Within the British tradition of the “Chase and Pursuit” drama, there are several reoccurring themes. The idea of a lone individual being chased through different topographies by a group seems to have been popularised in Britain by the Second World War but was around far before then. The basic impetuous seems to be that an individual is wanted for some crime or misdemeanour (sometimes falsely) and is pursued by various parties, from the law who believe they (though more often, “he”) is guilty, to the genuine guilty party that want the innocent individual silenced. The most interesting aspect of this sub-genre within its British guise, however, is the varied relationship between the individual (far after they have initially fled) and the reliance on a rural, often treacherous landscape for concealment.
Often the landscape appears well into the drama and far after the initial criminal event has happened. Most importantly, the main character on the run will have used up all of their available means in urban areas, often realising that, through the betrayal of suspecting locals to the relevant authorities, these built-up places are not safe if they wish to remain uncaught. It is at this point where characters so often find themselves in hills and mountains; the last, desperate attempt to avoid their pursuers by using dangerous elements of the landscape to aid them in their bid for freedom.
One of the earliest examples of this drama in its cinematic form is Anthony Asquith’s silent film, A Cottage On Dartmoor (1929), but already the genre has done something unexpected. The narrative happens in flashback and follows a hapless barber who, in a fit of jealous rage attacks the lover of a woman he has fallen for, only to be sent to prison. The film follows his escape from Dartmoor prison onto the tors and valleys of the emotionally bleak landscape as he attempts to get to the lonely cottage there where the couple now reside.
Apart from the fact that the character on the run is genuinely guilty of his accused crime, A Cottage On Dartmoor actually shows an opposite to the norms that would be set up for the landscape within the sub-genre later on. The landscape is the undoing of Joe (Uno Henning) but through his own choice of course. The couple have forgiven him for what he did and try to help him to escape but ultimately fail to do so. Knowing that any attempt to get back to the cottage will result in the police presence killing him, he does so anyway; broken hearted and defeated upon the lonely moors.
In later films (albeit adapted from earlier work), the landscape would become a refuge for the weary fugitive, often enabling them to escape and also to gain information (the enemy also seems to reside in rural landscapes, as if they also are taking advantage of the terrain). In 1915, John Buchan wrote the spy thriller, The 39 Steps. This was later popularised and amended for modern themes by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, producing perhaps the most typical and most entertaining of “Chase and Pursuit” dramas.
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) has been falsely accused of murder after accidently becoming involved in a ring of industrial espionage. Hannay is pursued through towns, cities and railways by both the police who want him in connection to the murder and the gang of spies who want him because he has too much information to be allowed to live. Eventually, after being caught variously, he escapes into the highlands of Scotland where a supposed friendly agent lives. Hitchcock creates a stunning backdrop of these highlands using a mixture of atmospheric studio recordings and some rare early location filming for the director as well. It would be a trait he would continue to use, most famously in North by Northwest (1959).
More importantly is the narrative use of this landscape. In spite of it being essential for Hanney to traverse it, it feels like a natural conclusion to the mystery of the spies, at least for the main character. It’s also where he finally convinces someone that he is telling the truth, albeit in warm confines of a remote Highland hotel. The film is famous for its silhouettes of figures upon the skyline and it is in these moments where the landscape briefly betrays the character. Once back into the rock and gneiss, however, he is untraceable and only comes back into the hands of his enemies when he enters the home of the main villain whom he mistakes for an ally of the murdered spy.
Mixing both the guiltiness of Asquith’s film with the hidden landscapes of Hitchcock’s, Charles Crichton’s Hunted (1952, sometimes known as The Stranger In Between) tells a very mixed tale of pursuit where the danger of the urban environment becomes part of the narrative. Dirk Bogarde plays Chris, a jealous husband who has just murdered the man who was seeing his wife behind his back. Upon committing the murder in a deserted warehouse, he discovers that a boy has seen him and takes him away from for fear of him giving him away.
Quickly it becomes clear that the young boy, Robbie (Jon Whiteley), was also running away from an adoptive, abusive household so is only too glad to be taken away. Though Chris tries various urban areas for solace, he is out of luck and jumps onto a train that takes them to the hilly areas of the north and eventually to Scotland (again). It becomes a challenge to traverse the area itself (after all, Robbie is very young) but, in quintessential difference to The 39 Steps, the landscape does offer a total refuge from the pursuers. Even when they eventually escape to a sparsely inhabited fishing town in order to steal a boat, the partly rural edgespace still provides enough safety for the pair to almost get away with it. As it turns out, it is only Robbie’s oncoming illness that actually scuppers Chris’ bid for freedom.
The final film to mention (but by no means the last of this sub-genre) is Rogue Male (1977) by Clive Donner. The film was made for television and is adapted from the 1939 novel by Geoffrey Household which is as much a key text in the movement as Buchan’s novel. Following the narrative of Sir Robert Hunter (Peter O’Toole), Rogue Male documents his failed attempt at killing Hitler and then his subsequent escape back to England from Austria where is chased overseas by the Gestapo. Originally made for cinema by Fritz Lang under the title of Man Hunt (1941), Rogue Male subverts several of the landscape norms established more widely in the genre.
The main character’s problems first occur within the rural landscape as opposed to an urban one. This explicitly changes his relationship he has with it later on when he uses it for escape and refuge. When Hunter eventually does seek somewhere to hide, he chooses the hills of south Dorset where, unlike the other films’ characters, he sets up camp; literally digging himself an underground site to live in with his adoptive cat, Asmodeus. The landscape is subverted again when he is eventually caught by the Gestapo; the place becoming what could have been a tomb imbedded into the ground. Luckily Hunter is more resourceful than his Nazi counterpart and eventually comes through though is clearly thankful to the landscape for his initial subterfuge and success in escaping.
Whilst this article set out to show a relatively linear relationship between the landscape and the escapee, from these four films it can be seen that the relationship is more complex than simply an aesthetic ploy or a mere narrative one. Circumstance can change the way these narratives and films portray the roles created by an often mountainous landscape and hints towards the complexity within these spaces that, on a surface reading, may seem to take their rocks and craggy pathways for granted.