I find it easy enough to sell people on a film I love when it’s widely hated. The bad reputation of a film like The Happening is obviously an obstacle to selling people on it, but it’s also kind of a hook. At the very least, it saves me some explaining and gives me an initial impression to subvert. People also get a bit of a thrill from contrarianism. It feels good to reject the consensus, especially in such a low-stakes way as liking a film most people – or most critics – think is shit. Discovering a hidden gem or a misjudged masterpiece makes you feel like you’re in on a cool secret. It’s countercultural in the most literal sense. I know exactly how I’d pitch someone on the surprisingly moving Adam Sandler comedy Click or the director’s cut of the 2003 Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck.
But sometimes films aren’t just hated or underrated. Sometimes, they’re not even forgotten: no one paid them enough attention in the first place to forget them. They’re the tough sell. It’s one thing to have been received with disdain, but to have simply been ignored? At least films that were panned were deemed worthy of recording in the annals of pop cultural history. If no one even took the time to hate something, I think our instinct is to assume it’s probably bad, and not even bad in interesting ways. Boringly bad. But even if that’s likely true of most such films, just as it’s likely true of most art ever, there’s nothing fundamentally meritocratic about what gets left in or out of history. The sheer volume of production over the last century-and-change of cinema practically guarantees some good films – maybe even some of the best films ever made – have managed to come into the world with very little notice. Even films by critically well-regarded directors. Even films by Palme d’Or winners.
Figures in a Landscape is one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. And no one else seems to give a shit about it.
The first thing you see in Figures in a Landscape (though you can’t tell right away) is a single black helicopter streaking across the dawn sky. The names of the lead actors fade on screen and then off. Robert Shaw, still a few years from his most enduring role as Quint in Jaws, and a young Malcolm McDowell, fresh off his acclaimed debut performance in If…, but not yet the icon that A Clockwork Orange would make him. Cut to two men running across a dark beach beneath the dull red glow of a rising sun, their hands tied behind their backs. The title of the film fades on screen and then off. Back to the helicopter, bigger in the frame, its form clearer. Then exactly two minutes of footage from the helicopter’s perspective, over the shoulder of the anonymous pilots or from just under the cockpit. They glide over beautiful landscapes: drying riverbeds, verdant fields, the remains of a quarry. Arid, rocky mountain cliffs, rolling hills covered in olive trees. They swoop over a pack of wild horses, soar alongside an eagle, send a herd of goats scattering. Fog rolls in as they climb above the snow-topped peaks. Fade to black. Smash to our protagonists sprinting through a forest by daylight. Their hands are still tied behind their backs.
Mac (Shaw) and Ansell (McDowell) are the titular figures in the landscape and our near-constant companions for the rest of the story. They are escaped prisoners fleeing some sort of military force, represented primarily by the black helicopter. We will learn precious little else about them over the next hundred plus minutes. Mac is older than Ansell and married with two daughters. Ansell used to work at Fortnum & Mason in London, but “only did it for the experience”. They both seem to be soldiers, and presumably prisoners of war, but Mac is obviously working-class while the Fortnum & Mason comment and a jab from Mac about “that school of yours” suggest Ansell is from a wealthier background. Mac is a veteran of the Second World War. Ansell is – or claims to be – a bit of playboy, picking up women at work. We never learn where they are, why they’re there or who they’re fleeing. Even the “when” is pretty vague. It’s been over twenty years since the end of World War II and the contraceptive pill is a relatively new invention, but it’s been around long enough to have changed the sexual culture noticeably, even for a young man like Ansell. The film was shot in Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain, but the combination of landscapes featured doesn’t really suggest any country in particular, even if some moments seem more like Latin America and others like Southeast Asia. It’s minimalism pushed to the borders of the experimental, an action film with the existential sparseness of a Beckett play, just two men with nothing left to cling to but each other, trying to survive wilderness at its most abstract. It’s a bold, daring film and it’s exhilarating to watch from start to finish.
