Magazine article Geographical

Lost Histories: Dr Sarah L Evans Completed Her Doctoral Research on the Society's Collections and Now Works in Research and Higher Education at the RGS-IBG. Here She Examines the Role of Films Such as the Lost City of Z Play in Recounting History

Magazine article Geographical

Lost Histories: Dr Sarah L Evans Completed Her Doctoral Research on the Society's Collections and Now Works in Research and Higher Education at the RGS-IBG. Here She Examines the Role of Films Such as the Lost City of Z Play in Recounting History

Article excerpt

I'VE READ ENOUGH columns from websites such as Reel History or An Historian goes to the Movies to know the cardinal rule of critiquing an historical film: treat it as fiction.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While there's enormous fun to be had in pinpointing each and every historical error you can find ('Ha! He was awarded that medal eight years earlier, you buffoons'), this doesn't add much value to the conversations to be had about the film, the period, stories and characters that it dramatises, and the larger themes and narratives with which it may be trying to engage.

Histories, whatever their medium, are all, inevitably, reconstructions of the past, created at a particular moment and from a particular perspective, and with particular flaws and omissions (bearing in mind that different media operate under different conditions and standards - we can and should have different expectations of a peer-reviewed paper or doctoral thesis as opposed to a popular film or television series). For example, historical films have a number of purposes other than that of accurately representing the past as based on currently available evidence and scholarship. Filmmakers are obliged, by commercial pressures if nothing else, to produce a work which is engaging and entertaining; with a short run time, they of necessity have to abbreviate and summarise; and for all but the most experimental filmmaking they have to craft a compelling narrative which draws out particular themes and emphasises certain values, drawing on conventions and useful shorthand.

The key point remains that the past as it 'actually' happened is forever lost to us, even to those of us who lived through those moments. Knowing this, it's important to engage with historical films as historical fictions, and to look at the stories that they are trying to tell, and the themes that they are seeking to illuminate. This is the frame of mind that I was consciously trying to adopt when I recently saw The Lost City of Z.

The film dramatises the life and career of Percy Fawcett, a soldier, surveyor and explorer, whose chief claim to fame is that he vanished while on his last expedition in the Amazon in 1925, searching for evidence of a lost indigenous civilisation. The mystery of his end has largely eclipsed his actual, rather modest, accomplishments as an explorer, and given rise to a veritable cottage industry promoting interest in Fawcett, including the controversial book by David Grann upon which the film is based.

As it is a high-profile representation of European exploration in the early 20th century, I was interested to see how the film engages with ideas about exploration and its close links with European colonialism; its representation of local and indigenous people, and of the relationships between European and South American team members; how it presents the idea of the explorer as hero; if it acknowledges women's involvement in exploration; and its depiction of the Royal Geographical Society (my own doctoral research on the Society's Collections having considered women's participation in expeditions supported by the Society in the early-mid 20th century).

The production design is excellent, with costumes, set design and cinematography all evoking the period, even if the script generally makes its points with a sledgehammer - in an early scene between Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his wife Nina (Sienna Miller, good in a largely thankless role) we learn that she is an independent-minded woman by virtue of her complaining about the corset she's forced to wear to a regimental gala, and threatening to wear trousers instead, a thematic point made by the first Pirates of the Caribbean film well over a decade ago with far greater subtlety.

The film suffers from a similar reliance on clumsy shorthand and semi-caricature throughout, with all the usual tropes present and correct: stuffy old gents in leather armchairs at the RGS; piranha devouring a man in seconds; letters from the patient wife and children back home which Fawcett cannot bear to read; that old line that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.