which came out last year, made by South Americans and with a silverine, elegant charm to which Lost City of Z can only aspire.

And anyone heading out to a London dinner-party this evening should perhaps remember to take a reciprocal bottle or face the consequences.  While those going to see the movie in its opening week may need sleeping tablets, resilient buttocks – and a healthy dose of scepticism.

This review was first published by The Evening Standard.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

Hugh Thomson has led many expeditions to Peru, as recounted in his book “The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland.” He won the inaugural Wainwright Prize for “The Green Road into the Trees.”  A sequel, “One Man and a Mule,” is published by Preface Random House this June.


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  1. Patricia Behler says:

    why was an airline in Peru named Fawcett?

    • Ellie Griffis says:

      The airline, spelled with a “u” instead of “w”, was named by its founder, American pilot Elmer Faucett.

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