Figures in a Landscape was not intended to be the film it became. Originally, Peter O’Toole was set to play Mac and Peter Medak was in the director’s chair. But, according to a recent interview with Medak:
“The very first one I ever walked out on was right after Negatives, a film called Figures in a Landscape. That’s when Peter O’Toole and I met. It was 1969. Peter and I were going to do it and I cast Malcolm McDowell, whose remained a great friend…first Peter walked out because of a disagreement with the producer. Then I cast Robert Shaw. And darling Robert started rewriting the script and changed Malcolm’s character’s name. He didn’t physically change it but [he was] called, ‘Kid,’ and in the [new] script he was ‘Boy.’ And I remember saying to Bob, ‘Look I know I’m not English but there’s a big difference [between] calling someone ‘Boy’ or ‘Kid.’ ‘Kid’ is lyrical and ‘Boy’ is talking down to him.’ So I walked out of the film…I regretted it ever since, because my whole career would have been different. It was an incredible film about two soldiers in Indochina…”
Medak and O’Toole would go on to make the cult classic The Ruling Class together, while Robert Shaw replaced Stanley Mann as screenwriter and the more experienced Joseph Losey took over from Medak. Losey, a noir director blacklisted in the US after refusing to name other leftists before the House Un-American Activities Committee, had achieved acclaim in the UK off the back of two brilliant collaborations with Harold Pinter, 1963’s The Servant and 1967’s Accident, both starring Dirk Bogarde. Figures in a Landscape doesn’t seem to have been a passion project for anyone ultimately involved in its production, yet Losey and Shaw’s different take on the material compared to Medak feels like lightning in a bottle in retrospect. Medak claims to have walked out on the film because Shaw introduced hostility and antagonism to the relationship between Mac and Ansell, but it’s their mutual disdain for each other that makes their dynamic. They don’t go through a straightforward arc from not liking each other to brothers in arms or whatever. Right to the end, they seem to think very little of each other, with Mac telling Ansell just before the climax that he should be strung up for his philandering with young women. But the fact they don’t really go through that arc is weirdly kind of moving in its own right. That they fight so hard for each other despite disliking each other is actually quite touching, even though it’s always held in productive tension with the fact that fighting for each other regularly means killing other people, including civilians.
The only reviews of Figures on release that I’ve been able to track down are Vincent Canby’s in The New York Times and what I have to assume is a contemporary take from Time Out. Each of them errs by trying to slot the film neatly into one of two boxes. Canby reads the film as metaphor or allegory, claiming that Mac and Ansell are “complementary halves of a kind of contemporary Everyman”. It’s an incredibly facile gloss on the characters, one that Canby neither substantiates nor follows up on, even as he claims such literary conceits “make my heart sink, since it means that one is not going to be allowed to attend to the simple pleasures of vicarious adventure without also being forced to consider the film’s aspirations as a metaphor”. He says the film is proof that Losey, after a pair of extremely polarising Elizabeth Taylor films, is once again “pursuing his own metaphysical concerns”, and mentions The Servant and Accident, but not what the shared concerns of the three films are. I can see lots of themes he could possibly mean – male homosociality, the shifting landscape of class relations in post-war Britain, the futile raging against death, various ideas around the end of empire – but none of these films operate on the level of metaphor, least of all Figures in a Landscape. Time Out take virtually the opposite approach, declaring that since the film was shot in Europe, it’s therefore set in Europe, unlike the book it’s adapted from, which was set in an unnamed Asian country. They essentially say the film is too abstracted from reality to mean anything and express confusion as to “what military authority two evidently apolitical Englishmen can be running from in fear of instant annihilation”. It’s a far stupider read than Canby’s, but both takes are kind of wrong for the same reason: they refuse to just let the ambiguity of the film be.
The minimalism of Figures in a Landscape is certainly striking, and it really makes the action pop. Long before you get to know Mac and Ansell, it’s the action that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s not a fast-paced film – they don’t get their hands untied until half an hour in – but there’s always something happening. The whole movie is just Mac and Ansell trying to cross the landscape to a border post in the mountains beyond which neither the helicopter nor the ground troops pursuing them can cross. If they’re not moving, they’re waiting to move. Even when they stop to rest, Shaw and McDowell both play the characters expressively, gesticulating as their tempers rise, moving from standing to crouching, grabbing each other by the lapels when they’re pissed or sad or tired. On the rare occasions they’re still, the helicopter is moving, or the camera is. When the camera is still, Losey, like Kurosawa, lets the environment move for him. Wind blowing through leaves, rain dripping down a cave roof. All the waiting and evading builds the tension with a nice slow burn, erupting into jets of flame whenever protagonist and antagonist meet. It’s not the best action film of all time – Yojimbo is the best action film of all time – but it might be the most action film of all time, in the purity of its form if not as an exemplar of what we expect an action film to be. It reminds me not only of Kurosawa, but Predator, which achieves similar devotion to motion as an end in itself, and Free Fire, which is just as methodical in building its drama around questions of distance, proximity and perspective. Even the mixed-to-negative reviews from Canby and Time Out acknowledge that, as visual spectacle, Figures in a Landscape is fairly breathtaking. To some extent, its minimalism is what lets everything else shine so brightly. With stakes this simple and a plot this non-existent, it’s really easy to just focus on the action, the composition, the changing colours of the sky as it moves from dawn to dusk and back again.
