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Submitted by Donna Bowman
Original at Nashville Scene
(Issue Date: September 21, 2000)

End of the Line
British director's early masterpiece about remote Scottish island returns to theaters

The Edge of the World

Dir.: Michael Powell

NR, 74 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

When director Michael Powell picked up the London Observer in June of 1930, he was the cinematic equivalent of an assembly-line worker. For years, the British film industry had been turning out "quota quickies" -- cheap pictures made to fulfill a law mandating that theaters show a few local films alongside American imports. Powell worked as a gofer, still photographer, editor, comic star, and finally director on a few forgotten features while looking for something that would take British film in a new direction. When he opened the paper that day, he saw it in a column of random news snippets:

"The evacuation of St. Kilda is proving a more difficult problem than was expected. It is not the men but the sheep." St. Kilda was an island in the Hebrides, the Scottish-held chain of remote, rocky outposts that had produced fishermen and fine wool for centuries. But in this century, with the islands' young men leaving for jobs on the mainland, the community could no longer keep up its self-sustaining practices. One by one, the islands were seeing their populations of humans and animals packed onto boats and shipped away.

Powell saw a story in this tragic clash of ancient ways and modern realities. He called it The Edge of the World. Seven years later, it became one of the first British films to be shot on location, and the tale of the production crew's adventures is as dramatic as the movie's narrative of love, family, conflict, and inevitable change. At the time of the filming, it became a cause célébre, as the London papers printed screaming headlines about the weeks-long gale that cut the crew off from mainland supply boats and made them, in the public mind at least, a cinematic Swiss Family Robinson. More important for modern audiences, Edge of the World was the first major writing and directing effort for a man who would become half of the Archers, the team that transformed British film into a high and mystical art form.

Powell's idea was to use the broad outline of the St. Kilda evacuation as the basis for a fictional story, set on Hirta, the largest island in St. Kilda's vicinity. Two families lead the island's small population: the Mansons, whose son Robbie plans to leave for mainland fishing work, and the Grays, whose son Andrew is fiercely loyal to his home. Robbie's sister Ruth plans to marry Andrew, but when the young men's feud spills over to the island parliament, it's decided that the issue will be settled with an ancient custom: a race to the top of the highest cliffs in the Outer Isles.

Unable to secure St. Kilda for filming, Powell's team chose Foula in the Shetlands, which boasted similar geographical features. The only access to Foula was the weekly mail boat -- and in bad weather, that weekly visit was sometimes postponed for months. Director, crew, and stars landed in June 1936. Islanders everywhere have a special character, Powell believed, so he photographed the weathered faces of Foula's tiny indigenous community as much as he could, supplementing them with imported actors, including himself and his beautiful wife Frankie in a prologue.

September came and went on Foula, the season of nonstop gales was approaching, Powell had shot nearly 200,000 feet of film, and the cliff-climbing sequence was not yet in the can. In the normal course of events, this was the kind of scene that would be tricked up in the studio. But Powell was determined that the viewers of his film see the real thing -- his actors hanging on the rocks hundreds of feet above a raging sea. Day after day, the storms continued, and while the crew was unable to get the series of shots from small boats at the cliff's base, it got plenty of material for the movie's second climactic moment -- the gale that prevents Ruth's baby from getting to the mainland hospital.

While the film crew waited out the weather and dined on tins of kippers from its dwindling stores, the British press ran a series of sensational stories on the "marooned" company (although, in true British tradition, the supposed castaways only worried about getting the needed footage). In the end, with the crew members facing a food shortage and worsening weather, the film's American producer pulled them off the island. But Powell took the unusual step of bringing several islanders with him, so that his final 37 shots would have those unique faces.

Edge of the World was released in 1937, along with a book Powell had written about the production. Despite the film's revolutionary combination of recent history, drama, and authenticity, the British critics weren't too sure about it or its writer-director. The standard for shooting in exotic locales had been set by Robert Flaherty, whose Irish film Man of Aran had been released in 1934. Powell's film, with its explicit drama and special photographic effects, went in a different direction from Flaherty's documentary realism. It never found an audience in England, and its only immediate consequence for the director was an invitation to work with Hollywood producer Alexander Korda, who introduced Powell to his future collaborator in the Archers, Emeric Pressburger.

Students of the Archers' masterpieces -- The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tales of Hoffmann -- have searched Edge of the World for clues to what Powell brought to the Powell-Pressburger collaboration. The film's naturalism is difficult to compare to the Archers' famously artistic style. But Powell's insistence on authenticity, his stoic wit, and his passionate take on relationships are inimitably his own -- as is his willingness to put not only his own life, limb, and career on the line for his vision, but also those of his cast and crew.

In many ways, Edge of the World marked the true beginning of Powell's creative career as an author of movies. Fittingly, one of his final works was Return to the Edge of the World, a revamped version of the same film with a prologue and epilogue added for BBC television in 1978. The story remained dear to Powell's heart and is reflected most strikingly in the Scottish setting of the lovely Powell-Pressburger romance I Know Where I'm Going! (1945). But in fact, every time Powell trained his camera on one of the character-filled faces or places, real or imagined, that he loved to capture, the promise of Edge of the World was fulfilled.

-- Donna Bowman (PnP list member)

[snip non P&P items in article]

Peeping Tom

Donna Bowman writes eloquently this week about The Edge of the World , the movie that helped launch director Michael Powell's career; this week at the Belcourt, you can also see the movie that practically ended it. Powell's 1960 horror film about a creepy cameraman (Carl Boehm) who kills women with a spike attached to his movie camera made Powell disreputable in the British film industry; today, it just looks prescient in its linkage of voyeurism, perversion, and moviegoing. It starts Friday in a two-for-one double feature with The Edge of the World.

[snip non P&P items in article]

-- Jim Ridley

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