The relationship between humankind and our natural environment has long been one of cinema’s great fascinations. A remarkable feature of cinema is its ability to transport viewers to remote destinations, using lighting, framing and composition to open portals into worlds separated from us by time and space. The films that best make use of natural scenery, however, don’t simply capture the Earth’s natural beauty but also imbue landscapes with a sense of mood that enhances their narratives and amplifies their themes.
While many films opt to recreate nature in the controlled environment of a soundstage, the myriad complications of filming in real natural locations are often offset by an unmistakable authenticity that studio sets simply cannot produce. These five films contain some of the most powerful representations of natural scenery in cinematic history.
“Days of Heaven” (1978)
In “Days of Heaven,” set in 1916, a steelworker named Bill accidentally kills his supervisor and flees to the Texas panhandle with his girlfriend Abby and kid sister Linda. To avoid suspicion, Bill and Abby pose as siblings and are hired to work hard labor for a kindly dying farmer who becomes infatuated with Abby.
Filmed almost entirely during golden hour — the period just before sunset or after sunrise — “Days of Heaven” eschews extensive dialogue in favor of lyrical imagery that captures the vicissitudes of pastoral life. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros noted that the soft, reddish sunlight faded quickly, often allowing the production to shoot only 20 minutes a day. The end result, however, is undeniably magical as each frame is rendered paintinglike.
In director Terrence Malick’s landscape, man becomes just another of the various creatures inhabiting the environment and nature often seems to operate in affinity with the characters’ emotions. The love triangle between Bill, Abby and the farmer reaches its boiling point with a biblical plague of locusts and an apocalyptic fire, all captured on screen with an ethereal quality.
Kaneto Shindo’s historical drama/horror film “Onibaba” follows a destitute old woman and her daughter-in-law who survive in the swamps of war-torn medieval Japan by killing lost samurai and stealing their possessions. Shot in chilling black and white, “Onibaba” converts the Japanese wilderness into an eerily beautiful realm barely capable of concealing the ghastly wonder that lies beneath the surface.
The film’s most iconic feature is its repeated shots of the wind-blown reeds, which dominate the setting and overwhelm the characters, mirroring the existential horror that threatens to consume them. Shindo turns the dense marsh into a forest of unseen evils and rather than depicting nature as vast and expansive, he creates a claustrophobic and disorienting venue for the nightmarish fairytale.
“Daughters of the Dust” (1991)
Filmed on location at St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, Julie Dash’s independent film “Daughters of the Dust” is a languorous look at the Gullah community, whose ancestors were brought to the Sea Islands off of the coast of South Carolina as slaves and who, in relative isolation, sustained their West African cultural heritage and folklore into the 20th century.
While Dash tells the story of the Gullah’s slow assimilation into mainland American culture, her dreamlike imagery of the landscape suggests a unique and unmatchable beauty and a resilience against the corrosive forces of time.
“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)
Based on the true story of an ill-fated wagon trail led by frontier guide Stephen Meek along the Oregon Trail in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist Western “Meek’s Cutoff” examines the shifting power dynamics in the group of settlers who struggle to survive the expanses of the high plains.
As the group runs low on water and loses faith in Meek’s capabilities as a guide, the landscape becomes a site of uncertain time and space. Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt use striking long shots with slow, contemplative camera movements to draw a striking contrast between the individuals and their vast, expressive backdrop and subjugate the characters to their environment.
In her focus on the “womenfolk” of the group, Reichardt not only challenges the stereotypical gendered power dynamics of the Western genre but also questions the mythologized narratives about American expansionism and the mastery of man over nature.
Werner Herzog’s West German epic “Fitzcarraldo” tells the story of a European would-be rubber baron obsessed with building an opera house in the Peruvian town in which he resides. In order to access a rubber-rich region of the Amazon and obtain a fortune, Fitzcarraldo exploits native labor to manually haul a steamship over a mountain.
Where much of mainstream cinema exocitizes foreign lands (see the “Fast and Furious” and “James Bond” franchises), “Fitzcarraldo” is fascinated with the spectacular failure of imperialist projects. The Peruvian jungle becomes a mirror of the protagonist’s inner landscapes and remains impenetrable and ultimately victorious against European conquest. Rejecting popular narratives that tell stories of the civilizing forces that “tamed” the wild and savage landscape, Herzog’s film instead questions whether Western society really is more civilized than nature.