“It belongs in a museum!”

This weekend I saw The Lost City and, in between the laughs and admiring the jungle scenery, I had a few thoughts about cultural heritage in the movies.

The promotional poster for the film 'The Lost City' with the strapline 'The adventure is real. The heroes are not.' It shows Sandra Bullock dressed in a ragged purple glittery jumpsuit and Channing Tatum in a dirty T-shirt and chinos dragging a trolley suitcase, as they walk through a jungle with a smoking volcano in the distance

Telling the Lost City story

The Lost City is a honourable new addition to the adventure rom-com genre. It’s not going to be voted the best movie of 2022 – the tone’s a bit patchy and the characterisation’s rather clunky – but it is a fun film, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark mould.

The story (spoilers ahead!) is that romance novelist Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock), a recluse since the death of her archaeologist husband, is reluctantly sent on a book tour with the male model who stars on her book covers and who attracts some very, er, focused fan love.

She’s then kidnapped by a media billionaire with daddy issues who wants her to translate an ancient clue to the location of the long-lost Crown of Fire, a legendary headdress made of hundreds of red diamonds, which actually features in her latest novel. Cue for cover model Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum) to launch a somewhat bumbling attempt to rescue her.

As they struggle to escape their captors, the jungle and the volcano that’s about to erupt, they take on some of the aspects of Loretta’s fictional characters – intrepid archaeologist Lovelace and daring action man Dash – but also start to better understand each other.

So far, so Indiana Jones! Or Romancing the Stone! And indeed the film’s directors, brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, cheerfully acknowledge that they were inspired by these predecessors. The homage is knowing but, crucially, it’s not ironic. There’s a genuine sweetness to it and a belief that, not only can people find new depths and subtlety in each other if only they listen and explore, but that this genre too can move on to somewhere new.

What it says about heritage

One of those new aspects is the film’s attitude to cultural heritage. In fact I’m surprised that this has been mentioned in only one of the reviews I’ve read so far (NPR, see below).

So, here are a few points that jumped out at me.

History needs heads and hearts

Loretta has expertise: she reproduces genuine ancient texts in her novels, which she translates herself, hence being kidnapped to interpret a clue.

But understanding the past is not just a matter of knowing cold, hard facts extracted from documents. You also need imagination and empathy. The role of emotion in creating understanding and connection across cultures is something that Alan appreciates when he (gently) chastises her for disparaging her own novels as ‘schlocky’.

Finders’ keepers

British billionaire Abigail Fairfax (played by Daniel Radcliffe) wants to find the Crown of Fire to impress his father because it has a value in Western culture – it’s a fabulous collection of rare jewels. He swoops in like the Western Egyptologists of old, exploiting local economic insecurity to force the locals to do his dirty work.

At one point Loretta’s agent (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says of Abigail, ‘”I thought he was a child”. Which is obviously a play on Radcliffe’s Harry Potter shadow, but actually also captures both his emotional engagement – “I want the precious thing”– and the attitudes of many Western heritage institutions in relation to artefacts – “we took it, so now it’s ours, and we’re not giving it back”.

Archives are everywhere

Knowledge has many forms. The ancient scrap of papyrus has a partial clue to the location of the Crown of Fire. But its location remains obscure until Loretta and Alan ‘read’ other sources: a myth contained in an old song performed by a local woman (Olga Bucarelli), and the island’s landscape, as configured in a printed tourist map.

Two dirty hands holding up a scrap of papyrus with strange ideograms on , with a carved stone behind it with similar symbols.

(On another note, it is a wee bit distressing that the old document is kept in a cellophane slip, then folded and stuffed into Loretta’s purple glitter jumpsuit only to be exposed to jungle foliage, dirt and pests and then submerged in a stream….)

A grave is always a grave: no robbing

It turns out that the Crown of Fire has been placed in a tomb. Fairfax forces everyone to open the sarcophagus so he can extract the treasure regardless of the discomfort of local man Rafi (Héctor Aníbal), and Loretta and Alan, with this act of grave-robbing.

Though we are shown the skeletons of the loving couple who share the grave, and a plot development means their remains are disturbed (to a degree), there’s never any suggestion that they’re just old bones; even after thousands of years they are people who deserve to be left together in the perpetual peace they have chosen.

Respect communities

In the end, the final clue to the Crown’s location comes from an oral source – the song – preserved by the local community.

Fairfax, ‘the coloniser’, deliberately rides roughshod over the local community in his money-fuelled quest. “Rafi says I’m disrespecting his heritage”, he snipes. Contrast that with Loretta, whose PhD was actually on Spanish colonisation of the Global South.

But even Loretta is constrained by the Western academic framing of her knowledge; when the Crown is finally revealed it becomes clear that she too has got it wrong – it’s not a vainglorious expression of the power of a monarch displayed in an impressive temple but actually a testament to human love kept safe in a beautiful, quiet, private place.

But the key point from this is that she acknowledges her mistake, absorbs this new knowledge and joyfully welcomes this wonderful new history.

Hollywood’s cultural heritage journey

The film is still a bit uneasy. After all, the movie itself is an example of how the West exoticises and exploits an ancient culture for entertainment. But this is a fictional island with a fictional history, so I think it knows that it’s treading a fine line.

In reflecting on how Hollywood movies treat storylines about cultural heritage, I think it’s feasible to see an engagement with the concepts of decolonisation, and see a change in the direction of travel.

Films have moved from ‘it belongs in a museum’ – the heartfelt belief in protecting and preserving artefacts so they can seen by everyone, as expressed in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

to ‘but not your museum’ – the very forceful argument for repatriation of artefacts orginally taken by force and deception, as expressed in Black Panther:

And thus to the cultural heritage message of The Lost City: ‘Don’t take what’s not yours’.

It has to be said that none of these aspects actually come though in the trailer but you can enjoy it anyway!

Reviews

And here are some reviews that echo my opinion of the film and also informed my thinking for this blog:

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