Two men, Mac (Robert Shaw) and Ansell (Malcolm McDowell), have escaped, but are now suffering under the trauma of being tracked down from the air. They would not have given each other the time of day were it not for the way they have been forced to join up, and here, still bound at the wrists, they bicker as they stumble through the countryside, looking for water and a blade with which to cut their bonds. But the helicopter circles overhead, growing ever closer, relentlessly hunting them down - is there any chance they can get away?
Barry England's 1968 novel Figures in a Landscape was highly acclaimed at the time, its tale of two prisoners of war fleeing from their captors through tropical terrain capturing quite some excitement for the readers of the day, so it was inevitable that a film version would follow soon after. The man adapting the film was actually star Robert Shaw, although he had originally not planned to take one of the leading roles, but as it turned out he was perfect for it. What distinguished the film at the time was that there was no explanation for what occurs, and we never find out much in the way of background, not even at the end.
Which means the film raises plenty of questions it refuses to answer, which for many is the most frustrating aspect of it. In director Joseph Losey's hands it certainly looks very fine indeed, living up to its title with a plethora of shots of the two leads framed against the countryside, Spanish in this version though never identified as such. It's easy simply to be caught up in the visual side, but the enigmas is features rankle somewhat as Shaw's script is just too vague; we are thrown morsels of information, with Ansell apparently some kind of schoolteacher for example, but it's not enough.
Especially as whatever bits and bobs of dialogue allow us any background are mumbled or unilluminating. This leaves us with the purity of the pursuit narrative, as it fast becomes clear that we're never going to know what these men are escaping from, what they have been charged with, who their pursuers are, or anything remotely useful. As an experiment in straightforward and unadorned storytelling Figures in a Landscape is intriguing, but it goes to show that you have to have some kind of emotional investment in your characters or you might as well, in this case, be watching rats going through a maze.
So no matter how good the film looks, it's still hamstrung by its own bullheadedness. This leaves you clutching at what plot is stingingly offered to you, as Mac and Ansell spend the first twenty minutes or so with their hands tied until they can break into a house in a village and free themselves, also liberating some clothes, water and food. And weapons. Then it's one chase sequence after another, which operates well enough on an action movie level, but after a while you tend to think you've seen Shaw and McDowell be chased by a black helicopter once, you've seen it a million times - and that's how you may well be feeling by the finale. If anything, this is a parable of macho bluster, with Mac inducting Ansell into the ways of manliness so that they can both survive. Interesting for sure, but sadly a failure on most conventional levels. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.