Is the Real Fawcett Lost in History?

Cape Times (South Africa), May 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Is the Real Fawcett Lost in History?


Movies about real life are not real life. We all know that. And it's no different with The Lost City of Z, which follows British explorer Percy Fawcett - or a version of him, anyway.

Born in 1867, the actual man was a product of his generation, with all the racism and myopia that might entail. But the character on-screen, played by a charming Charlie Hunnam, is kind, brave and open-minded - the perfect hero for progressive sensibilities.

There's an inherent difficulty in presenting historical figures to modern audiences. Notions of basic human decency have changed, and viewers see injustices on-screen through contemporary eyes.

One way film-makers avoid alienating the audience is by excising any offending material. In The Lost City of Z, the plan works. The movie, in which Fawcett goes in search of a unknown civilisation in the Amazon, is a throwback to old-school cinema, a thrilling adventure epic about a character worth rooting for.

But in an era of heightened awareness about fake news, does it matter that the image of a complicated real-life figure had to be photoshopped to suit 2017 tastes?

Movies have a long history of making stories more dramatic, dazzling or appropriate for contemporary viewers.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to historical movies, according to film scholar Robert Burgoyne, a professor at Scotland's University of St Andrews, who wrote Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at US History.

One camp believes fact-based movies should let the past be the past and capture the relative strangeness of the era. Another group argues that all historical films are presentist - they use the past to illuminate modern conundrums. And how can a film-maker do that if viewers are turned off by characters with ideas that seem so outdated?

In Lost City, Fawcett winces when his British compatriots refer to indigenous tribesman as "savages" and concludes that all men are made from the same clay. During a lively debate at the Royal Geographical Society, which funded Fawcett's expeditions, snobby Brits ridicule the brave explorer for saying that indigenous people are the equals of refined Europeans. …

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