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'Into the Amazon' Recounts the Perilous Mapping of Rio Roosevelt
January 9, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Theodore Roosevelt (top) was an obsessive talker, a fine president, an intrepid adventurer and, at times, an idiot.

One of those times is chronicled at length with Into the Amazon, a PBS American Experience presentation that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The documentary tracks Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition with Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon to chart a massive, previously unknown river through Brazil’s remote rainforest.

In the end, the expedition succeeded. The river was charted and named, by Rondon (left), the Rio Roosevelt.

The real victory was that Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Rondon and dozens of support personnel survived the trip.

It was still reckless and ill-advised, and while many of history’s great discovery expeditions fit that description, this particular trip carried a particularly high price for its payoff. For starters, it left three men dead and very likely shortened Roosevelt’s own life.

He barely survived the trip itself. By the time the party had traveled 400 miles and finally reached an outpost of civilization, Roosevelt was near death. He was malnourished, exhausted and suffering from both a seriously infected leg abscess and malaria. He had to be carried from his dugout canoe on a stretcher since he couldn’t stand up. Days earlier, when he had been floating in and out of delirium, he told Kermit (below) and Rondon to leave him behind so he wouldn’t slow the rest of the endangered party down.

By some measures in explorer lore, that makes him a man’s man. It also helped make him a dead man, since he never fully recovered his health and died just five years later, at the age of 60.

The perilous journey, Roosevelt’s motivation, his attitude and his conduct are all wonderfully consistent with the portrait of TR in Ken Burns’s earlier PBS series The Roosevelts.

He was ambitious, impulsive, self-assured and an unapologetic Type T. His presence dominates Into the Amazon, though John Maggio’s documentary makes the whole journey into a gripping adventure and strongly suggests Roosevelt’s is not the only exceptional story here.

Rondon, while pretty much unknown in America, emerges as a marvelous part of Brazilian history. He spent much of his life in the jungle there, on ambitious missions like running a telegraph line through incredibly dense forest.

Perhaps more impressive, he was a vigorous lifelong advocate for the rights of the indigenous people. Where many Brazilians no doubt agreed with Roosevelt that natives needed to be civilized and taught “the ways of the white man,” Rondon felt they should be left free to live their own lives in their own culture.

Rondon lived to 92 and is regarded as one of Brazil’s national heroes, similar perhaps to how Roosevelt is regarded in the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, these two strong-willed individuals had a number of disagreements during their 1914 excursion. The jungle proved a harsher adversary than Roosevelt realized, and as disease, discomfort, fatigue, and misadventure set in, leading to a loss of provisions that in turn led to malnutrition, Roosevelt strongly argued the expedition should pick up the pace and get to the finish line as quickly as possible.

Rondon didn’t disagree. But their primary mission was to map the river, and he wasn’t going to rush that process.

Maggio and his team do a superb job of making the viewer appreciate the challenges of exploring uncharted wilderness, even from a river. From piranha to caimans, swarms of stinging bugs and hostile natives along the shoreline – never mind the often-treacherous waters of the river itself – lethal challenges were everywhere.

There was also no support system. There was no civilization, there were no phones, there was no place to get supplies or medical attention beyond what they brought in the canoes.

By any standard, it was a daring adventure, a bold challenge to nature by man, the kind of thing some people always have done and always will do. The Rio Roosevelt just exacted a high price for a map.

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