I don’t necessarily buy that a film needs to be more than visually beautiful to be worthwhile. And I do think that everything I’ve already praised more than justifies spending a couple of hours on a film this brilliantly assembled. Figures in a Landscape would be great as pure thriller, unburdened by any context beyond itself. Honestly, you can watch it that way if you like and I bet it’s still a great time. But it isn’t just that. It’s neither pure formalist abstraction from human experience, nor something as straightforward as an allegory or a metaphor. Canby and Time Out want to file it away in a neat little box that says either “it means nothing” or “it means something in particular”, when it actually exists between the two, signifying too much to mean nothing, but not enough to mean anything specific. It’s more like a dream or a nightmare, a tableau infused with the dreadful irreality of the road where Didi and Gogo wait for Godot, the interstitial spaces where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that aren’t in Hamlet, the myriad single unadorned rooms of Harold Pinter. It might visually refer to real places, but when you add up all the details, it’s an impossible place stitched together from contradictory sources.
No sequence sums up this sustained, menacing ambiguity better than Mac and Ansell’s escape through the paddy fields late in the film. Pursued by soldiers, Mac and Ansell run into a rice field that the enemy immediately lights on fire to either smoke them out or kill them altogether. Tired, dirty, running and gunning, crawling through the muck as farmers flood the field to save their crop, it’s pretty impossible, then and now, to see anything but the Vietnam War. It’s one of the most Vietnam War things I’ve ever seen and only gets more so when they clear the field and take refuge in a river. They cover themselves in mud to soothe their burns and camouflage them until nightfall, when they sneak onto land and attack a cluster of buildings occupied by enemy soldiers. But the resemblance to Vietnam starts to break down immediately: the buildings don’t look like Southeast Asia, they look like the village from A Fistful of Dollars. White walls, sun-bleached stone. The soldiers are ethnically ambiguous, but definitely of European extraction. It suddenly feels like a totally different flavour of colonial. Then, when Mac and Ansell are catching their breath after the firefight with said soldiers, a then-modern passenger train passes them in the night. It looks empty, but even so, it disturbs our sense of the place. The visual references to the Vietnam War and our cultural imagination of Central America in frontier times (A Fistful of Dollars was, like Figures, shot in Spain) charge the film with a certain post-colonial anxiety that’s unsettled further by the appearance of the train. The shock of it cutting through the darkness, a flash of modernity in what the film has largely presented as sparsely inhabited wilderness. If Figures is in part a post-colonial nightmare, an existential thriller about western man at the end of empire, the train feels like a terrifying omen: a vision of former colonies getting on just fine without their former masters.
And it’s not the only thing that Figures in a Landscape has going on thematically. More of the (fairly limited) dialogue is Mac and Ansell talking about marriage, children and the contraceptive pill than you would ever expect. (Ansell offers to teach Mac’s daughters how to fuck. Mac is not on board.) Mac’s relationship with his unnamed wife, who had her jaw ripped off by a dog, or the passionless way Ansell talks about the different types of women you can “have” now, like he’s talking about all the new flavours of crisps they have these days. “You’ve only got to ask,” he says. “Models, wives, nurses, secretaries, physiotherapists.” There’s all the generational and class conflict between the leads, and their different attitudes to killing. Ansell is very hesitant to kill anyone and never learns to stomach it even after he’s done so a few times. Mac kills easily, even with civilians, but has wildly divergent reactions to it at different points in the story, from a boiling guilt that seems to tear his stomach apart to an ecstatic joy that shoots through and out his body like lightning.
It’s an incredibly rich film that simply prefers to marinate in the ambiguity and tension of its ideas rather than seek resolution or catharsis. Mac and Ansell’s fate is decided in a final confrontation on a snowy peak with the black helicopter, but the train rolls on without them. Figures in a Landscape is a film of its time, a film that could only emerge from the transitional period between the death of the sixties and the birth of the seventies, when it seemed clear what had been washed away, but not yet what would emerge to take its place. But it’s also strangely timeless: it somehow feels unbounded from any particular historical moment, not despite its specificities, but through them. I can’t say for sure that every time has felt apocalyptic, but Old English poetry is just as full of ruminations on the sense of an ending as the literature of the nuclear age. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron as the Black Death laid medieval Europe to waste and Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” while Spanish flu swept across the world. Losey and Shaw made Figures in a Landscape in the waning days of British empire, but I came of age in the last decades of American empire. When Mac says “Anybody can have a war now. I mean, you just get a bit of equipment and you start, don’t you?”, I don’t just hear helicopters over Vietnam, I hear rockets over Baghdad. It’s both of its time and constantly accruing new dimensions as it speaks to other ages. But it’s also fundamentally, and I can’t stress this enough, just a great fucking action film.
I don’t understand why no one else in the world seems to give a shit about it.