Teddy Roosevelt and Director John Maggio Travel Into the Amazon on PBS

In 1914, after suffering a stinging defeat two years before in the Presidential election of 1912, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave up his dream to serve an unprecedented third term in office and focused his wanderlust on the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.  It almost killed him.

The legendary Rough Rider, big game hunter and naturalist was determined to add “explorer” to his resumé when he set his sights on the River of Doubt, a mysterious and uncharted tributary of the Amazon River, where he hoped to map and collect exotic specimens. Teaming up with his 25-year-old son, Kermit, a handful of American friends and colleagues, like-minded Brazilians and indigenous natives, Roosevelt led the joint American/Brazilian expedition with renowned Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Mariano Da Silva Rondon. The plan to team up with Col. Rondon, who had indigenous roots and previous professional engagement in the region, would prove to be Roosevelt’s wisest decision.

Roosevelt was 55 in 1914– overweight, out of shape and no match for the remote, unforgiving Amazon River terrain and its exotic habitués. Overloaded with inefficient supplies and pack animals (110 mules and 70 oxen); incessantly under attack by ravenous insects and vampire bats; sickened by dysentery and malaria exacerbated by the excessive heat and humidity; diverted off course by unrelenting rapids and waterfalls; and unnerved by the lurking presence of piranha, anaconda, and potentially cannibalistic natives, the expedition was a hellish eight-week journey that quickly decimated the livestock and food supplies, incited madness and murder, and led Roosevelt to feverishly beg to be left in the jungle to die.

Theodore Roosevelt and Candido Rondon holding up a bush deer, circa 1914.

Into the Amazon, award-winning filmmaker John Maggio’s latest film for the PBS series, American Experience, opens a window onto  Roosevelt’s tortuous Amazon expedition.  The riveting two-hour documentary pairs fascinating vintage period footage and photos with reenactments shot on-location. The on-location footage illuminates the daunting scope of the twisty terrain that surrounded and nearly swallowed up Roosevelt and his team.

The film also features informative commentary from articulate historians, anthropologists, present-day explorers and Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt, as well as the voices of actors Alec Baldwin, Wagner Moura and Jack Lacy who read, respectively, from Teddy Roosevelt, Cândido Rondon and Kermit Roosevelt’s diary entries, letters and data reports documenting the expedition.

Into the Amazon premieres tonight, Tuesday, January 9, 2018, ushering in  the 30th Anniversary season of the PBS series American Experience, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing  immediately after its broadcast.

John Maggio, wrote, directed and produced AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: INTO THE AMAZON for PBS. Photo courtesy Ark Media.

Since I was especially fascinated by Ken Burns’ coverage of Teddy Roosevelt in his outstanding 2014 miniseries, The Roosevelts, (see my review @ September 14, 2014), I was anxious to connect with filmmaker John Maggio to discuss the dynamics and mindset that inspired and imploded Theodore Roosevelt’s dangerous sojourn in Brazil, as well as Maggio’s decision to revisit and film Roosevelt’s final chapter in close proximity to the site of the original expedition.  My Q&A with John Maggio (conducted via email) is reprinted below.

Judith Trojan:  You seem to be drawn to subjects who are, more often than not, mavericks within their culture or milieu…most recently Bonnie and Clyde, Ben Bradlee and now Teddy Roosevelt.  What attracts you to subjects who, for better or worse, are drawn to lifestyles or choices that defy the norm?

John Maggio:  I would include the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and the inventor of the pre-frontal lobotomy, Walter Freeman, on that list.  I find these types of individuals endlessly fascinating because they have chosen to push boundaries and almost always push a little too far because most have the fatal flaw that often comes with success – hubris – that ultimately becomes their undoing.

Theodore Roosevelt with a walking ice axe, circa 1881, was always testing his endurance. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

When I looked at Roosevelt, I discovered a man who had come to believe that the he could control nature – and sought a kind of personal mastery of nature.  He was intrepid. A big game hunter, he collected thousands of specimens for the Natural History Museum and went on a year-long African safari in 1908.  As a sickly child, he learned to test himself against nature as a way to live what he called ‘the strenuous life.’

