Storylines In Review

The Expeditionary Storyline| Introductory Page

Storyline: An expedition travels into a remote unexplored region, meeting challenges all the way.

…. one everlasting Whisper, day and night repeated—so: 'Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—'Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go.'” —Kipling, “The Explorer”

In the ‘expeditionary’ storyline, the protagonists trek to a remote and largely unexplored region to seek out something or someone, leading to some sort of conflict with an antagonist – the particulars of which depend largely on the object of their quest. A current example is The Lost City Of Z (2016), illustrated above, on Colonel's Fawcett's doomed quest to find a lost civilisation in the Amazon.
The storyline almost always focuses on a civilian expedition. This is as opposed to the military-expedition story which takes the form of either the overland ‘long-distance commando-raid’ story, or the undersea submarine-mission story. These two military storylines are covered separately onsite as they have different conventions. However, here it could include one conducted by military officers for general reconnaissance purposes, as in the 1804-06 Lewis & Clark expedition, led by two army captains. (President Thomas Jefferson had even told them to look out for evidence of mammoths.) 

Left: Screenshots from The Far Horizons (1955), and [mouse over image] Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (2002), with army captains Lewis & Clark in ceremonial dress for a 'treaty' meeting with a local chief. This was correct for this historical event but otherwise they wore civilian clothes, and the military objective was not to make war but to make peace.

The object of the expedition – why the characters are going to that particular remote region - can be a thing, an animal, or a human.
Inanimate object - The ‘thing’ is usually some sort of geographical discovery. This could just be a matter of filling in a blank on a map, but the locality often contains a site or object often which has a monetary value. This likely takes the form of lost or buried treasure, such as a pirate’s buried treasure cache, or a diamond or gold mine, or a ruined temple containing valuable ritual objects. There is a crossover here with the mythic-fantasy adventure where the quest is to find an object that gives the finder magic powers. (As this is not considered a heroic or even sensible motive, the more modest version that the object is curative, and will remove an existing spell or curse, is popular. Tolkien's 'Ring' cycle and the Indiana Jones film series both address this issue.)
Animal - If the object is a creature, it will be something rare and perhaps unknown to science or never before captured, perhaps a missing-link bigfoot type creature or a surviving evolutionary throwback such as an isolated breeding population of dinosaurs, one specimen of which may be captured and brought back to civilisation.
Human - If the object is human, this can be a ‘lost’ ie missing explorer (his occupation explaining his presence there) or someone there unwillingly, perhaps via a plane crash or captivity by natives.
Sometimes the expedition may be going into a remote region for one reason (such as oil exploration) and stumble upon (this is the phrase used in synopses) something more dramatic, which becomes the new object pursued by the expedition’s leading or surviving members, the discovery splitting the group into two factions. (Examples would be the 1976 King Kong and the 1997 Anaconda.) The leading male and female members may also reject pursuit of an object where this proves to bring out the worst in their companions, who become unbalanced; instead the less materialistic pair help each other survive, to return to civilisation as a couple.
Below: An example of the 'hidden-treasure in a still-unexplored area' setup: a pair of images from the 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines, set in 1897. The map seen is a vintage school-atlas one, but with an 'Unexplored Region' central area coloured in. The mines [mouse over] are portrayed mainly by real caverns, at Carlsbad in New Mexico. The script by Helen Deutsch subverts the treasure-hunt setup in favour of a 'missing explorer' motive - the female protagonist is searching for her husband, who vanished looking for the diamond mines.

History: The storyline has its roots in the mythic quests of antiquity, but as a more realist form (set on recognisable maps) first flourished in the late 19th C. with works by Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Conan Doyle, and Pierre Benoit. There would be multiple attempts at filming some of their works, particularly Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, King Solomon's Mines, Heart Of Darkness, The Lost World, and L'Atlantide. The Victorian and Edwardian eras were also regarded as the 'Age of Exploration,' and the real-life achievements of African and polar explorers like Burton, Speke, Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott etc would inspire both biographical dramas and imaginative fictional analogues.


Right: Two early features with extensive location filming, about African expeditions encountering imperious "white queen" figures. [1] L'Atlantide, from the 1921 Pierre Benoit bestseller about a pair of Foreign Legion officers searching for a surviving outpost of Atlantis in the Hoggar Mountains of the Sahara, where the author grew up. The location filming was the first in the Sahara, and it was reused in the 1932 early-talkie remake, the 2nd of half a dozen versions. [2 - Mouse over image] The 1931 Trader Horn, an early-talkie based on a bestelling 1927 memoir, shot largely in central Africa, during a 2-year filming expedition. Footage from this would also be recycled for years.

Another source of development was the real-life expedition incorporating a film crew to shoot footage for a film to help pay costs. The film was not necessarily a documentary as there was more distributor interest in fiction films. (This became a setup motif in the 1933 King Kong.)

Right: The scene may be familiar as from the final act of the 1937 Lost Horizon, adapted from the James Hilton novel, but in fact it is recycled footage from the 1935 Swiss-German feature Der Dämon des Himalaya / Demon Of The Himalayas, itself a fictional drama, but filmed during an actual Himalayan climbing expedition with many spectacular scenes - see screenshots below.


