Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was in Ireland in 1905, a Major in the British Army there, though he had not progressed very far through the ranks as might be expected of a man of his background, largely thanks to the poor reputation of his father who had died early after drinking away the family fortune. Fawcett had a young wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) who bore him a child, a son named Jack, and she was keen to keep her husband around to witness the child grow up, but one fateful day he received orders to visit the Royal Geographical Society in London, and was intrigued as to why. It turned out they had a proposal for him, for there was a conflict brewing in South America in a region in the east - could he help?
After all, if he made peace between the rubber barons he could save the area a war, and reclaim his family name and prestige, heck, he might even generate some of that lost fortune. Percy Fawcett was a real man who gained fame in the early years of the twentieth century as an explorer, since when he arrived around the Peru location he grew fascinated by the idea that somewhere in the jungle that was being disputed, there had been legends of a vast city of great prosperity. Somehow, it had been reclaimed by that jungle as the inhabitants had been wiped out by disease or armed conflict, or both, yet the evidence was there to be seen should the right man uncover it - Fawcett believed he was that man.
If you were not up on your history of the Roaring Twenties you may not know what ultimately happened to him, though even if you did not, you could make an educated guess after what his intrepid investigations took the form of: essentially blundering through that jungle, by river or through the undergrowth, with more enthusiasm than any idea of what he and his party were letting themselves in for. From beginning to end, director James Gray adapted David Grann's non-fiction book with the same stoic tone, unwavering from that peculiarly British stiff upper lip approach (though this was an American movie) that would either see the Fawcetts of that world prevail or see to it they would eventually meet their undoing.
Gray evidently admired his leading character, for his perseverance it seemed more than any results he could claim as his own, but he was not blind to his deficiencies. They took the form of a very wise after the fact style as concerns contemporary to the time the film was created were applied to the events of the past, so you would get Nina admonishing Percy for leaving her and their increasing family for years at a time, thanks to the position of the father as an important role model being fashionable in the sociology of the twenty-first century. You imagine Nina was not exactly delighted in reality, but may have borne the heartache with more understanding than Miller was given to display. Similarly, the indigenous people were shown as having a rich culture, despite some of that including cannibalism.
Before you start wondering if this was going to go all eighties Italian exploitation on us, it should be noted the mood was more sorrowful for humanity, therefore we were invited to feel sorry that the natives would soon be seeing their millennia-old ways of life corrupted, that Nina was effectively a single parent between the exploring and the First World War, but mostly that Fawcett was on a hiding to nothing, he wasted his life on a futile set of excursions that he simply did not have the resources to succeed with. A few blokes with a pack full of rations each were not going to get very far scientifically, and indeed they may have pressed ahead into the jungle for years, but the rewards were meagre - they got their names in the newspapers back home, but as for monetary compensation? Forget it. This was the tragedy of Fawcett's tale, he should have stayed with his family and be satisfied with that was the message, perhaps a message for the British Empire too in the times when that conquering force was deeply unfashionable; the fact that Fawcett was correct in a way did nothing to make this dour, pitying effort any the less ironic. Music by Christopher Spelman.