film

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

Girls on Trains

That sounds a bit creepy.

I’m actually talking about the phenomenon that is Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train.

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It has been the book that everyone has been reading for the past year or so. Indeed, it if it weren’t for the fact that everyone watches iPlayer and reads Kindles, you’d have seen the book everywhere on public transport for the last year. I enjoyed it a great deal.

And earlier this year, it became a successful film.

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I’ve yet to see it, and although some were disappointed that the location was moved from the UK to the US, there were good reviews of Emily Blunt in the starring role.

But if you go looking for the book, you might just end with something else, particularly on sites like Amazon.

For example there’s Girl on a Train by A J Waines.

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Now to be clear, this was published before Hawkins’ book. But the fact that Amazon labels it a Bestseller, and that it is claimed that over 250,000 Kindle downloads have been sold, might suggest that the author is benefitting from a similar title. More than one reviewer also notes that it was purchased in error. Of course many may have read it and may not realise that they’ve read an entirely different book. Both are thrillers after all, and Paula Hawkins probably still isn’t a household name. The covers are different, and as Waines came first, the title can hardly be construed as cashing in. Just a happy coincidence.

What if you fancied catching the film? I was in a supermarket earlier this week and what did I see but this:

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This is actually a 2013 thriller starring Henry Ian Cusack. It’s an indie film that played a few festivals and got a very limited US release in 2014. Yet last month, it suddenly gets a UK DVD release, seeing it get shelf-space in supermarkets! The new cover art has been cynically designed to mirror that of the book.

Even though Amazon has very clearly labelled the film “The Girl on the Train (Not the Emily Blunt Movie)” and has a note to customers that says, “Please note that this is not the 2016 movie based on the novel by Paula Hawkins and starring Emily Blunt,” it’s clear from the one star reviews that many customers have mistakenly picked up this title by mistake.

(There’s also a similarly named 2009 French film starring Catherine Deneuvre, which is based on a horrifc true story.)

Generally speaking you can’t copyright film titles, although the major studios tend to stay clear of one another. There are plenty of books with the same titles – particularly when you get to one word thrillers. And of course, a simple phrase like “The Girl on the Train” might easily pitch up repeatedly. Indeed both the film and the book that I’ve noted here came before Hawkins’ bestseller. And when a book is a massive seller, you can expect others to try to replicate their success. So look out for lots of books with the word “Girl” in the title.

It’s just curious that this particular film and book have such notable similar titles, even if one is prospering more cynically than the other.

The Imitation Game

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Alan Turning. I first read Andrew Hodges’ book, on which The Imitation Game is based, sometime back in the late 80s or early 90s, although it was first published in 1983. Subsequently, I saw the TV version of Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi when it aired in 1996.

And I read widely around the subject, being fascinated with the subject of cryptography back in 1988 when I started studying maths at the University of Bath. As a scene early on in the film makes clear, everyone at Bletchley Park – or Station X as it was known – was told that they weren’t allowed to mention the work they’d been doing during the war. And so it was that well into the eighties and nineties, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and grandchildren were only beginning to learn what their relatives had actually been doing during the war.

I can’t think that there are many people in the UK who are unaware of Alan Turing and Bletchley Park now. As well as several showings of Breaking the Code, we’ve had documentaries on BBC2 and Channel 4, as well as an ITV drama series based on the women who worked there. Then there was the big screen outing for Enigma (2001), based on the Robert Harris novel. More recently there was the best-selling Sinclair McKay book on the subject. And earlier this year, the Pet Shop Boys premiered a piece on Turing during the Proms.

Beyond that, there are more detailed accounts and personal reminiscences also published. Bletchley Park itself has been “saved” on more than one occasion, and is now a successful tourist attraction (Although there’s a rather nasty dispute between it’s trustees and the National Museum of Computing which is also based on the site. I’ve not heard what the latest outcome is, but it’s left many people very unhappy.)

I mention all of this to point out that I’m pretty familiar with the source material, and I was really looking forward to The Imitation Game.

And it’s a very good film. Like Breaking the Code before it, the film breaks up Turing’s life into three distinct parts – his time at Sherborne School, his time breaking the Enigma codes during WWII, and his time when he was arrested and charged with indecency as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK.

The film moves between those times, trying to bring parallels between them. I always find that this can feel a bit forced. What we do in our younger lives doesn’t always presage what happens later. But the transitions work well. I would like to see a film where the story is told linearly though. It feels like this jumping around happens a little too much these days.

That said, I thought we could have seen more of Alex Lawther’s superb portrayal of a young Alan. The “odd fish” is treated horrendously, and his relationship with a friend – Christopher – is nicely drawn out. That said, they spent more time together in reality than the film shows.

