The Expeditionary Storyline | Case Study Page: The 'Gateway Barrier' Scene
 
 
Storyline: An expedition travels into a remote unexplored region, meeting challenges all the way.
 
The 'Gateway Barrier' Scene is essential to create a sense the expedition destination as somewhere special cut off from the rest of the world. Often, this barrier will conceal and/or act as an obstacle to, the entrance to a Lost Valley containing treasure or other secrets. Over the decades, writers have come up with different ways of creating this gateway, and the successful examples have as usual been copied or emulated. Below are 10 variations.

 

#1 The Hidden Cavern or Canyon Entrance
Jules Verne in his 1864 Journey To The Center Of The Earth
 has the explorers following a parchment clue saying that a shaft of sunlight will point out the secret entrance to the interior of the Earth at a certain time of year on the inner rim of an extinct Icelandic volcano. (The volcanic mountain is real enough, in SW Iceland, though it does not have a handy 'window' in its contours [see below] which allows a shaft of sunlight to point the way to the earth's interior - this seems a complete invention.)

 
Left and above: stills from the 1959 film version of Journey To The Center Of The Earth. 
 
 

It’s difficult to say who popularised the ‘hidden canyon’ idea seen in westerns, there being several real-life examples of such natural features exploited by outlaws, as with The Hole In The Wall gang of Butch Cassidy et al who got their nickname from Hole-in-the-Wall Pass in Johnson County, Wyoming. Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang similarly used Robbers Roost in SE Utah.
There were also real-life frontier legends about a hidden canyon in Apache territory being rich in gold seams, and this was the basis of Lust For Gold (1949), scripted by Ted Sherdeman and Richard English from the book by Barry Storm, which is partly autobiographical and fact-based. It explores the clues pointing to the entrance to the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine on Superstition Mountain in Arizona, with the way indicated by a set of puzzling trailmarkers, such as an Indian rock-painting and a man-made rock-arch the moon shines through [pictured below].

A similar legend, that of the Lost Adams Diggings, also became the inspiration for a big-budget extravaganza, Mackenna's Gold [1969], scripted by Carl Foreman from a 1963 novel by 'Will Henry' [=Heck Allen]. The climatic arrival scene is out of the Jules Verne playbook, with the sun pointing the way, briefly, to the hidden entrance of the legendary Canyon del Oro. The group have to line up at sunrise and gallop after the moving shadow of a rock pinnacle ‘finger’ to locate the hidden side-canyon entrance in a cleft in the main canyon wall. They discover the cave-like narrow entrance into the hidden valley with its shimmering gold seam. (See screenshots opposite and below; the scene is on YouTube here).


Above and below: The sun's shadow over 'Shaking Rock' points the way to the hidden Canyon del Oro in Mackenna's Gold. (The flaw in this setup is that shadows get longer at sunset, not at sunrise!)
  
 
 

#2 The Canyonside Trail:
In westerns, the characters ride everywhere, so the gateway has to be accessible as a horse trail, inevitably cut into the side of a canyon with a sheer dropoff below. The appearance of precipitous canyon-side trails in westerns must be as old as the cliche "We'll head 'em off at the pass!" They do exist in the US SW, cf the Grand Canyon trails.

Opposite: Although there are plenty of genuine canyonside riding trails around (e.g. in the Grand Canyon), these scenes were almost always done with glass-painted backgrounds matted in around live action shot on a soundstage, as in Disney's 1962 In Search Of The Castaways, right, adapted from a Jules Verne novel. Garden Of Evil [1954] did at least use location filming for the principals, as below, though a painted matte background is used for later scenes.


      
 
 

Left: In Garden Of Evil [1954], the steep canyonside trail is the major setpiece obstacle, both coming and going. Here, Susan Hayward gallops her horse to leap a break in the trail ledge, and [mouse over] [2] Richard Widmark looks back as they head into Apache territory. The film was shot in central Mexico where it is set, but the canyonside trail scenes are inevitably done with matted-in backgrounds.

 

Below: The hell-for-leather ride down a switchback cliffside trail into the Canyon del Oro in Mackenna's Gold.

