The True Story Behind 'The Lost City of Z'

Credit: Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street

The new film The Lost City of Z, based on David Grann’s 2009 bestseller, tells the true story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who ventured into the Amazon in search of an ancient civilization. The film, directed by James Gray, stars Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett and Robert Pattinson as explorer Henry Costin.

Between 1906 and 1924, Fawcett went on seven expeditions to South America, and eventually became obsessed with finding the fabled city of Z. Then  in 1925, Fawcett returned to Brazil, but was never heard from again. His mysterious disappearance has since captivated historians and explorers, and over 100 adventurers have died trying to find Percy’s remains. (In his book, David Grann traces Fawcett’s journey, but unlike his predecessors, survived.)

Grann traveled to South America again for the filming of The Lost City of Z, and said it was surreal to see the characters in the book standing in front of him.

“When we got there, it was hot and muggy, and I see this figure walking out of the forest and he is wearing this really heavy flannel gear, and a broad-brimmed hat, and his face is smudged and smeared and he looks really boney,” Grann says. “I said to my wife that looks just like Fawcett. And it was totally surreal because you live with these characters in two dimensions.”

At the film and book’s heart is the story of Fawcett’s obsession, fed by an insatiable human desire for exploration, which Grann says Charlie Hunnam embodies.

“I thought [Charlie] captured Fawcett’s rugged quality, his determination, and I thought he also captured this element of straddling two worlds between Edwardian England and the jungle,” Grann says.

But a debate has emerged about the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Fawcett. And several British historian explorers have accused the filmmakers of glorifying Fawcett, despite his questionable positions on race. One writer, John Hemming, called Fawcett “a racist and a nutter” and another, Hugh Thomson, suggests he was “an embarrassment” to later explorers. Director James Gray has dismissed these criticisms.

Grann, for his part, acknowledges that Fawcett was an imperfect, complicated guy. 

“In some ways, he was more enlightened in that he tried to treat the indigenous communities with respect, not to use force... He adopted a lot of their traditions, and that is how he survived in the jungle,” he says. “On the other hand, he grew up in Victorian/Edwardian England where he was taught indigenous people were somehow inferior, and his mind and his writings are somewhat all over the place about that because he could never fully reconcile what he saw and what he had been taught. And he could never fully escape the disease of race.”

Although despite the New Yorker stories, book, film, and countless writings, and even more theories, no one will ever really know what happened to Fawcett. Some have even suggested he formed a jungle commune, while others said they thought he may have forgotten everything and spent the rest of his life as the chief of a cannibal tribe. Grann, for his part, still believes that Fawcett was probably killed by an indigenous tribe, as he writes in his book.

“There is an oral history from the Kalapalo Indians, who remembered Fawcett when he first came through,” Grann says. “One of the things that suggested this story had an authenticity was that it described Fawcett playing a little recorder, and that was something that had never been made public. It also describes him wanting to head east, toward what the Kalapalo referred to as the fierce Indians. The Kalapalo tried to discourage Fawcett from going in that direction, but Fawcett insisted... And they could see the fire rise above the trees, and when the fire went out, they couldn’t find any remains. The implication was that [Fawcett and his part] were killed and we will never know 100 percent.”