American Experience: Into the Amazon chronicles the now infamous misadventure of Theodore Roosevelt and Candido Rondon into the heart of the Brazilian Amazon to map the aptly named River of Doubt in 1913-14. This episode is part of a PBS series called American Experience, on air for almost 30 years, and billed as a series that “brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present” (American Experience).
The title “American Experience” is an apt one, as an American perspective inevitably frames the viewer experience. Over 113 minutes we follow the explorers’ journey into the Amazon cutting between grayscale reenactments (voiced by Alec Baldwin as Roosevelt and Wagner Moura as Rondon), and contemporary interviews with some of the foremost scholars on Roosevelt, Rondon, and the trip in general. In reenactments, the lead adventurer’s travel diaries are used as narrative, with Roosevelt explaining the meaning and great importance of “wilderness wandering” and Rondon reiterating his dedication to his mission of indigenous protection and the mapping of the Amazon. The film breaks apart the journey piece by piece, beginning with a contextualization of Roosevelt’s election loss in 1912, the end of the golden age of exploration, and Roosevelt’s impulse to test physical boundaries through wilderness challenges.
Moving from these external factors, the film begins the journey into the jungle. The rainforest is framed in some very stereotypical ways, i.e. as a voracious eater of men, a hostile wilderness and green inferno. Indigenous people, described as “Adam and Eve like” populate this jungle, and most detrimentally to the group, microscopic bugs pester them to the point of madness. As the party moves further into the jungle they are confronted with one obstacle upon another. For one, the Brazilian Rondon, himself of indigenous descent, has a strict non-violent approach towards indigenous peoples, believing they should be gradually brought into civilization based on a Positivist model. Roosevelt, on the other hand, frames his conceptualization of indigenous peoples on his experience of violence in the American southwest, ultimately believing that indigenous peoples should be wards of the state.
Beyond their approaches to indigenous peoples their leadership style also differs greatly. Rondon is deeply dedicated to mapping the River of Doubt, where Roosevelt after the trials and tribulations of disease, discomfort, and in two instances death, wants to keep the expedition moving.
The film does a good job of offering the historical context needed, particularly from an American perspective about the different leadership styles of the two men. However, and perhaps this is not the point, the movie offers very little criticism of the expedition and these two men. Indeed, the final scenes show them receiving prestigious medals of honor from the Royal Geographical Society in England, and calling them heroes of the utmost degree. While contextually the viewer is offered a rich story of journey itself, including when one worker died under Kermit (Roosevelt’s son) disobedience towards Rondon’s authority, there is barely any context of the Amazon, indigenous peoples, Brazilian policy during the era, and the two country’s international relations – all things that would have enriched the viewer experience, American or otherwise.
This trip is interesting because of the drama of one of the most famous men in the world in the heart of the jungle and subsequent misadventures, but also because of the representative power for United States/Brazilian relations and the Amazon broadly. The Amazon, especially in its grayscale during reenactments, fades into a background upon which Roosevelt can test his masculinity. While I don’t doubt that that was primarily his own understanding of the land through which he had his last great adventure, I think that a documentary about the trip should offer at the very least a nod towards contextualizing debates about the Amazon and indigenous peoples particularly at the time of the trip – the tail-end of the rubber boom. Overall, this film offers a good (and relatively fun) overview for anyone interested in the trip (and for further light reading Candace Millard’s River of Doubt offers more of the same), however for those interested in a critical lens towards international relations and Amazonian representation, look elsewhere.