 
   
 

#3 The Cavern-Ledge Path:
After the secret cavern entrance is accessed, the expedition often has to traverse a narrow ledge above a chasm. This goes back at least to the 1935 version of She.

An elaboration that came with the advent of colour filming is that the chasm is full of burning lava, as in the 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines and the 1960 version of The Lost World [pictured right].

Below: A still from the 1959 film version of Journey To The Center Of The Earth. (No lava in sight, but it shows up later on, to play a major part in the finale.)


          
 
                
  #4 The Snow & Ice Barrier:
  
Crevasses, ice barriers and the like are genuine obstacles faced by explorers crossing mountains above the snowline, with the additional danger an avalanche can suddenly transform the landscape. To span crevasses, modern Himalayan expeditions carry steel ladders, as seen in the 2015 film Everest dramatising a disastrous 1996 attempt, with the ladder-crevasse image used on the posters. Earlier explorers both real and fictional relied on natural snowbridges, and onscreen usually just make it across before it collapses, sealing off their retreat, cf In Search Of The Castaways. This is inverted in the illustrated example above, from The Man Who Would Be King [see note below], protagonists Danny and Peachy are confronted by an impassable crevasse and calmly await death ("Looks like Last Post, Danny") in a rock shelter, only for an avalanche to sweep down and plug the gap.
 
   
She [1935], adapted by Dudley Nichols and Ruth Rose from the 1887 H. Rider Haggard novel, was entirely made up of interior scenes, with one exception, the obligatory gateway-barrier scene. The story was relocated from Africa to Tibet, and here the group encounter an 'ice barrier' more like that in Game Of Thrones than anything in reality.
(They head into a ravine, where a convenient avalanche provides the way forward.)   

Above: real ice and snow landscapes, from the 1935 Swiss-German expeditionary film Der Dämon des Himalaya.
 
 
 

'The 'Great Ice Barrier' is the name of a major feature of the Antarctic landscape, which overland expeditions had to ascend. 'The barrier begins with its steepest section at the edge of the main ice shelf near the sea, but expeditions must continue to ascend from sea level for hundreds of miles to the interior polar plateau, which can be over 9,000 feet high. 

Right: [1] a map representation of the Antarctic Ice Barrier, from the 1931 film Dirigible, about a fictional US Navy airship expedition to the Pole, and [2] A still from Scott Of The Antarctic [UK 1948] showing the ill-fated 1910-11 expedition tackling the ice falls that mark the start of the Barrier (represented here by a Norwegian glacier) using man-hauled sleds.

The barrier is also seen in other biographical tv dramas about early Antarctic expeditions: Shackleton / Icebound In The Antarctic (UK 1983), The Last Place On Earth (UK 1985), and Shackleton (UK 2002).


 
 
 

#5 The Rope Suspension Bridge:
This is another motif whose first usage is difficult to establish as such bridges occur in real life in various cultures, of undateable antiquity. One features in the climax of Kipling's 1888 novella The Man Who Would Be King, where it is deliberately hacked through to kill the protagonist in the middle, but this was not the original gateway barrier the protagonists face, but the crevasses and avalanches of the Himalayan range the Hindu Kush [see illustrations above including banner image at page top].
These traditional rope and wood-slat bridges are found spanning gorges in mountainous countries, notably the Himalayas and the Andes, where the
Inca people constructed rope bridges from woven grass which survived the Incas' own demise. With their vertiginous, precipitous appearance, they have long been a favourite with filmmakers for expeditionary and other storylines.
Though not an expeditionary story, an influential work (filmed several times) focussing on the collapse of an Inca rope bridge was Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning 1927 novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey [see opposite]. Otherwise, the collapse of a rope bridge onscreen is not the work of fate but either sabotage during an attempted escape, by hacking through the ropes, cf Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), or simply the bridge being so dilapidated it will not take the weight.

   
Thornton Wilder's 1927 novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, regarded as the forerunner of the modern 'disaster' film, concerns the converging fates of 5 unrelated protagonists when an Inca rope bridge collapses. Screenshots from the 2004 version.  
 