An important development for the more fantasy-oriented imaginative works was the stop-motion model-creature animation process pioneered by Willis O'Brien during the silent era, which allowed figures such as dinosaurs or a giant ape to be animated on a table-top set, and live action to be matted into the shot via double-exposure of different portions of the overall image.
The Lost World [1925] introduced to a wider public the ‘scientific romance’ approach to the expeditionary storlyine, together with many of the associated motifs (such as the precarious log bridge over the chasm, and the final volcanic eruption). Adapted for the screen by Marion Fairfax, it seems to have introduced - to achieve what the exhibitors termed “Love Interest” to broaden its audience appeal - the idea of a young woman going on the trip in search of her missing explorer father.
Willis O'Brien's followup animation project, the 1933 King Kong, is such a classic it needs little introduction here. Considered just as an expeditionary story, the setup is a trip planned by an outdoors-adventure documentary filmmaker to seek out a rumoured giant creature called Kong on an uncharted tropical island, for which he has a sketch map. The now inevitable female presence is depicted as something the exhibitors insist on, called Love Interest. The blonde waif the filmmaker literally picks up off the street at the last minute in fact plays a central role, as Kong is fascinated by her (leading to the film’s famous final line).

Right: Images from The Lost World [1925] and [mouse over] King Kong [1933], both using Willis O'Brien's stop-motion model-creature animation process.


Traditional cell-animation was also used for the storyline's fantasy adventure school, notably in the Tintin series of 24 graphic novels [1929-] by the Belgian artist Hergé [=Georges Prosper Remi].

The 24 Tintin adventures include several expeditionary stories which incorporate many standard scenes, including supernatural motifs such as curses for violating tombs - and it is no surprise that Spielberg is now producing big-screen versions, using the latest techniques of 3-D motion capture.


Right: Le Temple du Soleil / The Temple Of The Sun [FR 1969] and [mouse over] Tintin In Tibet [FR/CDN 1992], from the 1943-48 and 1958 Hergé graphic novels respectively.



Below: CGI replaced stop-motion for 'monster' rendering in the 1990s - a pair of images from Kon-Tiki [2012].


Standard Scenes and motifs: The Opening Scene-Setting Map; The Hand-drawn Route-Map; The Geographic Secret; The Legendary ‘Lost’ Spot; The Coded Clue; The Missing-Explorer setup; The Explorer’s Journal; The Big Game Hunter Hero; The Woman-Shy Leader; The Reluctant Expedition Guide; The Trusty Scout-companion; The Hostile Locals Pursuit Scene; The ‘EvilCorp’ Antagonists; The 'Gateway' Barrier; The Sabotage Scene; The Outdoor Bathing Scene; The Bonding Scene; The Signpost Discovery; The Leadership Challenge; The Wildlife Encounter; The Destination-Arrival scene; The Survivors-Get-Close Scene; The Deus Ex Machina Rescue; The Secret Kept.  

Below: examples of the 'Hand-drawn Route-Map'.

A 'Hand-drawn Route-Map' scene is often essential to show the difficulties of the route the protagonists face - where they're headed, there isn't even a proper printed map. This is often a carefully-guarded one-off copy, pointing the way to a great secret. This is a story-setup convention that goes back to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, and Conan Doyle's The Lost World. These sketch maps would appear as a frontispiece to the novel, cf Conan Doyle's below, showing the route from the Amazon to the 'lost world' plateau.

Right: An example from The African Queen [1951] showing [1] The Hand-drawn Route-Map scene, and [2 - mouse over] the difficult terrain when the protagonists reach the swampy delta shown on their 1914 map. The route is so uncertain the river has different names on its upper and lower stretches, as no-one has navigated it all the way to determine it is the same waterway.

Below: Examples of the "lost city" and the "lost world" plot mcGuffins - stills from Legend Of The Lost [1956] and [mouse over] King Kong [2005].  

Standard Settings: An expeditionary story can be set anywhere there is a blank area on the maps. Historically, the main setting has been 'darkest' Africa, ie its then-unexplored interior. Many of the early films however were made in Hollywood, and seem to lack any authentic aspect, often being downright embarrassing or offensive in their native depictions. In second place are probably the Polar regions, due to the number of biographical dramas about Shackleton, Amundsen et al. These are much more realistic, to the point of almost unrelenting grimness. There is also a strand of polar-set 'lost-tropical-valley' stories going back to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Right: The realist and romantic depictions of the polar realms. [1] From Shackleton (2002), the climactic moment when the advance rescue party spot their salvation; and [2 - mouse over] from the 1974 Zemlya Sannikova / Sannikov Land, from V. Obruchev's 1924 novel, filmed on the Kamchatka peninsula, the expedition's destination, a tropical valley, heated geothermally, north of Siberia, where Stone Age people survive.

Below: A scene-setting panorama from Greystoke [1984], a Tarzan 'origin' drama, set in 'darkest' west-central Africa c1900, where an expedition upriver discovers him.


Additional coverage of this storyline, as per our various feature-page formats, is as given below.

Titles A-Z Page: An alphabetical listing of titles, with details added as they become available.

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