So when he decided to go into the Amazon, he was quite certain he would be fine and could handle anything.  But he really did meet his match there.  The Amazon was still an untamed frontier; and, in 1914, when Roosevelt was traveling through it, the jungle practically ate him alive.

Trojan:  Given TR’s other extraordinary personal and political accomplishments, adventures and challenges, why do you think the time is right to focus an entire two-hour film on his eight-week, near fatal 1914 adventure in the Brazilian Amazon?

Maggio:   It’s just such a great yarn. I think everyone loves a good story. I can’t imagine any American President in recent history who would decide to throw themselves into such a perilous adventure upon leaving office, but Roosevelt is truly unique in that regard.  I do hope that people come away with a sense that it is important to preserve the Amazon basin – we need the rainforest, and we need some places to remain wild.

Trojan:  Why did you choose to incorporate live-action footage shot on-location in the Amazon rainforest?  It must have been a logistical nightmare to film there. Most documentarians would have relied solely on less costly vintage footage and photos.  Your beautifully shot, often aerial footage, works well to establish and sustain, respectively, the remote terrain and menace experienced by Roosevelt’s team…and reminds us of nature’s unforgiving brutality despite its enticing beauty.  I admit to being reminded of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo as I watched your film.

Theodore Roosevelt (right foreground), Candido Rondon and camaradas encamped during their joint American/Brazilian Amazonian expedition in 1914. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt (right foreground), Candido Rondon and camaradas encamped during their joint American/Brazilian Amazonian expedition in 1914. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Maggio:  Yes, we had our own Herzogian adventure shooting this film in the Brazilian Amazon. But after scouting various places to shoot, I quickly realized that there was no re-creating the Amazon rainforest.  I wanted to capture just how vast the jungle is there and how small the expedition appears at the center of it. At times, they look like tiny ants making their way – and I think you feel how powerful and daunting the wilderness can be.  So the only way to achieve that feeling was being there.  We had to endure incredible heat and torrential downpours; and it was harrowing at times dragging very expensive camera equipment and a very large crew through that environment.  It brought me closer to what TR and his team went through.

Trojan:  How long did you film in Brazil, how close were you to the River of Doubt, and what were its similarities to the terrain in 1914?  Your crew also included descendants of local indigenous people as well. Were any of them descendants of the native crew supporting Roosevelt’s expedition?

John Maggio (left) and crew filmed INTO THE AMAZON on-location in Brazil. Photo courtesy AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Maggio:  We shot on a tributary of the Rio Negro about three hours up river from Manaus [Roosevelt’s safe harbor and destination].  Shooting on the Rio Roosevelt with the amount of crew and equipment was prohibitive because of access issues with the Cinta Larga tribe, the logistics of chartering flights in and out, and also there was no real base camp.  The area around the Rio Roosevelt is still largely undeveloped and the challenges were too great to overcome.

That said, we found a remarkable location on the Ariau River which shared many of the same characteristics of the Rio Roosevelt – the water is black, it’s very serpentine and runs through the flooded forest.  We were still very remote, but there was a base camp we could establish with generators for camera equipment and food.

We worked with about 20 locals to the area – many of whom were indigenous – who were invaluable to the success of the shoot. They expertly guided us through the rainforest, hand-carved six 16-foot dugout canoes we used in the shooting, acted as extras and animal wranglers, and provided us with food and local remedies for infections and scrapes.  We spent a couple of weeks shooting in the Brazilian Amazon. Then we spent two weeks shooting overland, rapids and the gorge shots in the Dominican Republic.

Trojan:  Where did you acquire the remarkable period footage and photos documenting Roosevelt’s expedition? Did TR’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, help guide your focus and contribute key source material, since he reportedly spent his 50th birthday in 1992 rafting the 1,000 mile Rio Roosevelt?