   
Left: Tintin and Captain Haddock cross a lengthy Inca bridge which is not as strong as it looks in Le Temple du Soleil.
Above: Sorceror, the 1977 remake of La Salaire de la Peur, relocated to the South American jungle. The rickety-bridge scene is the image used in the film's advertising.
 
 



Right: A genuine rope bridge, from the 1935 Swiss-German expeditionary film Der Dämon des Himalaya. This is a Tibetan footbridge-only example, with a rope-cable footing; the rope bridges you see with wood-slat footings are to lead draft animals across, which offers dramatists opportunities for precarious situations as characters try to lead horses across. (In Gunga Din, an elephant decides to cross with the protagonists - see below.)

Below, left: the rope-bridge scenes in Gunga Din: [1] the protagonists off to see the 'temple of gold' try to leave behind the tame elephant they have ridden to the bridge, but it decides to join them. [2] Gunga Din and the other two sergeants cross the same bridge to rescue their now-captive comrade, just before it is cut down to prevent their escape.

Below, right: the rope-bridge scene in the 1962 'Rat Pack' remake of Gunga Din - this being set around a cavalry fort in the US SW, there is no elephant this time. (You can see from the differently-coloured rock layer where the real rocks ended and the special-effects were superimposed over the lower half of the frame - the same technique used in Gunga Din, where the real bridge was only a few feet above ground.)


 
       
 
 
 

#6 The 'Bridge Perilous':
This is a motif from Arthurian romance, probably deriving from older folktale motifs about key bridges protected by a guardian with special powers to stop the unworthy crossing, notably by asking riddles or trick questions. It would be now completely obscure (the reverse word order is due to its French derivation) were it not for its parody use in Monty Python And The Holy Grail [1972], where it is translated as The Bridge Of Death. The setup here is that only the worthy and fearless may cross to the Grail Castle, and must prove this by answering 3 questions put to them by its wizard guardian; if they get an answer wrong, they are magically cast into the Gorge Of Eternal Peril below.

Opposite: The Bridge Of Death scene in Monty Python And The Holy Grail: the bridge itself, with its missing slats, looks perilous enough for knights in armour, even if they get the answers right. (Hover mouse over image to see dialogue extract.)    

 
 

#7 The Log Bridge:
The idea of crossing the gorge or chasm in your way via a log or tree-trunk bridge probably owes its popularity to its use in Conan Doyle's The Lost World, first filmed in 1925. The expedition ascends an adjacent pinnacle with a climbable slope and then fells a handy giant tree to cross over to the lost-world plateau [pictured right]. Needless to say, the log is then dislodged by 3rd parties [who differ in the various screen versions], cutting off their escape route back down. In the 1925 version, it is a passing brontosaurus [pictured left] who knocks the log down.

The 1925 film inspired King Kong, which has a sheer-cliffed, skull-shaped massif as the ape's habitat, with log bridges across the chasms in the surrounding jungle. These also figured in the 1976 and 2005 versions.

 
     Left: King Kong 1933 - [1] Kong's mountain lair and [2] a PR still for the scene where Kong shakes some of the crew off the log bridge. The fate of some of these fallen crew, who are consumed by giant spider creatures, was so horrific the producer cut it after the premiere, on the grounds it simply overwhelmed the drama. (Peter Jackson reconstructed this 'killer arthropods' scene for the 2005 version.)
Below: [1] the log-twisting scene from the 1976 version, and [2] the party in the 2005 version crossing a natural log bridge i.e. a tree-trunk fallen across the gorge, one of several such scenes in the film.
  
 
  Below: the overhead-viewpoint shot, abetted by a forced-perspective painted background, works well to dramatise the precariousness of a log-bridge crossing. Still from the 1976 King Kong.
  
 
 

#8 The Sheer Cliff Wall 
This appears initially to be an impassable obstacle; but for the intrepid there is a way past it. Apart from mountain-climbing stories (where the object is simply successful ascent), there is usually no need to scale it directly, the way the team have to climb 400 feet high sea-cliff in The Guns Of Navarone. For his Lost World setup of a plateau cut off from evolution by sheer cliffs all around, Conan Doyle's device of having a handy adjacent climbable pinnacle with tree growing on top that could be felled as an improvised bridge (see above), was a complete invention. (The real Mt Roraima plateau has to be scaled the hard way, initially by a British team, in 1884).

