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The Role of Landscape in Film

More than a visual backdrop

For me, one of the attractions of going to the cinema to see a feature film is to experience visually, on the big screen, new places or worlds that one may never actually experience oneself. In many movies, these "places" are not always physical. They can include emotional or psychological places - say when a story concerns itself with themes such as unrequited love or mental breakdown for example. But here I am interested in the physical spaces that can be defined as the "landscapes" represented by the settings or locations portrayed in a film and how the use of landscape can be leveraged by screenwriters to add additional depth to a story or the situation that characters find themselves in.

At a basic level, landscape often acts in an archetypal way that a screenwriter can expect to elicit a specific and shared response from an audience. A raging sea, dense jungle or a barren icescape may evoke fear - thank God I'm not there, I'd drown or get eaten or freeze to death. A shopping mall, airport or office building may evoke comfort - that looks familiar, just like where I shop or travel or work. A vista of Death Valley, the Himalayas or the Serengeti may evoke a sense of wonder - wow, what a place, I wish I could experience that. And naturally these anticipated responses can be "milked" by filmmakers to support the story or character development.

In some cases, landscape may function as an integral component of the visual expression of the genre of a movie such as the specific period settings of a historical drama, the progression through the landscape in a road movie, the "spacescapes" of a science-fiction movie, or the black-and-white "cityscapes" so important to the look-and-feel of much film noir. But usually, landscape is more than just a passive or overtly active visual backdrop against which story, in the form of character arcs and plot lines, is situated or developed. Screenwriters can use 'scapes -to serve a variety of sub-textual purposes in their script, for example to:

  • Reinforce themes
  • "Raise the stakes"
  • Create emotional highs
  • Emphasise contrasting worlds
  • Act as a character in its own right

Reinforcing Themes

The director David Lean is regarded as a master of using landscape and his film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) certainly makes extensive use of a desert landscape to provide dramatic locations for his biography of soldier T. E. Lawrence. One famous scene is that of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) trotting towards us on his camel from some distance away. The landscape is quite uninspiring, the desert in a heat haze, but nevertheless acts as a rich communication vehicle to emphasize other themes and foreshadow future events in the film.

The shimmering heat haze resonates with the idea of a mirage - is this man really there or are we just imagining him? He is literally a vision, reflecting the "visionary" character T. E. Lawrence himself and why the Arabs believed in him. Sherif appears alone as if from nowhere - just like the Arab Legion itself does later in the film when it attacks Turkish-held Akabar from out of the desert, and not from the sea towards which the town's defences are directed. Sherif wears a sun-soaking black robe, in defiance of the stifling heat of the landscape he is in. He is a powerful man who challenges conventional wisdom and is used to operating in defiance of his natural surroundings.

In Dances with Wolves (1990), the wide open plains of the Dakotas, home of the Lakota Sioux Indian, come to represent the freedom of the Indians and the spirit of the indigenous people as they and the buffalo they depend on roam wild and free across the territory. This is the freedom that is endangered by the oncoming "white man", even a sympathetic white man in the form of Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner).

It's possible to imagine Lean and Costners' visual biographies of Lawrence and Dunbar succeeding without the use of landscape, but the thematic power of their movies would be severely diminished as a result.

Raising the Stakes

Putting a character into unfamiliar territory is one way to raise the stakes as is placing them in situations in which they are naturally vulnerable - when asleep, showering or having sex for example. However, use of a specific landscape setting can also raise the stakes of a scene by increasing jeopardy or emphasising vulnerability.

In The Thin Red Line (1998), US marines attacking the Japanese at Guadalcanal get bogged down, not in mud as in the Western front, but amid bunches of elegant, swaying elephant grass. Looking at the grass and hearing it swish and sway evokes a restful summer's day and a calm that completely belies the deadly narrative situation. For director Terence Malick, perhaps this reflects the calm before the storm and maybe even the quintessential calm we are all said to experience before death.

Elephant grass is perfect ambush territory, the ideal location for hidden machine gun nests and solitary snipers to carry out their work. In India this kind of grass is where Tigers rest up during the day and where even hunters mounted on elephants are not safe from attack by aggressive man-eaters. In the world war two scenario of Malick's movie, even tanks would be vulnerable in this kind of terrain and superior air cover irrelevant in terms of ensuring the safety of the vulnerable marines operating in these deadly thickets.

Michael Cimino uses landscape to emphasise vulnerability in Heaven's Gate (1980). When Nathan (Christopher Walken), the cattle baron's enforcer, finds a rustler slaughtering a stolen steer, the scene of the crime is not the backyard of a log cabin but out on the open plain, in full view of anyone. The sheer vulnerability of the rustler, emphasized by the location Cimino chose, is symptomatic of the vulnerability of every immigrant trying to make their way in an environment already being sewn up by the manipulative cattle barons of the new West. It's the landscape setting that evokes this, which is further emphasized by the action that takes place when Nathan ruthlessly assassinates the rustler, slaughtering him alongside the carcass, as if he too were just an animal.