Filmmaker John Maggio (left) and crew members on-location during production of INTO THE AMAZON for PBS. Photo courtesy AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Maggio:  Much of the footage of their journey comes from a film made for the Library of Congress which combines footage TR and his team took in 1914 (before they lost their film and equipment) with footage taken by another expedition headed by the explorer, George Dyott, in 1927.  Dyott undertook the expedition down the River of Doubt to verify TR’s claims of discovery of the river.  He took footage to prove it.

Also, at the Brazilian National Archives in Rio, we discovered some beautiful films of Cândido Rondon’s expeditions through the Amazon, and cut those in as well.  In those Archives, we came across much of the footage photos of Indians he encountered.  Tweed Roosevelt was a great resource because he had taken the trip most recently, so he helped us understand the physical experience.

Trojan:  How long did this project take you to complete?

Maggio:  It was about an 18-month production schedule.

Trojan:  The film returns again and again to the impact on this journey of the Roosevelt father-son bond. It seems to me that this relationship is an especially relevant and timely aspect of the story, given the current administration’s father-son dynamic.  How would you compare TR and Kermit’s relationship at the outset of the journey with their bond at river’s end?  Do you see a lesson here in light of the ‘example’ being played out in D.C. today?

Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, hunted buffalo and other game while on African safari in 1908. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, hunted buffalo and other game while on African safari in 1908. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

Maggio:  TR was always worried about Kermit.  At first, it was because as a child Kermit seemed too timid.  TR was always trying to toughen him up.  But later, after their trip to Africa together in 1908, TR began to worry that maybe Kermit was taking too many risks; and he was.

Kermit was always in the shadow of his great intrepid father, and so he was always trying to push the envelope.  He was building bridges in Brazil right before the River of Doubt expedition, which was very dangerous work; and he had already injured himself falling from a great height.  In Africa, Kermit would stand in front of charging elephants and stare them down before shooting.

And on the River of Doubt expedition, his antics cost the life of one of the Brazilian paddlers.  But in the end, he seemed to mature and, as you see in the film, he became his father’s keeper.  He helped TR out of the jungle – and essentially saved his life.  I can’t imagine there is any comparison to President Trump and his son, Don, Jr.  I can’t imagine there would ever be a circumstance that would test these men in quite the same way.  But you can’t help but see a similar dynamic at play – with Don Trump, Jr., wanting to impress his father.

Trojan:  To your mind, is there a timely take-away or lesson to be learned from revisiting TR’s accomplishments and mindset driving this 104-year-old expedition?

Maggio:  That nature is very powerful – despite all of our attempts to deny or ignore it.  With global warming and the extreme weather events that come with it, I think it’s more important than ever to respect nature.  That was a hard lesson for TR to learn and nearly cost him his life.

Trojan:  Any subjects on your ‘wish list’ going forward?

Maggio:  Think – George Orwell. Ω

Into the Amazon premieres tonight, Tuesday, January 9, 2018, ushering in the 30th Anniversary season of the PBS series American Experience, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing  immediately after its broadcast.

You can read my review of John Maggio’s (American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde) in FrontRowCenter at judithtrojan.com/2016/01/19. And I encourage you not to miss his timely documentary profile of Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee, that debuted on HBO on December 4, 2017. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.) I especially recommend watching the Bradlee documentary prior to catching Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed feature film, The Post, opening in theatres nationwide on January 12, 2018.–Judith Trojan 

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About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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One Response to Teddy Roosevelt and Director John Maggio Travel Into the Amazon on PBS

  1. Donna Bordo says:

    Judy
    Really enjoyed your comments on
    Teddy Roosevelt’s trip on the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle. It stimulated me to watch it on PBS. I learned a lot about Roosevelt, his family and the trials and tribulations encountered in the vast Amazon Jungle.
    Thank you, again Judy

    Like

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