Doyle's solution was too particularised to be reused without this being obvious copycatting. Instead, fictional escarpments usually have a climbable 'col' or rock-gulley route. An interior volcanic funnel is another possibility, and this can also provide an escape route, as in Journey To The Center Of The Earth and the 1960 version of The Lost World (after a passing brontosaurus smashes up their helicopter, rather than the log bridge).

    
Above: the first view of the plateau in the 1960 version of The Lost World, where the expedition simply arrives by helicopter. Whether what we see here is the actual Mt Roraima plateau, or one of the many other such plateaux, known as tepuis, along the Venezuelan border is not clear.
 
 
Tarzan's Escarpment:
In the 1930s MGM Tarzan series, several expeditions head for the 'Mutia Escarpment'. (The name Mutia came from the African actor who played the gun bearer in MGM's 1930 Trader Horn.) This is where the fabled, ivory-rich elephants' graveyard' is said to be hidden. (How the elephants were supposed to get up there is anybody's guess.) 

Above: [1] An expedition arrives at the top of the escarpment where Tarzan lives in the early MGM films. [2] Establishing shot from Tarzan And The Amazons (1945), showing another part of the massif, where a tribe of Amazons [!] have their secret conclave; Tarzan now lives down below on the river, where the usual expedition run by greedy white men shows up. (The change of setting detail is no doubt for copyright reasons - this was not an MGM film.)
 
 

#9 The Whitewater Gauntlet: 
This type of barrier can be a marine or riverine one, with whitewater waves making passage treacherous in either case. At sea, uncharted rocks can wreck your ship, as nearly happens in the 2005 King Kong. (Kong's island seems to be perpetually fog-bound.) On a river, rapids can swamp your boat, or plunge you over a deadly waterfall.  

Opposite: Outcast Of The Islands [1951], from the 1896 Joseph Conrad novel, set mainly at a settlement whose commercial value is that lies up a hard-to-navigate rocky coastal inlet on the Indonesian island of Batam.

Below, left and right: The African Queen [1950] has the protagonists steam down a dangerous river. (Note how the word 'Rapids' is marked on the map shown below for most of its length, and the river has two different names for its upper and lower stretches as nobody has ever navigated the miles of central rapids.) They run several rapids and a small waterfall before running into a seemingly-impassable swamp on the shore of the central lake they are heading for, and their steam launch is finally sunk in a storm on the lake. (Most of this was done via location-filming with the principal actors aboard, though one scene, shown below right, was done using a scale model.)


 
   

 

 
 

King King, 2005: The morning after their ship crashes, in the darkness and fog, into one of these guardian-like rock pinnacles, the film crew take a lifeboat through them to land in a sea-cave on Kong's island.

 
 

#10 The Guardian Spirit Of Place: 
This is the most elusive to describe as it is not a geographic or physical feature like a cliff or waterfall, but a normally invisible presence whose guardian powers are made manifest to transgressors. Typically, the modern, sophisticated characters do not believe in these 'native superstitions' r these 'taboo' places and only acquire respect for their power belatedly - if they survive. However, here we are not looking at the type of Egyptian-mummy's-tomb 'curse' that follows the transgressors around after they leave, to plague or even end their lives, but a force which acts as a barrier discouraging exploration of the place. Note that this is a real-world place and not simply a mythic or dream landscape. Nor is simply mechanical booby traps of the sort that guard tombs in the Indiana Jones films. The Romans used the term genius loci for the protective spirit of a place (presumably benevolent unless his domain is disturbed), but we have no standard term in English.

There is also a long-time lack of self-awareness of even the purely political dangers of ignoring others' beliefs in sacred sites and desecrating tombs. In Green Hell [1940], explorers break into an Inca tomb seeking treasure [see right]. Though an original script by veteran Oscar-winning writer Frances Marion [1888-1973], the film was a famous flop and her last screen credit. It may be no coincidence that neither the characters nor the script itself have any sense there is anything wrong with blowing up tombs with dynamite to loot them, while the attacking natives are the villains. There is no supernatural retribution element.

