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Savant Review:

The Light at the Edge of the World

The Light at the Edge of the World
Image Entertainment
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 126 min. / La Luz del fin del mundo
Starring Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Samantha Eggar, Jean-Claude Drouot, Fernando Rey, Renato Salvatori
Cinematography Henri Decae
Production Designer
Art Direction Enrique Alarcón
Film Editor Bert Bates
Original Music Piero Piccioni
Written by Tom Rowe, Rachel Billington from a book by Jules Verne
Produced by Alfredo Matas,Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Kirk Douglas
Directed by Kevin Billington

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the lost pleasures of moviegoing before the advent of the media culture, was the adventure of sitting down in a theater knowing little or nothing about what you were about to see. We caught an ad for something called Jules Verne's The Light at the Edge of the World in 1971 - the poster had big stars, a whirlpool, a unicorn ... and we attended not knowing what to expect. Initially disappointed that it wasn't a weird fantasy or classic science fiction, the gripping story of Kirk Douglas' running battle with a ruthless band of pirates came as a complete surprise and was thus all the more fun. Compare that with today, when millions are waiting breathlessly to see the second Star Wars film ... many of them already know every detail about it, including the ending.


1865. Will Denton (Kirk Douglas) tends a light-house at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, contented to be away from the problems of civilization, and quickly adjusting to his new supervisor, Captain Moriz (Fernando Rey). But a shipload of utterly evil pirates show up, murder everyone they can find, and extinguish the light. They're wreckers, brigands who mislead ships into the rocks to loot the cargo and prey upon the victims. Their leader Captain Jonathan Kongre (Yul Brynner) is a diabolical fiend. Will hides out in the rocks but cannot keep himself from striking back: he saves innocent survivor Montefiore (Renato Salvatori) from the pirates' massacre, and together they wage a game of cat and mouse against Kongre and his cutthroats. Kongre breaks his own rule by keeping one captive alive - a beautiful Englishwoman named Arabella (Samantha Eggar). When Denton realizes she's there, the rules of the game change radically.

A gripping adventure movie, The Light at the Edge of the World was rated GP in 1971 - but only after ten minutes of censor cuts had been made. We could tell something was missing when ragged splices interrupted crucial scenes. The general impression was of a tense, exciting picture that wasn't always as clear as it might have been. This new Image DVD finally tells the whole story.

Harshly realistic, the uncut version is much more violent and coarse. The murders of Douglas' comrades are graphic and brutal, and later details, such as the sight of a victim being flayed alive, are very unpleasant. It is also more clearly established that shipwreck survivor Samantha Eggar sleeps with Brynner, almost willingly - her implied alternative being gang rape and murder at the hands of his crew. The 'edge of the world' where these people fight is also the edge of decent civilization.

Brynner's interesting villain is the best thing in the story. Captain Kongre decorates his crimes with legalistic talk, as if he were the lawful king of a portable domain. He dresses like an Asian warlord and sits on a throne-like chair; he rides a horse equipped with a unicorn-like horn to resemble the beast from mythology. He sets Will Denton free just so he can perversely hunt him down again. Kongre is a sadistic monster in charge of a subhuman crew, but he also shows a definite soft spot for the desperate Arabella. Not mercy or longing, just a hint of weakness.

A subdued Kirk Douglas is fine as a hero with a troubled past. He's in such good physical shape, his advancing age is no concern. Samantha Eggar is likewise excellent but is given little room to express much more than terror. Also her character is kept a bit too sketchy, and we don't learn why she's so tough, or how she feels about Kongre or Denton under these twisted circumstances.

The basic setup showing the maintenance of the lighthouse and the method of the wrecker brigands, is nicely laid out. Douglas' ability to evade capture also works, mostly because of the incredibly rocky, cave-riddled setting. But many story details will seem unclear to those not paying close attention. The action is told in the present tense, without verbal exposition. Arabella has nobody in whom she can confide, and Brynner doesn't telegraph his intentions to anyone either. Kongre finds some old love letters Denton has exchanged with a woman named 'Emily Jane'. He tells Arabella he wants her to pretend she's this Emily, but doesn't say specifically why. When Denton comes out of hiding to rescue a woman he thinks is his lost love, we're not entirely sure how much Arabella knows. We also don't understand why, after going to all this trouble, Kongre hasn't set a better trap to catch Denton.

Motivations also become a little murky at the end, when Brynner ceases to look out for his best interests - he's utterly ruthless one moment, and then inconsistently trusting the next. Yet interest remains high because we always want to know what happens next, and there are some really good ideas in the plot mechanics. Kongre's business is to turn lighthouses into traps that lure ships to their doom, and he uses Arabella to trap Denton in the exact same way. The business of a dead goat brings up biblical references to sacrifice, and the image of Douglas suspended upside-down from the lighthouse conjures demonic images from Tarot cards. Denton's fight for survival is also a struggle to restore order in this isolated corner of the universe. Relighting the lighthouse beacon becomes symbolic no matter how one regards it.

The Light at the Edge of the World is one of the first big Alexander and Ilya Salkind movies, the pair who would later bring us the Richard Lester Musketeer double bill, and the Superman franchise. They teamed up with Kirk Douglas just as his acting-producing career was winding down, and the result is a very divided international effort.

Director Kevin Billington's work is almost all in television. His direction is rather good, considering how difficult it must have been to work on the rocky location landscape. One gripe: even in broad daylight, there are far too many scenes of Douglas and Salvatori 'hiding' from passing pirates in setups that place them too close and obviously in plain sight. It detracts from the credibility of the narrative.

Cast, setting, and basic story thrust are strong, but the rest of the production is uneven, having more in common with the cheap end of the Spaghetti Western genre than class goods. Much of the story takes place at night on an unlit island, and the day-for-night photography is inadequate when Pirates and prey sneak around in full view of one another. Because of the heightened realism, some of the miniature boats also don't make the grade - they're not well photographed and don't blend well. And there's an overall feeling of crudity to the production trimmings - ugly, cheap titles, a music score that adds little because it's poorly used, and an unimaginative sound mix. The producers (the Salkinds?) sabotaged everyone's hard work with a cheapjack finish job.

The Spaghetti Western connection is apt for more reasons. The very familiar faces of Aldo Sambrell, Victor Israel and others are among the pirates. The deliberate pace, and the flashbacks that flesh out Kirk Douglas' character are reminiscent of the work of Sergio Leone. Rather good, but falling short of greatness, The Light at the Edge of the World is a classic that might have been. Cleaned up for kiddie shows, it was a confusing mess. Intact as restored here, it's a violent, intriguing puzzle.

Image's DVD of The Light at the Edge of the World is a plainwrap package of a movie we'd like to know more about. The transfer is good and the image is satisfactory overall, except in the grainy and more beat-up looking title sequence (was it tacked-on from a release print?). You can't blame the telecine colorist for the many bad day-for-night scenes, as his only choice would have been to darken them into gray murk. The sound is clear, considering the crummy original audio mix. There aren't any extras, not even a trailer that would help us understand how the show was marketed.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Light at the Edge of the World rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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