Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Inching Down the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt

When  I worked for Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons, his deal with Lima-based filmmaker Luis Llosa had us sending movie crews to make movies in Peru’s crumbling colonial cities, stark grasslands, and dense jungles Though we used Peru as a stand-in for Vietnam and many other places, we also dreamed up several  projects intended to have a true Latin American flavor. One was Fire on the Amazon, an ecological drama that remains special to me both because it contains a Sandra Bullock nude scene (yes, really) and because my rewrite of the script gave me a screenwriting credit I probably didn’t deserve. We also adapted a nineteenth-century Jules Verne novel called Eight Hundred Leagues Down the Amazon into a PG-13 action-adventure that drove us all somewhat crazy. Here’s the official logline: Outlaw Joam Garral makes a clandestine journey down the crocodile and piranha infested Amazon river to attend his daughter's marriage. Not only must he brave the dangers of the Amazonian jungles, but also the bounty hunter hot on his trail. This may sound potentially exciting, but we hardly had the budget, nor the technical know-how, to make an Amazon rafting trip seem really exciting.

I’ve just finished reading a book that makes me glad I never went on an Amazon expedition. Candice Millard is an historian and biographer who once worked for National Geographic. Her first book was a 2005 bestseller, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. It chronicles the period in which the 56-year-old Roosevelt, after his White House years and the failure of his campaign to initiate a new political party, plunged with characteristic vigor into an expedition to survey an uncharted Brazilian River known as the Rio da Duvida, or River of Doubt. Among the adventurers who set out with Roosevelt to travel the river from its source to its mouth were the renowned Brazilian military man who had first discovered the river and was dedicated to charting its course, a respected American ornithologist, a medical doctor, a Catholic priest, and Roosevelt’s son Kermit. The latter was a brave and stalwart young man quite accustomed to the rugged life. Though Kermit was along on the trip to watch over his father’s well-being, he was distracted by his recent engagement to a society beauty. Unfortunately, his impulsive decision along the way led to the death of one of the corps of  native paddlers who shared in the hazards of the journey.

Roosevelt’s story has everything: dangerous flora and fauna, hostile natives, fearsome rapids, lost canoes. There’s even a buffoon, the priest who assumed that as the physically weakest member of the party he’d be carried through the jungle on the shoulders of others. And there’s a villain too: one of the local laborers (or “camaradas”) on the trip turns out to be a thief and a murderer. As the men approached starvation, Roosevelt aggravated an old injury that weakened him to the point that he seriously contemplated suicide, as a way to keep from holding the others back. He somehow survived, but in three months lost 55 pounds, or a quarter of his normal weight. He returned home to international acclaim, but was never again quite the robust specimen he’d always prided himself on being. 

To read Millard’s book is to be reminded of how much exploration has improved since 1914. For one thing, there was no penicillin back then to fight off the infection that nearly drove Roosevelt to take his own life. Some of the expedition’s choices seem foolish in the extreme, but nobility of character is always worth celebrating.

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