March 5, 1998

The academy awards are drawing near so maybe this is a good time to review the role of the surveyor in feature films. As usual this year there were films portraying firefighters, police, doctors, lawyers, and various other professions in leading roles but surveyors were in short supply. Oh sure, the high point of Seven Years in Tibet was the scene of Brad Pitt running differential levels through the streets of Lhasa, which he had been commissioned to map by the Dalai Lama. Still, his character was a civil engineer for whom surveying was a collateral activity and besides, who wants to identify with a guy that has that much trouble keeping his hair out of his face?

 Not too long ago surveyors were delighted by a film that actually had surveying as its central theme. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend The Englishman Who Went up Hill and Came Down a Mountain. A survey crew mapping the Welsh countryside during World War I determines that a village's landmark peak is 16' short of the requisite 1000 foot elevation to qualify as a mountain and therefore should be referred to as a hill. The villagers take it personally and conspire to keep the crew in town while they haul enough material to the top of the hill to reclassify it. The old party chief is full of old surveying war stories, and just wants to get the job done and be on his way. His instrument man, played by Hugh Grant, becomes charmed by the villagers and the young woman they send to distract the crew. There are only a couple of actual surveying scenes, but there is a pretty decent explanation of triangulation by the Grant character. Their instrument, however, has no vertical circle, so it's not clear to the critical eye how they came up with an elevation for the hill/mountain. At any rate, not a bad film, a few laughs, and some episodes a surveyor can relate to. I give it a plumb bob up.

 Two bobs up for my all time favorite film about a survey crew, Dersu Uzala. Don't miss this one. It's a joint Russian/Japanese venture by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosowa. You'll find it in the foreign film section at Blockbuster. Don't worry, you'll get past the subtitles. It's about a Russian survey party working in the Ussurri region in 1902. A primitive woodsman wanders into their camp and hires on as a guide. At first they find him comical but he turns out to be a master tracker ( "My nose see better than my eyes" ) and possesses a wealth of native wisdom, kind of a Siberian Yoda. The party chief and he become close friends. After a number of adventures they separate but meet again years later. When Dersu misses a shot at a stag he despairs that his eyes are failing. The chief brings him to live in the city but Dersu cannot adjust and gets in all kinds of trouble. There is one good surveying scene in this film. The chief is set up on a hilltop in the middle of the wilderness. He's just gazing around at the scenery and every once in awhile looks down at his crew who are struggling to make their way up a brushy ravine and shouts at them "Keep going ! Go up to the spring!" Then he continues looking around. I like that part. In another scene Dersu saves the chief's life when they're trapped on a frozen Siberian marsh and a blizzard comes up. Dersu shows him how to fashion a shelter out of reeds lashed to the tripod for structural support. This film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975.

 There was a film adaptation of Franz Kafka"s The Castle starring Maximillian Schell made in 1968. I saw it years ago but don't remember much. Here's a review from the "Mr. Showbiz" site on the Web through which it is available.

"Generally absorbing adaptation of Franz Kafka's uncompleted novel about a land surveyor who comes to a village, and can't make contact with the people in "the castle" who control the town. A graphic study of man in hopeless conflict with bureaucracy."

This exciting subject was explored again by a German filmmaker in 1996. From a review on the Web:

"The harder surveyor K. tries, the more distant he finds himself from his goals. The impenetrable and arbitrary castle administration hinders the clarification of his social and existential situation. K. remains what he was on the day of his arrival: a stranger who is barely tolerated."

..Gulp.. :- (

And believe it or not, there is an animated version called LandSurveyor made in Russia in 1994 using - no joke - animated clay figures. Somebody had some time on their hands!

 I'm sure there must be other good films about surveying but I can't think of them, unless you count Charlton Heston as Moses doing layout work for the old pharaoh with a diopter or some such state of the art equipment in The Ten Commandments. If you know of any let me know.