The 30th Anniversary of American Experience Kicks Off with "Into the Amazon"

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07 January 2018
Into the Amazon
Courtesy of PBS
Premieres Tuesday, January 9 from 9 to 11 PM ET on PBS
(Check your local listings)
          “Into the Amazon” tells the remarkable story of the 1914 journey taken by President Theodore Roosevelt and legendary Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano Da Silva Rondon into the heart of the South American rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon River. With six American adventurers including his son Kermit, Roosevelt spent eight harrowing weeks in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, battling tenacious insects, deadly rapids, fever, hunger and exhaustion on a quest to map an unknown river in one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth.
          What was anticipated to be a relatively tranquil journey turned out to be a brutal test of courage and character. Before it was over, one member of the expedition had drowned, another had committed murder and a third was abandoned to perish in the jungle. Roosevelt would badly injure his leg and beg to be left behind to die. But more than a dramatic story of adventure and survival, “Into the Amazon” shines a light on two of the western hemisphere’s most formidable men and the culture and politics of their two formidable nations. Filmed partly in Brazil, the film features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Roosevelt, Wagner Moura (Narcos) as Rondon and Jake Lacy (Girls) as Kermit Roosevelt.

          On January 21, 1914, a 55-year old Theodore Roosevelt set off on a joint American/Brazilian expedition to map a mysterious Amazon river known only as the River of Doubt. On the journey were a small band of Americans, more than 140 Brazilians hired by Rondon to transport the expedition’s cargo, 110 mules and 70 oxen. Still reeling from a crushing defeat only 15 months earlier when he failed to win a third term as president, Roosevelt had embarked on the journey hoping to cast aside thoughts of the election and test himself in the manly world of adventure that had sustained him throughout his life. His wife Edith, fearful that the loss had left her husband in a reckless state of mind, was reassured when their 25-year-old son Kermit decided to accompany his father into the jungle.
          In route to the river, the expedition followed a path carved through the jungle 10 years earlier when Rondon had been commissioned to build a telegraph line into the rainforest. During that journey, Rondon, part Amazonian Indian himself, had formed a bond with the indigenous tribes that dwelt there. “Rondon thought Indians should be treated with kindness,” says Brazilian anthropologist Mércio Gomes. “They have been violent because people have been violent to them. If you are not violent to them, they will be kind to you.” Rondon’s attitude stemmed from the philosophy of positivism, which taught that social progress for Brazil’s indigenous people could only be achieved through peaceful means and the slow introduction of modern civilization. Rondon’s actions were in stark contrast to Roosevelt’s belief that native peoples should not be allowed to indulge in their tribal ways and that it was the mission of the white man to civilize the world.
Into the Amazon      Into the Amazon
Photo: Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library                      Photo: Courtesy of public domain                   

          The expedition was plagued with trouble from the outset. The Americans had arrived with a mountain of baggage that Colonel Rondon’s men soon found necessary to abandon along the trails. Temperatures of 100 degrees and insufferable humidity set the Americans on edge, and mosquitoes, blood-sucking sandflies and sweat bees were a constant plague. Malaria and dysentery spread through the expedition. “The very pathetic myth of ‘beneficent nature’ could not deceive even the least wise if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics,” wrote Roosevelt. With each passing mile, the expedition moved farther from civilization into a land that would test their endurance and character and a river that would carry them deep into the unknown.
         On February 27, more than a month after the expedition set out, they dipped their paddles into the River of Doubt for the first time. Tangled vines threatened to capsize canoes, and piranha and anaconda filled the waters. Unexpected rapids and waterfalls forced the men to abandon the river and cut a path through the jungle, carrying their boats and equipment with them. The grueling portages exhausted the men, while Rondon’s insistence on making a detailed survey of the river — the expedition’s original purpose — slowed their pace and added to the tension. As food supplies dwindled, they also began to spot evidence of Indians along the shore. Fearful for the lives of his son and the other men, Roosevelt lost all patience with Rondon’s delays. One month later, a deep cut on Roosevelt’s leg became infected. Wracked with fever and the onset of malaria, Roosevelt begged to be left behind to die, but Kermit and Rondon refused to go on without him.
          In the end, Theodore Roosevelt would survive to tell the tale of his greatest adventure yet. On April 26, after paddling more than 400 miles, the expedition reached the mouth of the River of Doubt, which had claimed the lives of three men and nearly killed Roosevelt. It would henceforth be known as the Rio Roosevelt.


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