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November 17, 2017

Presidential Perils

A filmmaker retraces Teddy Roosevelt’s risky Amazon adventure.

Ann Farmer
  • Courtesy of WGBH/American Experience

Before John Maggio tackles a new biopic, he digs for that obscure but insightful anecdote or fatal flaw in his subject.

He found both when he took on President Theodore Roosevelt and his decision at age 55 to voyage by dugout canoe down an uncharted Brazilian Amazon tributary then known as the River of Doubt.

“In this instance, he stretched too far,” says Maggio, who wrote, directed and produced Into the Amazon, a two-hour documentary that premieres January 9 on PBS’s American Experience and tells this lesser-known story about the once seemingly indomitable outdoorsman-statesman.

“The Amazon,” Maggio says, “really kicked his butt.”

The journey — which involved a 38-day overland trek to the river and then a 400-mile paddle down its treacherous waters — almost cost Roosevelt his life. At one point, injured and sick, he begged to be left behind. Three men did perish. The others, including Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, and legendary Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon, likewise suffered from the intense heat, blood-sucking insects, malaria and dysentery.

Maggio originally intended to precisely follow Roosevelt’s footsteps. However, a scouting trip convinced him that filming on the same rapids-riddled tributary — in an area of the Amazon basin still largely undeveloped — could prove too risky for his crew and their equipment.

They instead shot some scenes in the Dominican Republic, including the moment when Roosevelt’s party encountered a 50-foot waterfall impeding their passage. The bulk of the film, though, was shot on an Amazonian river that closely resembled the River of Doubt: it featured the same serpentine trajectory and almost identical rainforest vistas, and, as it turned out, some of the same frights that the original expedition encountered.

“When we went to bed at night, we could hear caiman flopping about,” says Maggio, referring to the large reptiles that troll the waters. One crewmember, taking his picture with a tree-climbing sloth, was assaulted. “It took four men to pull its claws out.”

Thankfully, just as Roosevelt’s indigenous comrades proved highly resourceful, the locals assisting Maggio’s crew concocted a homemade remedy, a black paste, which they rubbed over the cut to hasten the healing. The same men served as guides and animal wranglers. They even handcarved replicas of the original dugouts used in the 1913-14 expedition.

Actors were chosen from a whitewater rafting  team (a portly one played Roosevelt). Their costumes were never washed. As they went along, the costume designer “tore up the shirts and dirtied the pants,” Maggio says, to match the few existing photos of the original expedition (their camera equipment having been abandoned to lighten the load).

Maggio’s team, on the other hand, used drones to capture panorama  shots. When shooting from canoes, they placed cameras on gimbals for stability. “It was terrifying,” says Maggio, recalling how they passed expensive lenses back and forth while floating only inches above the water and also had  to protect their gear from daily torrential rains.

The documentary addresses why Roosevelt (who had recently lost his bid for a third presidential term) seized on such a quest. His health never fully recovered.

“His decision was based on hubris that he could survive anything,” Maggio muses. “But it speaks to the Amazon of today. It’s still a frontier. It can’t be tamed.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017

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