In the cult 1975 Australian film Picnic At Hanging Rock, one explanation for the mystery of the girls' disappearance is they are captured or captivated by the genius loci, the nature spirit of the place; but nothing is explained; this is merely implied by the odd choice of music: 'Pan' pipes music (by the Greco-Romanian musician Gheorghe Zamfir). Pan of course is the powerful nature god whose effect on puny humans gives us our word 'panic'. (See below, left and right.)


Above: Green Hell [1940], a big-budget, soundstage-bound jungle drama which saw nothing wrong with dynamiting an Inca tomb to loot it, was a famous flop.
  
 
   
In Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), adapted by Cliff Green from a Joan Lindsay novel, a schoolgirls' day-out expedition in 1900 Australia

The central location, Hanging Rock, is real, though the claim the girls' disappearances actually happened, is not true.
 
  Tibetan Buddhism offers a foundation for this type of scene for films set in the Himalayas. This has been the case since even before Lost Horizon, with its wise old lama and tranquil, timeless Shangri-La setting, popularised it as a counterpoint to western materialism. The German expeditionary film Der Dämon des Himalaya (1935) features a "mountain demon" called Kali Mata, who protects the "Golden Throne," the Himalayan peak the protagonists are out to climb. This Tibetan demiurge is represented by a ceremonial mask which one of the characters has on his study wall. (See below.) We do finally get a superimposed glimpse of Kali Mata when team members are swept away by an avalanche, implying he is doing away with hubristic intruders. The surviving protagonist, an ethnologist, ends up praying in a Buddhist temple. (See below.) One of the crew on Der Dämon des Himalaya, the distinguished Austrian tv producer Rudolph Cartier, later worked on a comparable project. This began as a story by Nigel Kneale, best known for the Quatermass series, which Cartier produced for BBC-TV. Kneale's story The Creature also became a live BBC TV play, which horror specialists Hammer Films then remade as a b&w widescreen film, The Abominable Snowman [UK 1957]. This posits the Yeti as ancient and wise creatures with mental as well as physical powers superior to humans. When an expedition arrives in their domain to trap or kill one of them, they torment the members to distraction and madness with planted telepathic thoughts. As the protagonist belatedly realises,“It isn’t what’s out there that’s dangerous, so much as what’s in us.” He then reports back that the Yeti does not exist, to discourage further attempts. (See below.)  
 
 
 

Widespread publicity given to the notion of a real-life 'Mummy's curse' on those who desecrated the tomb of King Tut in the 1920s has provided the foundation for a series of Egyptian-set films. The Mummy [1999], written by director Stephen Sommers with Lloyd Fonvielle and Kevin Jarre, is set in the 1920s, and has a treasure-hunting expedition discovering the hard way that the [fictional] temple complex of 'Hamunaptra' has supernatural guardians in the sands beneath it. (This is set up in the prologue.) On the other hand, Tarzan And The Lost City (1998), written by Bayard Johnson and J. Anderson Black, has no such popular background lore to draw on, so that when the lost city manifests its spectacular defences against the looters, it just seems puzzling - what and who's powering all this?
In American settings, the many real-life deaths and disappearances of those seeking lost Apache gold, provides a foundation for belief in a curse, which is an element in some films - see below for a pair of examples.


 
 
In MacKenna's Gold, the protagonists not only have to face a rickety bridge over a gorge, whitewater rapids on a raft, a hidden cavern entrance, a steep canyonside trail and a sheer climb up to a pueblo built into the cliff-face, but an Apache curse as well. A superimposed closeup of the old Apache chief who held the sketch map, as the dust settles on the now-demolished Canyon del Oro, suggests the massive quake that seals the canyon was not simply caused by reverberating hoofbeats but by protective spirits, the 'old Apache gods' the script refers to.

In Wanda Nevada (1979), written by Dennis Hackin, the protagonists find their search for a cave full of Apache gold in the Grand Canyon being interfered with by an 'Apache ghost', who has an owl as a 'familiar' to act as his spy, can start landslides and even crucify transgressors, and who eventually wounds the antihero played by director Peter Fonda with a glowing white 'ghost' arrow.
 
 
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