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Classic Britfilm: Edge of the World On DVD

Foula in the Shetland Islands - Location of Michael Powell's Classic, Edge of the World 


Michael Powell's The Edge Of The World, a black and white classic film of 1937, filmed in Scotland's remotest island community, has been released for the first time on DVD by the British Film Institute. The film has been printed afresh and the DVD package comes with a wealth of supporting documentary material that shows just why this was such a remarkable testament to its director.


Still from Michael Powell's Edge of the World


Michael Powell is now recognised as one of Britain's great film talents and is lauded by industry legends like Martin Scorsese, but then, he was just another hard worker, on the London film treadmill, turning out quota quickies, made at that time to support main features in the cinema programme. They were shot on a rolling production line, back to back, for almost no money. But this film, The Edge Of The World, marks Powell's emergence as a film craftsman and brought him recognition as a director of distinction. Not in Britain, not at first, but in New York, where a single print of the movie was screened to real critical acclaim. People had never seen a movie like this one. Powell never looked back.

The other remarkable thing about this film is the exceptionally high production values Powell achieved, using low budget methods. For insight into this alone, this is a package that will repay careful study by any of today's new filmmakers.

The Edge Of The World is the story of the remote Scottish island community in the island of Hirta, now on the verge of extinction. The islanders struggle to maintain their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching, threatening, economic forces whose grasp seems to reach into every cranny, drawing people into its whirlpool of prosperity. Modern fishing trawlers from distant places are clearing the shoals right up to Hirta's very shores, ironically a threat many Scottish island communities perceive as happening all around them today.

Powell's inspiration for the film was the story of the distant island community of St Kilda, a storm-tossed rugged island west of the Outer Hebrides evacuated by its people in the 1920's as no longer viable. Powell had seen film of the community and its way of life in the last few years, before the decision to leave became inevitable. He loved Scotland and knew other Scottish islands could easily suffer St Kilda's fate.

This was a universally understood background for a film drama to play against. New attitudes versus tradition values, progress and new technologies versus the way things have always been, old ideas struggling to resist the new. All Powell needed was a budget, a small cast and crew and a suitable island. St Kilda itself was closed because the laird now wanted it left to the seabirds, undisturbed. It was to Scotland's next remotest island community that Powell turned. The laird and people of Foula, more than twenty miles out into the Atlantic from the rest of the Shetland Islands, proved to be film friendly and accommodating. The laird was even prepared to lend Powell his cruising yacht! So it was to the furthest North, then West, to Shetland and to Foula, that Powell turned, to tell the story of Hirta.

The film that resulted, in its new fresh print, is stunning on screen. Powell was a master craftsman in the use of natural light. Here his canvas includes stormy seas, outstacks, arches and towering cliffs almost a thousand feet high, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that he was limited to the film emulsions of the 1930's and to what he could achieve with whiteboards and natural conditions around, including reflections off water and the "magic hour" approaching dusk.

The drama unfolds to reveal two rival clans led by stoical traditionalist Peter Manson (John Laurie) and the more pragmatic James Gray (Finlay Currie) each holding opposing viewpoints; struggling to earn an uneasy living or instead, migrating in search of an easier life elsewhere.

The romantic complication is a mutual attraction across the clan divide between Peter Manson's daughter Ruth (Belle Chrystall), who has become attracted to James Gray's son Andrew (Niall MacGinnis.)

Ruth's brother Robbie (Eric Berry) has sampled life away from Hirta and wants to leave, but her paramour Andrew is settled on island life with Ruth, if he can persuade her father to bury clan differences and allow the match. Tragically, when Robbie and Andrew agree to settle personal disagreements by means of the traditional cliff race, Robbie is lost to the sea. The community is united in grief, but Andrew, frustrated in love, is forced to leave his island home and the island girl he loves. Only after he leaves does Ruth discover she is expecting Andrew's child and has to face her father, still distraught over the loss of his only son.

It is a dramatic set-up that matches Foula's scenic one and Powell's choice of shots plays on the perceptions. High, lofty cliff leaps, shot low-angle, with his camera canted at 45 degrees Dutch-angle style,  disorientate us. Lovers trysts shot in soft-focus, with sunlight glinting like diamonds from the sparkling water, glimpsed through a sea of wild iris flags, bending to the wind. Powell commands complete control over our feelings with scenes like these. The moving, grief-stricken funeral scene is portrayed tenderly with the accompaniment of the renowned Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Fresh, revealing shots show the islanders bearing one of their precious number to his eternal resting place, his coffin borne on a bier of the oars from their boats. A stark reminder that it was the sea, that took this island son.

Some of the most startling shots, much admired by Scorsese, were achieved in-camera by double exposure of the film, shooting one subject at lower exposure, then winding the film back to shoot the second subject, now superimposed over the first. Thus, Andrew Gray, returning to the now abandoned Hirta is haunted on screen by the ghostly images of long-departed islanders passing him by. When a stricken Ruth Manson stares over the towering cliff edge contemplating her apparently bleak and lonely future, we see the swelling seas that lie below washing across her cheeks like waves of unhappiness rising to a possible death wish.

Powell acknowledges that he is something of a poet. The Edge Of The World demonstrates that for him, film is as much a poetic medium as words. It plucked him out of quota quickiedom and pushed him firmly in the direction of engaging narrative and perceptive film techniques. That he achieved this with a cast and crew numbering just 24, average age 26, is quite remarkable.

The BFI package is loaded with extra material, from biographies to early film of St Kilda. Powell's nostalgic visit to Foula in 1978 is documented in Return To The Edge Of The World and some of the director's original experiences are recounted by Daniel Day Lewis reading from Powell's book 200,000 Feet On Foula. Finally, there is a telling commentary on the film provided by film critic Ian Christie in conversation with Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, who is Martin Scorcese's regular editor. She gives analysis of the film, not only from her own expert perception as a feature film editor, but also from the many conversations and anecdotes Powell had shared with her about his 1936 summer on Foula. Powell held it to be among his most important professional experiences. He told Roy Plomley and listeners to the BBC radio programme desert island discs, "I don't think I shall ever make another film, however good it may turn out to be, that will mean as much to me as The Edge of the World."

The BFI is to be congratulated on the issue of this package on DVD. The optical quality is pristine and a far cry from the last TV screening of the film I managed to catch, when it appeared that summer 1936 on Foula was fogged out. The supporting material gives unique insight into Powell's techniques and achievements as a filmmaker. This package is a must-see learning opportunity for anyone wanting to observe a master filmmaker at work, with virtually no money, yet achieving astonishing results, even in the remotest film location in Britain. We can all learn something from this man.

Cat no BFIVD589/Cert U/UK/1937/black and white/ 74mins + extra material

Academy Ratio (1.33: 1)

Further details at BFI

Map of the Edge of the World island of Foula

More about Foula from