As pure television, Code of the Wild is a sloppy, ill-conceived mess. Its nonsensical title is never explained, or referenced. Like other shows in its genre, it does not provide sufficient background and information to make its narrative understandable to those who aren’t well-versed in the subject matter. It leaves out essential information, sometimes to deceptive ends. The sharp photography and smooth editing can’t mask the fact that this show, like many others of its ilk, is trapped in a degenerative spiral where each new generation of shows is produced by people who are more familiar with the previous iteration of shaggy fringe programming than the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking. I should not need to Google what they are talking about to understand what is going on—and I shouldn’t have to at all since I personally translated from the Portuguese the key document the entire episode is based upon!
This show compounds the error by failing to interest the audience in its hosts, who are never given the breathing room needed to display a personality or to differentiate themselves from one another except by beard length. Part of the problem may be due to the fact that this week’s episode is listed as the sixth in production order, according to the Travel Channel website, so we may be missing some introductory material that might have set the series up for something other than disengagement from the audience.
In the opening episode, which aired on Tuesday, things get off to a bad start when the brothers give a potted history of El Dorado that assumes the viewer already knows the history of the legend, which they never really explain beyond calling it a “lost city of gold.” The name “El Dorado” is widely known to refer to a person, not a place—a mythical king who covered himself in gold and stood in the center of Lake Guatavita. In the seventeenth century the story started to become conflated with rumors of hidden cities in Andes and western Amazon, such as Manoa, the City of the Caesars and the lost city of Paititi, creating a new story that made the golden man into a golden city.
They then reveal the real purpose of the episode, which is to retrace the path of explorer Percy Fawcett, who died searching the Amazon for what he called the Lost City of Z, a non-existent lost civilization that he believed to be hidden deep in the rainforest. They trace his ideas for Z through Manuscript 512, an eighteenth century account of the supposed discovery of a lost ancient city in Brazil, which we have examined many times before. They read parts of the manuscript aloud, but omit the elements that might make the story seem dubious like the fact that manuscript describes a Greco-Roman-style city in Brazil, with specific comparisons to Roman architecture.
I am dumbfounded, though, by the show’s intentional conflation of the El Dorado with Z and the city of MS. 512, which were not the same thing. In his journals, Percy Fawcett discusses the story of El Dorado, and he correctly identified El Dorado as a myth, though he believed the City of the Caesars to have been a real, if distorted, account of an Inca city. Contrary to what the show implies, Fawcett did not identify Z as the city of MS. 512. Instead, he thought MS. 512’s city to be an outpost of Z, which he considered to be a construction of Theosophy’s Venusian gods. Our show doesn’t mention such things, for fear of making its he-man hosts look ridiculous. Nice try. Wait till you see them squeal over pretty crystals.
The brothers, who are given no personalities beyond generic grizzled redneck-adjacent cable hosts, meet with Eduardo “Dudu” Gomez, described as a historian with special interest in El Dorado. (Despite the apropos nature of his nickname, Dudu is a common diminutive of Eduardo.} They discuss Sir Walter Raleigh’s hunt for Lake Parime, an imagined lake surrounding El Dorado made famous by Sir Walter Raleigh, who failed to find it, but they omit the fact that Alexander von Humboldt proved the lake to be apocryphal in the early 1800s. They travel into the borderlands between Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela and see some beautiful scenery, lovingly filmed, and visit the Macushi tribe, who relate oral traditions of Fawcett’s passage through their land on the hunt for Z, which contradicts historical opinion that Fawcett died before reaching the territory. They visit a former lake-bed that they suspect might have been Parime and try to murder a bird by shooting it out of the air with a large arrow. However, no one really tries to explain why tracing Fawcett’s path should bring anyone to El Dorado, since it presumes that Fawcett correctly located the site based on a fictitious manuscript. In a particularly stupid segment, the brothers declare a waterfall on Mt. Roraima in the north of Brazil to “perfectly match” MS. 512 because the water came “straight down” and looked “frothy,” a description of almost every waterfall on Earth. For the record, the manuscript says this: “We saw from the bare rocks waters rush down from great height, foaming white, looking like snow, and seemingly struck aflame from lightning-like bolts of sunlight.”
The men then wildly misinterpret the text of MS. 512 to try to force it to conform to the geology of Mt. Roraima, a plateau more than 9,000 feet tall visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, who decidedly did not call it El Dorado or a city. In the manuscript, the author describes entering the city through “three arches of great height, the middle being greatest, and the two side arches smaller; atop the great and main arch we made out letters, which we could not copy because of their great height above the ground.” While the manuscript describes streets with houses and carvings behind the arches, the brothers declare some eroded stone formations to be the three arches, and the hairier brother tries to argue that the “three arches” aren’t necessarily together, so rocks a long distance apart could be the three arches.
Here is where the trouble comes in. In the past, travelers repeatedly mistook geological formations for the eroded remains of cities. It is not inherently implausible that MS. 512 is a heavily distorted account of a geological formation. Fawcett’s son, for example, believed that Fawcett was himself fooled by a geological formation into thinking there was an actual city to find. But this show failed to explain the reasoning for taking parts of the manuscript symbolically and others with extreme literalness. Why would we necessarily look for crystals and arches but not the pointing statue, the broken obelisks, the temple carved with beautiful reliefs, the deep river lined with trees, the great cataract, and all other things they ignore?
The brothers also fabricate some additional evidence. They find a creek bed of quartz crystals and claim that their shininess exactly matches MS. 512’s description of crystals that shone like fire. But they lied. The manuscript said that the mountains were made of crystal, not a thin line atop the mountain: “we discovered a ridge of mountains so high, that seemed to scrape the ethereal region and to serve as the throne of the winds beneath the stars; from afar their luminance was awe-inspiring, especially when the sunlight gave them the impression of fire to the crystals forming their rocks.” As you can see, the author spoke of the mountains being made of crystal in their entirety, to be seen by people a long way away.
Having found no lost city and no gold, the two brothers declare that they found the lost city of El Dorado because they found a match for Percy Fawcett’s interpretation of MS. 512, though the manuscript does not refer to Lake Parime and contains no reference to El Dorado.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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