The bulk of the film takes place during the war as Alan – now Benedict Cumberbatch – is enlisted to help break the Enigma code. While the allies had a machine – stolen by Poles who also did a lot of work trying to break Enigma – having the device wasn’t enough. The number of settings the machine has with different rotors, starting positions and plugboard settings mean that you’re left with a seemingly impossible hurdle.

The one thing the film doesn’t really get into, is exactly how Turing and his team were actually attempting to decode the intercepts. All we really get told is that each day there are new settings for the machines, and that coded messages are sent via Morse between the different German stations. The broadcasts could be heard quite easily by British listening stations, but they were left with meaningless letters.

So instead, all we really understand is that Turing decided that a big machine is the best way to cope with this, and exactly how the machine worked wasn’t really explained, except that it was using brute force to get to the right point.

This being a film, we need various scenes of tension, and if truth be told, I’m not sure things happened quite like that. At one point Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston marches in and unplugs the “bombe”. While Denniston was moved on by Churchill, this feels a little overly dramatic. Similarly, a moment when Turing seems to be seconds from being dismissed does not feel the way the British Army would have behaved. It’d have been terribly bureaucratic and not a scene of high tension. I’m not certain that the realisation of using a “crib” – a guessed bit of text at the start of a message, such as the weather – happened at a dance that our heroic protagonists raced back to their hut to try out.

But I’m probably being over pedantic. This is a film after all. Cumberbatch is excellent as Turning, and Keira Knightly’s Joan Clarke is well played. Matthew Goode is great as Hugh Alexander, and you wouldn’t want to mess with Mark Strong’s MI6 Chief, Stewart Menzies.

The film looks good, and scenes were filmed at the real Bletchley Park. Sometimes the budget does seem to constrain the film a little, although we do get enough to understand the death and misery that was being brought upon British cities and those in the North Atlantic as convoys brought much needed food and munitions. The film even tackled that thorny issue of what you do once you’ve broken the code, if you don’t want your enemy to realise that you have.

Director Morten Tyldum previously made the dark and rather funny Headhunters. This is very different, and I think he’s done a good job (interestingly, he’s due to next direct a version of one of my favourite William Gibson novels, Pattern Recognition). And I enjoyed Alexandre Desplat’s score which served the film well.

The film does ignore the other code-breaking that was going on at Bletchley, and the other codes and cyphers that also had to be tackled as the war progressed. And it doesn’t really get into his other computer work. That said, in voiceover we do hear about some of this.

I do have a slight problem with the end credits which claim that the breaking of the Enigma code was kept secret for fifty years. That’s obviously not true given the date that Turing’s biography was published. That said, it also recognises the wrongs that were done not just to Turing but to so many thousands of gay men over the years.

I did like the way the film ended though – which wasn’t quite what I was predicting. Overall, I think it’s an excellent film despite some of my reservations about how they told the story. Cumberbatch is excellent, and I hope that the film does well.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

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Photo: A blurred image taken at the 1995 Tour de France. Pantani was in the peleton somewhere, although almost certainly not in this image. See below for more.

A few days ago, I was watching a stage of the Giro D’Italia live on Eurosport. It was a mountain stage – one of three stages in this year’s Giro celebrating, or perhaps, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. You could almost hear the intake of breath from Eurosport’s commentator, Rob Hatch as he introduced a segment that Eurosport’s producers were going to play in on a split screen during an otherwise quiet moment in the race’s live coverage ahead of a big climb.

Hatch knew that even just playing the clip would cause some very strong feelings among viewers. Then we watched some highlights of Pantani on that same climb in a past Giro, sweeping up the hill. A little later, Hatch told us that his Twitter feed had indeed exploded.

“Il Pirata” was a cyclist who still divides those who follow the sport. He had an undoubted innate ability, and was unquestionably the leading climber of his time. Yet he was a product of the EPO generation, and his life ended far too soon with Pantani addicted to cocaine, hoovering up vast amounts of the stuff that would eventually kill him in an off season hotel room in Rimini.

As such, I find it hard to stomach some of the respect that is being paid to the rider. While he was incredibly talented, I’m certain that I’d never want a “commemorative” pink jersey bearing his name such as that one Rapha has released recently. That just feels a little unhealthy. Let’s face it, you don’t see too many people wearing Livestrong gear these days either.

Pantani’s is undoubtedly a tragic story. And cycling is full of legends. The sport creates them to an extent few other sports can ever truly manage. Yet I find some of this very uncomfortable, and because of that, I’m not sure I’d raise him to the very highest pantheons of the sport.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is a new documentary that was released in cinemas a week or so ago, timed to coincide with this year’s Giro D’Italia. A race that started so successfully in Belfast and Dublin, and concludes this weekend in Trieste.

