The figures in Joseph Losey’s 1970 film are Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell, on the run in an unnamed country, trying to reach the safety of a mountainous frontier. As well as negotiating a vast expanse of hostile wilderness, suffering exposure from the elements, the men are pursued by a helicopter relentlessly tracking their seemingly futile bid for freedom…
Barry England’s 1968 novel was note worthy for its spare prose and stripped down plot, but for the film adaptation, Losey and screenwriter Robert Shaw cut away even more, to the point of abstraction. We never learn who these men are, and where the film is set – British prisoners of war perhaps, caught behind enemy lines in some Latin American country. Ultimately, it would prove to be the film’s undoing - critics heaped scorn upon the film for its deliberate vagueness, and after a short theatrical run, it was unceremoniously buried and quickly forgotten, even by Losey who was plagued with ill-health from the grueling location shooting and fell out of favour with his producers and financiers during the production of the film.
Watching the film some 40years later, Figures In A landscape seems far less uncompromising than it appeared in 1970 and in fact is now one of the great finds of that era. Dazzlingly shot in ‘scope, the movie looks magnificent, the action played out against a constantly shifting landscape of gullies, ravines, swamps, crumbling villages and military outposts. Losey scholars would no doubt object to my likening the film to Planet of the Apes, but Figures does bear a certain resemblance to the journey Charlton Heston and his fellow marooned astronauts, make through the "alien" landscapes in the early section of Apes - in fact both films feature a dark, atonal score and set pieces in and around a field of tall crops.
Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell attack their roles with astonishing conviction, and bring a tremendous physicality to the film, often scrambling down dangerous, steep hills (with bound hands) and whipped by the furious dust storms of the pursing helicopter. At the beginning of the film, both men, generations apart are at odds with one another, but as their journey goes on, they develop a strangely tender father-son relationship in spite of their increasingly ragged condition.
Paramount had plans for a UK release of Figures In A Landscape in 2006, but the release was mysteriously shelved at the 11th hour. Paramount did release the film as an R2 DVD in Holland (where I got my copy from) but its a decidedly average disc. The non-anamorphic 2.35 image for the most part is good, some of the more densely textured shots do tend to suffer, but overall its not a bad effort. At least the compositions can now be seen as originally intended, and is a huge improvement over butchered TV prints. Audio is hissy at times, so the many subtitles options will come in handy for some of the more hard-to-understand dialogue passages. No extras on the disc, not even a trailer could be found, so in the absence of a stronger release (unlikely it seems), this disc is highly recommended. The DVD can be picked up here.