Emotional Highs

Landscape, particularly when combined with an effective soundtrack, is often used to help create an emotional high that goes beyond what either written action or dialog alone can achieve. This kind of purely visual and auditory combination exemplifies a classic cinematic experience that today's special effects can only aspire to replicate.

Flying relatively slowly and low over a landscape can be used to evoke a feeling that is much more than just visceral exhilaration (I can fly!). This particular relationship with landscape seems to have a way of making us feel more alive, more powerful even, in a way that being stationary and grounded in the landscape does not. When combined with a stirring soundtrack, as it is in both Out of Africa (1985) and The English Patient (1996) for example, it can generate to an intense emotional experience for an audience.

As the romantic leads Baroness Blixen (Meryl Streep) and Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) in Out of Africa fly over the African landscape to John Barry's lyrical soundtrack, the romantic feel created completely overpowers the reality of the land below them - a land of vicious predators and vulnerable prey populated by crushingly poor indigenous people. And as Clifton (Colin Firth) flies his biplane over the vast emptiness of the Libyan desert to Gabriel Yared's haunting soundtrack, we are reminded of how empty and shallow the machinations of politics and war can be when compared to the full and deep emotion of love between human beings, as represented by that of Laszlo (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas).

Contrasting Worlds

A sudden change of landscape is an effective way to create an immediate impression of contrasting worlds. Who can forget the jarring cut in Cimino's The Deerhunter (1978) that transports us from the empty night time streets of Michael's (Robert De Niro's) Clairton Pennsylvania steel town home to the glaring sunlight and green paddy fields of Vietnam? A cut that emphasizes more than anything else that now we are in a different world - far away from the comfort zone of "the world" (the USA) and in the combat zone of war. A world where ordinary friendships are tested to the limit by extraordinary circumstances, a natural world full of different dangers than those of an industrial steelworks and where the weekend hunters become the weekday hunted.

Kubrick's transition in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) from the barren pre-historic world of ape-like men to equally barren spacescape of the trajectory of the lunar shuttle, not only jumps from between two massively different worlds in technology terms but also in terms of time - from the distant past to the (relatively) near future - and in terms of location from traditional earthbound life into a future involving life in space. These kinds of dramatic landscape transitions pack maximum effect into what appears to be a simple cut on the page of a script.

Landscape as Character

Sometimes landscape has an even more active role in a movie, as a bona-fide protagonist/antagonist or ally/adversary "character". In both Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) and The Mission (1986), landscape performs this kind of role. It's probably no coincidence that in both cases the landscape in question is the South American jungle.

For Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) the jungle (and its vast, powerful rivers) is the antagonist that frustrates and eventually prevents him from achieving his goal of finding gold and glory in the form of the mythical kingdom of El Dorado. Aguirre's director, Werner Herzog, reused the jungle as antagonist in his later movie Fitzcarraldo (1982), also starring Kinski. For Rodrigo (Robert De Niro) in The Mission, the jungle is an adversary that makes his penance to atone for the murder of his sister's lover that much tougher as he drags his penitential baggage through the undergrowth and up and down the steep jungle ravines.

In Michael Winner's Chato's Land (1971) the landscape is truly adversarial in that the unfamiliar Apache territory sucks in the posse sent after the "breed" Chato (Charles Bronson) and gradually undermining their sanity as a group and eventually exterminating them. In the end, the two surviving members left to go mad from hunger and thirst in an unforgiving landscape that is a world apart from the relative comfort of their cosy ranches where the home fires wait for their return. The real "wild west" was truly a dangerous place for "civilized" men.

In Christopher Miles' adaptation of D H Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970) it is the river that plays a minor role in the movie. Water, in Lawrentian terms, is a life force. At the beginning of the film the river is portrayed as a stable bubbling brook, perhaps reflecting the stuffy status-quo and social equilibrium of Yvette's (Joanna Shimkus) repressed life in her father's rectory. At the end, the riverbanks are no longer able to contain a river swollen by torrential rain just as Yvette (the Virgin) can no longer resist the elemental sexual force of the Gypsy. In bursting its banks the river not only brings about the means for the two to consummate their sexual desire but also floods and destroys the rectory carrying off the physical and human detritus of Yvette's past life in the raging floodwaters.

The lifeblood of most scenes is action and dialog and subtext but don't forget landscape. In a commercial world that seems obsessed with low-budget, issue driven features, the use of landscape often takes a back seat - relegated to mere visual backdrop or something that can easily be blue-screened into a post-production edit. That's a shame because as I hope the examples outlined above have shown, intelligent use of landscape by a screenwriter or filmmaker can add rich contextual layers to both story and character development.

More Stories By Stewart McKie

Stewart McKie has 25 years of IT industry experience. His education includes a MSc in Organization Consulting and a MA in Screenwriting. I was the Technology Editor of Business Finance magazine during 1995-2000 and also wrote regular features for Intelligent Enterprise magazine. I am the author of six books on accounting software and over 50 technology white papers. My current focus is my screenwriting 2.0 app called Scenepad and my supply-chain auditing app. I have managed many ERP selections and implementations of SunSystems all over the world. Currently I am engaged as the Implementation Oversight consultant for a global AX2009 rollout for a manufacturing client and as the selection consultant for pan-European ERP solution.

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