I had planned on seeing the film in the cinema, but even during its first week of release, it was only available in very limited number of screenings. Somewhat ironically, Curzon, who were showing it in several of their sites, managed to only have screenings at weekends that actually clashed with live coverage of this year’s Giro! In other words, the very people who were likely to want to see the documentary would probably be found in front of a television watching this year’s coverage at the time it was being screened.

Fortunately the cinema release was really only there to get some media coverage, because the film was released on DVD and Blu-Ray earlier this week. So I watched it at home. I suspect that given Channel 4 seems to have partly funded it, it’ll end up on television sometime around this year’s Tour de France.

Anyhow, logistics aside, what’s it like as a film?

It’s based on Matt Rendell’s excellent 2006 book The Death of Marco Pantani, and the film features interviews and some narration from Rendell. It’s a fairly evenly told story, telling of Pantani’s discovery of how good he was at cycling as a child, through to his emergence onto the professional circuit and his arrival at the Grand Tours – the big races that every rider wants to perform at. It also details the appalling crash that Pantani suffered which nearly ended his career before it had properly got started.

Inevitably, the film simplifies the story to fit into a 90 minute runtime. While this is fine to a large extent, I don’t think that the film quite gets under Pantani’s skin and explains what makes him tick to the extent that the book does. And I’m not sure that Pantani’s superstar status in his home country quite comes across.

On the other hand, the film does of course benefit from numerous clips of Pantani racing, as well as contemporaneous interviews with him and others. We also hear from his mother as well as other friends and colleagues from his career. These all certainly mean that it makes a great companion piece to the book and well worth watching.

The nature of a documentary like this is that the film has to be made up largely of archival clips alongside some new interviews. Where it perhaps falls down a little is the use of an actor playing Pantani on some of the climbs as an illustration mechanism. I preferred not to see an actor but either just a bike wheel on a climb or even the point-of-view shots of what the various mountain stages actually look like on quiet days when there’s no crowds lining the sides of the road. Seeing an actor who looked a bit – but not really like Pantani just didn’t work for me.

I also felt that there were a few too many camera tricks to energise some of the segments of racing. Just showing the video would have been fine. Films like Senna have shown what can be achieved using archive footage alone, with new interviews just added as sound.

But I’m being picky. The producers and director did make one interesting choice, which was to dub on sound effects of bicycles being ridden. And it was quite refreshing. If you watch televised cycling you rarely actually hear the sound of the bicycles, because the camera is usually on a motorbike which drowns all the other sound out – or even a helicopter. I found it quite an interesting idea to hear the sound of a chain being turned during an attack even if it was added in an edit suite.

The construction of the documentary was fine. Sometimes I find it a little forced if we always have to start at the end and work backwards, although that’s actually how the book was written!

And I think the film handles the cases for the “prosecution” and “defence” quite evenly. Yes he was the best climber of his generation, and yes he was a knowing member of the EPO set – actually probably also a generation since so many were taking the drug. In fact, although in a piece towards the end Rendell lays out the case for why it must have been nearly impossible for Pantani not to have been pressured into taking drugs by team managers, rivals, sponsors and doctors, I think the book did a better job of painting Pantani as – well – not the brightest spark in the world. Maybe it’s not right, but the smarter you are, the less sympathy I have for you if you do wrong.

Remarkably, Lance Armstrong manages to come out of this film worse than anyone else, and certainly Pantani. He barely features, but a throw away comment and his behaviour to someone who was certainly up there with him, shows what a vindictive man he could be.

Overall, if you like to watch professional cycling, then I’d recommend seeing this film. It’s not quite as polished at The Armstrong Lie, but it’s still a worthy piece. At time of writing I believe that it’s still in cinemas in some parts of the country. But otherwise, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray. Fortunately they were the same price at Amazon. However, given the amount of archival standard resolution footage, I wouldn’t pay over the odds to watch it in HD.

Personally, I loved the drama of watching Pantani going up a mountain. His ridiculous bursts of speed. The seeming impulsiveness of his attacks. Yet I was never a massive fan of his. I don’t know why, but

I thought that I’d never seen Pantani race in the flesh. But actually, as the documentary shows, Pantani raced in the 1995 Tour de France. I watched the riders process the on a neutralised stage of that year’s Tour, the day after the tragic death of Fabio Casartelli in the Pyranees. As I’ve mentioned before, that day saw Casartelli’s Motorola team, with Lance Armstrong among them, ride out ahead of the peleton as they respectfully rolled across the finish line. Somewhere in the midst of the blurred photo above may – or may not – be Pantani. But that was the only time I “saw” him.

So I respected him, but never loved him. I was still shocked by his death in 2004 though, and he was an incredible rider.