Two prisoners of war, Mac (Robert Shaw) and Ansell (Malcolm MacDowell), have escaped their captors and flee for their lives across an unyielding landscape, encountering terrified villagers and constantly pursued by an ominous black helicopter. Their goals are always immediate: untie their hands, gather food, find shelter, avoid detection, acquire weapons, and always keep moving, towards the border across lies freedom. We learn that they’re British, that Mac was married and has a daughter (who he will never allow Ansell to meet), that the older man sees the younger as both a son and a burden, and that the younger views the older as both protector and a symbol of the “old generation”. But who they actually are, where they are and what war they’re embroiled in—these details are left in the dust. There is only flight and pursuit. Only allegory in place of story.
Which, of course, is both the triumph and ultimate failure of the movie. Based on Barry (Conduct Unbecoming) England’s 1968 debut novel and directed by Joseph Losey, Figures in a Landscape is, for the most part, just what the title describes. Beautiful, sometimes stunning photography (courtesy of directors of photography Peter Suschitzky, Henri Alekan and Guy Tabary) of the two men off in the distance, framed but majestic vistas of mountains, fields, orchards, usually from the point of view of the film’s omniscient helicopter pilot, running for their lives without stopping. The conversations the two share are fascinatingly banal—never their situation, but former careers in the private sector, how they should divide their food to keep a balanced diet, occasionally the difference between war and murder.
Thematically, Mac represents the “working class” Brit while MacDowell represents the new, hip and sophisticated but naïve younger middle class. Both have to work together, of course, and both need each other. But as characters, they don’t amount to much beyond their archetypes. Which is what makes the movie so frustrating. With the viewer kept at a distance—literally and figuratively—from the only characters in the film, the powerful climax comes as little more than just another scene. If they’re meant to be little more than allegory, then how can we sympathize with them? And if they are allegory, what’s the rest of the film—or the landscape, for that matter?—anti-war, anti-invasion? For that matter, Shaw’s (who adapted the novel) spelling out Mac’s and Ansell’s nationalities seems like another misstep, one missing from the source material. Despite being allegorical, the pair is defined as “British”. So now we’re left with another level of distance—nationalism will alienate the non-British. They’re no longer everymen but “Brit Everymen”, and we have to filter a lot of class consideration through their situations, which makes deciphering even more difficult.
By the end of the film, Figures in a Landscape has been a two-hour study of scenery broken up by occasional action set-pieces set inside hostile but unidentifiable compounds and villages. Vincent Canby pointed out in his 1971 New York Times review that the real star of the film is Gilbert Chomat, the helicopter pilot that transforms the machine into a vicious bird of prey, toying with the men on the ground. You can never really watch the movie as a whole, though. If you watch for the action scenes, you’re left with long stretches of Shaw’s bellowing and MacDowell’s petulant posturing. If you watch for the allegory, you’ll spend so much time interpreting the situation that the action will actually seem distracting.
Now, to add even more frustration, if you are still intrigued (because the movie is worth watching despite its faults), Figures in a Landscape is a difficult movie to obtain. An import PAL DVD is available for a relatively princely sum on Amazon, but it hasn’t seen a U.S. release since its brief appearance on VHS many moons ago. Still: best of luck in both the search for the film and its meaning. Let me know what you find.