Teddy Roosevelt is ... Indiana Jones
The former president thought an Amazon adventure would ease the pain of a political loss. Little did he know what would be lurking in the rain forest.
If no one has yet optioned the film rights to The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, call Jerry Bruckheimer - immediately. This is a book with all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster and then some.Skip to next paragraph
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The story itself is a thriller packed with dangers (including but not limited to savage cannibals, ferocious piranhas, giant anaconda, a crazed murderer on the loose, and churning white-water rapids) that threaten the protagonists at every turn.
Yet at the same time it's a tale of warm human interaction as men of remarkable character and skill are thrown together under life-and-death circumstances and come to know, love, and respect one another even as they fight for survival. Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit provide a tender father-son relationship and then there's even a romance between two beautiful, wealthy young people - one of whom (Kermit) is busy risking his life in Brazil while the other (his fiancée Belle) flits about Europe buying dresses and being seen at the opera.
Best of all, this story has the ultimate virtue of being true, which would allow the filmmakers to include an epilogue to be run just before the credits, letting the audience know the sometimes bittersweet endings to the lives of the characters.
Of course even as I was eagerly casting "River of Doubt" in my head (maybe Bob Hoskins as Theodore Roosevelt, Leonardo DiCaprio as Kermit, and Katie Holmes as Belle?), I had to admit to myself that there is one huge obstacle to ever seeing this adventure played out on the big screen.
That obstacle is the book's true star: the Brazilian rain forest. It's a fascinating, complex, darkly rich character which in real life is perhaps still too wild to be tamed for a film - and yet no stand-in could properly substitute.
Plus, Candice Millard, the book's author and a former writer and editor for National Geographic, does such a good job of telling us about the rain forest that it's doubtful that any film version could fully do justice to her words.
So I guess the best bet is simply to sit down with "River of Doubt" and enjoy it as written.
It begins in 1912 when Roosevelt went down in humiliating defeat after his third presidential bid. Hoping to distract himself from his pain, he seized upon a speaking invitation in Brazil as an excellent excuse to visit Latin America.
It wasn't just the chance for an outdoors adventure that drew Roosevelt - although the 26th president was always eager for that - but also the chance to visit Kermit who was working in Brazil building bridges for the Anglo Brazilian Iron Company.
The way the voyage was first envisioned - a daring but reasonable jaunt that would have allowed Roosevelt to travel the continent in some style and comfort, visit his son, and make his speeches - would have been adventurous enough for most travelers of that era.
But Roosevelt couldn't resist the lure of something more. When a friend suggested to him that it might be more exciting to explore the Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt, an unmapped river almost unknown to nonnatives, he jumped at the chance. And when his son heard that his father was doing something so foolhardy, he felt compelled to go along and keep him safe - although in the end each took huge risks for the other.
The trip also included the famous Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon and respected naturalist George Cherrie, men smart enough to know what they were getting into.
But Roosevelt carelessly left the planning of the trip in the hands of an old friend, an elderly priest, who, in turn, handed off most of the preparations to a clerk he met in a New York City sporting-goods store, a man who turned out to be a disastrously failed explorer himself.
Thus it was that the group ended up in the midst of the rain forest with absurd provisions - luxuries like grapefruit marmalade and stuffed olives, most of which they had to jettison - facing a dangerous river in the wrong kind of boats.
By the time they realized how dangerous their situation was, however, they could no longer turn back. They had no choice but to attempt the trip down the river - which turned out to be 1,000 miles long - even though it meant probable death from starvation, white-water rapids, or hostile natives.
Their adventures were prodigious. To read this book is to gain nothing but respect for Roosevelt himself and also for his son, both of whom acquitted themselves as true heroes, as did almost all their fellow voyagers.
There are moments of warmth and fun in this book - Roosevelt bathing like a huge, naked fish in the river or astonishing his companions with his capacity for nonstop, gregarious chatter, also the caring relationships that sprang up on all sides - but as compelling as these are they are largely eclipsed by the awesome setting in which the story unfolds.
Millard does an excellent job of making us feel the uncanny silence of the rain forest, with its odd lack of visible animal life and the way its greatest dangers - human and other - are ever at hand but almost always unseen.
Overall, this is a stranger-than-fiction tale that - be forewarned - many readers will feel compelled to devour in a single sitting.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.