By Ray Young
The Edge of the World
Written and directed by Michael Powell.
Produced by Joe Rock.
Cinematography by Ernest Palmer, Skeets Kelly, and Monty Berman.
Edited by Derek Twist.
With John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric
Berry, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, and Mr. Powell.
75 minutes, released in 1937.
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After directing over twenty features, and two years shy of his partnership with Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell (left) was inspired to make The Edge of the World
by events that had occurred in the archipelago of St. Kilda
. Located in the remotest part of the British Isles, St. Kilda’s people — fishermen, mostly — evacuated the area in 1930. Commercial fishing from the mainland forced them to abandon centuries of back-breaking toil for the comparative ease of the Industrial Age. In time, this same scenario would play out in any number of islands the world over, taking with it a way of life never to be seen again.
Although Powell shot his film on the (populated) Shetland Island of Foula
— its farmers and fishermen helping out in front of and behind the camera — he nonetheless found a primitive ethos and community similar to that of St. Kilda. With its spectacular images of mountains and cottages and the sea, and regardless of being a narrative picture, The Edge of the World
veers close to the cultural anthropology of Robert Flaherty, especially Man of Aran
(1934), and, given Powell’s romanticism, Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s Tabu
Changing the location’s name to Hitra — Celtic for ‘death’ — the story recounts the circumstances prompting the exodus and demise of the island’s civilization. Competition from commercial fishing, declining finances, lack of health care, a thinning population, and deteriorating farming conditions make the already-rigorous existence insufferable. Through several astutely composed characters, each one a distinct personality, Powell analyzes the value of tradition and the inevitability of modernization. While this theme has been worked endlessly in the cinema — from Josef von Sternberg to Sam Peckinpah — Powell’s grounding as poet and quixotic fantasist, combined with his apparent admiration for the proletariat, lend purposeful nostalgia to an atmosphere of hardship.
If The Edge of the World
is the director’s first ‘personal film’ as is often declared, it shares those themes of trepidation, isolation, longing and eroticism that run through much of his subsequent work. From the Himalayan mission in Black Narcissus
(1947) and Wendy Hiller’s inescapable stopover port in I Know Where I’m Going!
(1945), to the cavernous apartment in Peeping Tom
(1960), Powell’s characters appear forever perched on various edges of the world, struggling with their inner demons of fear and desire.
On Hitra, two families serve to represent the issues, values and attitudes of its people. As Peter Manson’s (John Laurie) beliefs are embedded in tradition, his opportunist son, Robbie (Eric Berry), intends to move to the mainland. James Gray (Finlay Currie) is accepting of change, while his son, Andrew (Niall McGinnis), is far less liberal-minded. Connecting them all is Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall), Robbie’s sister, who loves and intends to marry Andrew. From the start, the actors (Laurie and Currie especially) convey the influence of ancient bloodlines and superstitions and legacy. Their interaction invites events shared among the community — birth, death, church, farm life, and a primeval duel — all staged by Powell, respectful of the mundane and enchanted by the spiritual.
British cinema of the 1930’s is not renowned for its technical proficiency, but the clarity of sound and image in The Edge of the World
is formidable. Startling vistas, cliffs ascending to the clouds, intricate tracking shots somehow managed on rocky plains all captivate the mind and eye. Now digitally mastered from the original 35mm nitrate negatives, presented on DVD by Milestone Films
, the film commemorates the historic value of its subject, the acumen of its director, and the skill of his crew.
Among the DVD bonus features, Milestone provides a gallery of stills, Powell’s six-minute An Airman’s Letter to His Mother
(1943), his twenty-three minute Return to the Edge of the World
(1978), and a supplemental audio track. The latter, shared by Ian Christie, Daniel Day-Lewis and Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, balances brief production and technical anecdotes with Day-Lewis reading from the director’s written account of the picture’s creation. Ms. Schoonmaker-Powell, Michael’s second wife, speaks eloquently of her late husband’s art, especially when describing his experiments in double exposure (McGinnis facing island ghosts), a haunting montage sequence (Chrystall’s prospective suicide), and an elaborate dolly shot (following Currie during the celebration of a newborn). An informal documentary, Return to the Edge of the World
gathers the surviving cast and crew members with Foula islanders after forty years. (Of particular note is John Laurie, who seems weirdly trapped in character.) This short feature may be a minor and eccentric inclusion to the director’s oeuvre, but watching it surely magnifies his achievements of 1937.