Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Michael Powell's initial personal production is a great movie that combines documentary techniques with a simple but compelling
story. The first decades of the 20th century saw the abandonment of many outer isles in Great Britain, the kind shown in
Man of Aran. With breathtaking location photography and a small cadre of
hardy actors, Powell had his first big success with this film, before he teamed up with partner Emeric Pressburger.
A tiny island is dying because the attraction of cities along with agricultural failures and the advent
of mechanized fishing have reduced the number of young who elect to stay. Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall) is caught between
the issue of staying or leaving. Her brother Robbie (Eric Berry) wants to emigrate, and her beau Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis)
wants to keep trying to live independently on the island. With the menfolk split on the issue, the two young men elect to
race-climb to the top of a steep cliff to decide.
The Edge of the World is a more honest film than Flaherty's Man of Aran; it makes no pretense of absolute
authenticity. Aran fudged many details, but Powell's film gets to the bottom of the issues involved through a simple
melodrama. Powell also knows how to make a point and move on. His picture has a lot of footage devoted to craggy cliffs and
treacherous-looking waves, but the island people aren't entirely dominated by the harsh landscape. The island here looks
hospitable when compared to Aran's primitive rock.
Powell uses the framing device of a rich yachtsman visiting the island with his girlfriend (Powell and his then-girlfriend Frankie
Reidy) to introduce a dead land of stone houses abandoned and untouched for years. Sailor Niall MacGinnis sees the houses and
cliffs he once knew, and remembers the tale of how the emigration started.
The central plot is sparse but well-handled, with a feel for ethnographic detail.
Andrew Gray's dad Finlay Currie is a hardy man who cannot turn the opinion of top-billed John Laurie, a stubborn farmer dead-set
against Andrew marrying his daugher Ruth. We see a dance, several male-only political gatherings, and a church meeting. In a nice
detail, a frail grandma is parked in a chair in the sun outside her hut so she can hear the singing coming from the direction
of the church.
Powell knows he has a story about a depressing economic situation - young men like Robbie Manson are taking jobs on mainland
fishing trawlers, efficiently scooping up the fish the islanders need to survive. Powell's not above going for the obvious thrills
of the rock-climbing race and an urgent medical emergency in a storm. The treacherous cliff scene is a big success. At a later
junction in the story, a baby (whose we won't say, for anti-spoiler purposes) has to be gotten to a mainland doctor quickly, and
the banished Andrew shows up to help in the rescue. It's pure 30s melodrama, yet distinguished from
Hollywood Selznick-type hokum by the simplicity of the telling and the avoidance of heart-tugging effects.
Evidence of Powell the Artist abounds. The coverage of the water and landscape is consistently imaginative, with cameras placed in
unusual but appropriate positions. On a clifftop, for instance, we look down from a platform to see the heroes lying on
the grass only a few inches from a precipice, while waves crash almost a thousand feet below.
One visual stands out, a superimposition of white waves and dark water over Belle Chrystall's face. It expresses her confusion
and unhappiness perfectly, while transforming her into a piece of modern art. The waves appear to warp her sad features. It's
worth a page of expository dialogue.
The Edge of the World was a tough shoot reportedly enjoyed by Powell's London based actors, all of whom bring in restrained
and nuanced performances. John Laurie and Finlay Currie became Powell regulars; Currie was later a ubiquitous presence in
Hollywood biblical & costume dramas produced in England. Trim and muscular Niall MacGuinness will shock genre fans, who know him
as the portly menace in
Night of the Demon and as Zeus in Jason and the Argonauts.
Milestone's DVD of The Edge of the World is the result of a restoration begun by the National Film and Television
Archive in 1990. At that time a reel of footage was reinserted, undoing the damage done by a later reissue. Just this year, the
BFI digitally restored the picture and sound. I only saw the film once in college in a truly unimpressive mess of a print; this
version, presented by Martin Scorsese, is almost pristine.
The BFI restoration is what might have held up the DVD, which was first announced for much earlier in the year. Major studios
could also do us a service by holding off on some of their discs until good film restorations can be completed. I
hope that's the case with the delays on Laura and The Grapes of Wrath over at Fox.
Milestone has packed this disc with extras: the Return to the Edge of the World is a short subject I've seen before, but
very good; the patriotic Powell short An Airmanšs Letter to His Mother is harder to see and in excellent condition. The
commentary with Thelma Schoonmaker and Ian Christie covers most Edge details, and there are some audio excerpts of Daniel
Day-Lewis reading from Powell's book about the experience of filming in the Shetland Islands.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Edge of the World rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Daniel Day-Lewis reads from 200,000 Feet on Foula, (Michael Powell's book of their adventures
on the island), Commentary with Thelma Schoonmaker and Ian Christie; Return to the Edge of the World 1978 docu;
An Airmanšs Letter to His Mother 1941 short Powell film; Stills gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson