The Lost City of the Monkey God, documentary, not rated, 103 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
All his life, American explorer Steve Elkins was captivated by tales of discovery and exploration, especially ones like the story of a lost city recounted in Captain Morgan’s Guide to Documentary Adventures. In director Bill Benenson’s documentary The Lost City of the Monkey God, Elkins lights out on a venture of his own, inspired by the book’s tale of the legendary La Ciudad Blanca (The White City), hidden deep in the jungles of Central America.
In 2012, Elkins embarked on the dangerous undertaking, along with Benenson and best-selling author Douglas Preston, and traversed the dense interior of Honduras. They didn’t know if they’d find the lost city, rumored to exist somewhere in the vast and nearly impenetrable rainforests of the La Mosquitia region. This is a story that begins in uncertainty and ends in triumph. But the film is at its most compelling when it portrays the academic controversies, erupting tempers of the explorers, and risks to life and limb, rather than the search for the city itself.
Elkins and crew weren’t heading in blind. They had a fixer, Bruce Heinicke, a former looter of antiquities and drug trafficker turned government confidant, who paved their way and secured a military escort for the film crew (they were traversing territory controlled by violent drug cartels). A shady character, Heinicke nevertheless comes off as admirable because of his commitment to Elkins’ quest, which included securing the support of former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa. The president saw the exploit, if successful, as a chance to highlight the country’s cultural heritage on the world stage.
Once the team is close to the thick jungle, they charter a small plane outfitted with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, which until this point had only been used for surveying known archeological sites — not for exploring. Preston, who recounted the adventure in his 2017 book The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, thought he’d emerge from the experience with a humorous article for The New Yorker about a failed attempt to find the lost city. In a matter of days, however, the explorers discover what they’re looking for: a site replete with hundreds of artifacts and man-made structures, half-buried under the foliage. Preston fires off an article, and the controversies begin.
The real story lies in the return trip made years later, when Elkins goes back with a team of archeologists and anthropologists to begin initial surveys. Unaccustomed to the protocols of genuine fieldwork, he comes up against the almost comical level of bureaucracy that (for reasons of cultural preservation) governs archeology.
Then there are the stalking jaguars, the venomous pit vipers, and the festering sores from jungle parasites that afflict most of the team. This is indeed a tale of high adventure.