THE EDGE OF THE WORLD A
Great Britain (81 mi) 1937 d: Michael Powell
The seabirds were its first owners, and now the seabirds have it for their own again.
―Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis)
Among the truly rare and exceptional film experiences that are most memorable would have to include this film, a poignant elegy to the death of a community, featuring some of the most stunning black and white photography ever seen of life on an island off the coast of Scotland, accented by dramatic cliffs and treacherous seas, with humans, like mountain goats, daring to scale these rocky vistas with ease, turning this into a beautiful mix of naturalism and documentary, with utterly surreal moments that elevate what little story there is to a landscape accentuated tone poem. Framed nearly entirely in flashback, it depicts the last of the island survivors, having to choose between the harsh and often barren soil that can’t sustain itself and returning to an easier life on the mainland. To that end it’s similar to the choices being made in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), absent the historical slave connections. Due to an often ferocious ocean, mail delivery travel between the mainland and the island is reduced to just once a year, in effect cutting them off from the rest of the world, having to go it alone, dependent upon their own hard work and self-reliance. Inspired by the story of the evacuation of St. Kilda in 1930, the most remote island group in Britain, a place of seemingly inaccessible rocky crags rising up from the sea, but for thousands of years it was a thriving community. Powell kept a newspaper clipping of the story in his pocket for six years, determined to turn the story into a film. Working as a still photographer for Alfred Hitchcock in early British silent films Champagne (1928) and Blackmail (1929), Powell claims he suggested the climactic ending of the latter film, where he and Hitchcock remained lifelong friends. Between 1931 and 1936, Powell directed 23 films, up to seven per year, basically mastering his craft, though according to the director all are forgettable, described as quota quickies, hour-long films that satisfied Britain’s legal requirement to screen a minimum quota of British films. So this is truly his first personal project, gathering together a cast and crew, like the director at the beginning of King Kong (1933), utilizing only those willing to spend months on an expedition to one of the most remote and isolated parts of the United Kingdom, filming on the island of Foula in the Shetland Isles (the northernmost inhabited site in the British Isles, as St. Kilda was considered too dangerous, where the Gaelic language had to be abandoned), where what was most essential was capturing the raw natural beauty of the location.
Style wise, achieving exceptionally high production values using low budget methods, the film resembles the social realism of Dovzhenko’s EARTH (1930), especially the depiction of a working class drama, accentuating the harsh and barren conditions of working the land in such a remote region, showing the tilling of the soil, the work in the fields, the herding of sheep over rocky plateaus, and the hardscrabble life on the island, showing plenty of closeups of faces, all set in a world of cold austere beauty, almost like a Dreyer film, viewed as a working collective, eternally anguished by existential questions, with the men convening from time to time in a democratic parliament to voice their views about what to do, as food was shared throughout the community, taking care of the sick and old. On St. Kilda, fishing was considered too dangerous, as many were drowned with their boats overturning just a few hundred feet from shore, instead they captured seabirds, which the island had in abundance, with the men lowering themselves on ropes from the clifftops, or climbing up the rocks from boats. Islanders became expert climbers, something they learned in their youth. The wind on the island was so strong that sheep and cattle were routinely blown off the cliffs, while the sounds of the waves beating against the cliffs was so loud it left villagers deaf for a week. Trees could not grow there, and what few crops were planted often became polluted with salt water. In the Roman era, believing the world was flat, St. Kilda was considered the last place on earth, with sailors viewing a giant wall rising from the sea, a reminder to explorers that this was as far as they could go. This image opens the film, with massive cliffs appearing just above the waves, as a man (Michael Powell himself) and woman (Frankie Reidy, Powell’s future wife of forty years) are on a yacht sailing to the island, intent on staying overnight, against the advice of the sea captain, Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), visiting a shoreline grave marker, with the captain recounting the story of the island in flashback. How this begins is interesting, however, as Andrew is haunted by a flood of ghosts, the former inhabitants of the island, who stream across his line of vision, adding a touch of the surreal. Additionally, there is an extremely dramatic orchestral score that includes an all woman’s choir (The Women of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) conducted by Hugh Robertson that is not only operatic, but often feels otherworldly, along with a dire opening intertitle sequence that precedes the opening credits:
The slow shadow of Death is falling on the outer isles of Scotland. [scrolls up] This is the story of one of them ― and all of them. When the Roman Fleet first sailed round Britain they saw from the Orkneys a distant island, like a blue haze across a hundred miles of sea. They called it ― “ULTIMA THULE” [main title] THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Using three cameramen, Monty Berman (fired early on), Skeets Kelly, and Ernest Palmer, where men are seen as tiny specks climbing over the tops of cliffs, dwarfed by the immensity of their surroundings, a community setting is introduced in the tiny, claustrophobic confines of a church, with people arriving from all across the island, a scene beautifully recreated by Terence Davies in 2016 Top Ten List #7 Sunset Song, with a pastor (Grant Sutherland) speaking a common theme of brotherhood. With only three dozen people left, surviving on sheep and fish, the story concerns two families, the Mansons and the Grays, where Peter Manson (John Laurie) is the overly stern island patriarch, with a gruff exterior to match the hardness of the island, while his daughter Ruth (Belle Chrystall) is apparently the catch of the island, devoted to her father yet sensuous, exerting a feminine allure, though she behaves more like a movie star, hair always in place, wearing plenty of makeup. Her twin brother is Robbie (Eric Berry), whose best friend Andrew Gray is his sister’s boyfriend. The threesome enjoys laying on the grass on the bluffs overlooking the sea, arguing the eternal question, whether to go (to the mainland) or stay. Peter and his son Robbie are staunchly in favor of staying, while Andrew and his father, always playing second fiddle to Peter, the easier to get along with James Gray (Finlay Currie), constantly seen smoking a pipe, are more inclined to move to the mainland. The boys get in heated battle where the only way to settle the matter is retreating to the old ways, in a run up the rocky cliffs with no ropes, and may the better man win. Despite the danger, the fathers agree, and the entire community comes out to watch an exciting duel between two of the strongest lads on the island, set at the bottom by boat, having to claw their way up to the top. Despite explicit instructions at the outset describing the routes they would take, Robbie makes a dangerous life-altering change, getting stuck under the thunderous streams of a waterfall, hanging on for dear life, and then falling before help can arrive. This tragedy only intensifies the island’s divisions, as Andrew has literally no chance with Ruth, as her father refuses to speak to him, where his silence literally drives Andrew off the island, returning to the mainland. In his absence, Ruth learns she’s pregnant and delivers a newborn without Andrew’s knowledge. Due to the scarcity of mail deliveries, she resorts to placing messages in a bottle, helped by her father, particularly when the baby contracts diphtheria and could die without a doctor’s intervention. Unbelievably, one of the messages gets through, with Andrew sailing through an epic storm to rescue Ruth and their baby, which remains to this day one of the better ocean storm scenes ever filmed, filled with dramatic intensity, creating a life or death urgency. Finally forced to capitulate, even Peter agrees to be moved off the island, petitioning the government for aid in a monumental Noah’s ark style transport, where everybody and everything is moved off the island, leaving it deserted and undisturbed. Even how that is depicted is a moving finale and a fitting climax.