In January 1914, former President Theodore Roosevelt joined an expedition to explore an uncharted tributary of Brazil's Amazon River, a story told in an episode of “American Experience” debuting this week on PBS.
In “Into the Amazon,” a two-hour documentary airing today, the 55-year-old Roosevelt, still reeling from his defeat at the polls 15 months earlier, took what he thought would be a tranquil journey to chart what was known as the “River of Doubt,” joined by son Kermit, Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon and six other Americans. But it quickly turned into an eight-week test of courage and character, as tenacious insects, lethal rapids, fever, hunger and exhaustion took their toll and resulted in the deaths of three and saw Roosevelt left behind to die with a badly injured leg. He would survive and live another five years.
“I do feel that there is a sense that there aren't many frontiers left and that I think Theodore Roosevelt was drawn to that,” director John Maggio told a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, California, “and I was drawn to that idea, (of) how deep can we go? How far can we go, to a physical sense of the frontier? And what Candido Rondon was doing was a sense of Brazilian manifest destiny for their country. It really was about connecting the city, the Rio and other cities, with the Amazon, and incorporating people there in a largely, sort of, very different way than we did it in this country.”
To shoot scenes for the film, Maggio and his 20-person production crew ventured into a section of the Amazon not far from the original expedition, joined by Roosevelt's great-grandson Tweed, and they experienced some of the hostile conditions the original party did more than a century earlier.
“It was hard for us,” Tweed Roosevelt reports, “but how hard it must have been for them ... much harder. And my respect for their abilities and what they achieved on this just to survive went way up.
“For example, we had Avon rafts. You know, the kind you see people use on the whitewater? And you could deflate them, and carry them, and they weighed a couple hundred pounds. ... And (they had) what they call canoes – these dugouts were 2,500 pounds and you had to use block and tackle and drag them around the rapids. And, of course, where there were rapids, the countryside wasn't easy. I mean, that's why there were rapids.
“So the countryside was very difficult,” he continues. “For many reasons, I became more impressed with what our predecessors did.”