The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, was released in 2016. It starred Charlie Hunnam as Major Percy Fawcett, with Robert Pattison as a fellow explorer Henry Costin, Tom Holland as Fawcett’s son and Sienna Miller as his wife. Major Fawcett. The film tells the story of Fawcett’s final expedition into the Amazon rainforest in search of the fabled city of El Dorado. All that is known for certain is that he, his son and another companion disappeared. Rumour and speculation have circled round their final weeks ever since – and their probable fate is still being hotly contested.
I was eager to see the film, as the vanished major – missing presumed murdered – had an unlikely connection with my mother. The first man she ever fell in love with was the flamboyant Roger Pettiward, a fellow art student at the Slade. She was flattered by the attention of this tall, red haired Oxford graduate, who had all the social poise she was so aware she lacked. On their first outing together he arrived dressed in a peacock blue Harris tweet suit, check shirt and neatly folded umbrella. They decorated the Slade walls with extravagant cartoons, and took great delight in behaving outrageously during the dances, roaring up and down the room in a kind of ‘Lancers side step gallop’ and crashing into any hapless dancers not quick enough to get out of their way.
The problem for Nancy was that she never knew where she was with him. Their relationship never developed into anything definite, and it was never sexual. Even so, time spent with him was ‘pure, instinctive, joyous release’ – something totally new for her.
It ended when Roger Pettiward agreed to accompany his friend Peter Fleming (brother of the more famous Ian) on an expedition in 1932 to discover what had become of the missing major. Fleming had replied to an advertisement in The Times for ‘two more guns’ for an ‘exploring and sporting expedition’. Pettiward spent a last night in London with Nancy and then disappeared.
His expedition with Fleming was, in the words of Ben Macintyre, ‘just as brave, quixotic and futile as Fawcett’s original quest, and much funnier.’ His account of their journey, Brazilian Adventure, is a glorious celebration of a vanished spirit of derring-do in a rainforest that must have seemed indestructible.
Reality and myth are repeatedly intertwined: Fawcett was friendly with Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard who was inspired by his adventures to write The Lost Word. Fleming and Pettiward had grown up with these novels of lost kingdoms and jungle adventures and used the language of their storybook heroes so that water was always ‘Precious Fluid’ and gunshot ‘the well-known bark of a Mauser’. The links continue: the insouciant James Bond owes much to his creator’s admiration for his older brother. And then, of course, there’s Indiana Jones …
It was while Pettiward was enjoying hardship, adventures and laughter in the Amazon that Nancy, who’d had to drop out of the Slade because her funds had dried up, found herself, almost by accident, in a relationship with a young estate agent who wanted to be a poet: Lawrence Durrell.
She was dismayed when Pettiward blanked her on his return: he was soon to marry Diana Berners Wilson, a fellow student whose background was similar to his own. In August 1942 Captain Roger Pettiward was killed in the commando raid on Dieppe.
The debate around the disappearance of Fawcett and the others continues. There’s a thorough exploration of the different theories on the Murder is Everywhere blogspot
Leighton Gage knew the Brazilian Orlando Villas Bôas who had spent many years living among various Amazonian tribes. A member of the Kalapalos tribe told Bôas that he’d been one of the villagers who had murdered Fawcett and his team because of their taboo-breaking behaviour. One of the group had urinated in the river upstream from the village, an unforgivable outrage; also a child who was being a nuisance was first pushed away, then slapped – another no-no to the villagers. Finally they had refused to share their food, also unacceptable.
For these affronts they were murdered. Bôas’s account is challenged by others who say that Fawcett was far too experienced and sensitive a traveller to have allowed these outrages. Far more likely that they simply lost their way and died of starvation and disease. As the centenary of their vanishing approaches, no doubt the debate will resurface.
Another footnote: for a long time it was believed that Fawcett’s search for El Dorado had been doomed because no such city could have existed in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. Now evidence has come to light that shows not only did they exist, but that he was looking in the right place. But for the wrong thing.
Extensive ditches and mounds have been discovered that show the outlines of large interconnected cities, the traces of a thriving civilisation that was wiped out by the diseases brought by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. A brief account can be found here
And what of the film itself? My opinion when I saw it first was that “If you can divorce it from real life, the film is quite fun – and his side kick is brilliant (turns out it was Robert Pattison, who has been called ‘the sexiest man alive’ – not in this film, just a cracking good actor). But the ending annoyed me. Given that precisely what did happen to them has never been properly explained, a walking off into the unknown, three dots kind of ending (like that brilliant finale to Gods and Men) would have been much more satisfying rather than the obligatory Hollywood father-son schmalz ‘I love you Dad,’ – ‘I love you too, son,’ so now we can all die happy even though we are about to be slaughtered and probably eaten.
Also I would merrily have any script writer who lets a mysterious gypsy woman pronounce to our hero, ‘Eet ees your destineee!’ silenced with a poison dart immediately.”
Major Fawcett, Roger Pettiward, the brothers Fleming and James Bond, Nancy and the young man who went on to write The Alexandria Quartet and the lost city of Z, or El Dorado – all those unlikely links that touch on a life.