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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Dibyaduti Purkayastha (Tipu)

Movie-making experience on remote site changed lives
By Peter M. Nichols
New York Times

Documentaries about making movies are a staple these days, particularly on DVD, but few project a passion as well as Return to the Edge of the World, by British director Michael Powell. In 1936 Powell made his feature film The Edge of the World on the gale- bent Shetland Island of Foula. It was decades before helicopters delivered actors and camera crews to cliff tops in the middle of nowhere, and clearly none of the filmmakers who washed in and out by boat ever forgot it.

Return to the Edge, made in 1978, is appended not to a DVD but to a videotape of the movie made from a new 35-millimeter print and released this week by Milestone Film & Video. Emerging from an aircraft on Foula's airstrip (no planes at all in the old days), actor John Laurie, who had a lead role in the feature shot 40 years earlier, greets each surviving Shetlander who took part with the profuse and genuine warmth of someone recalling a life-enhancing experience.

Powell, who died in 1990, is best known for films he made with screenwriter, producer and director Emeric Pressburger, among them I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). After frustrating years filling his 'quickie quota' as a contract director for Warner Bros., Powell got the chance to make The Edge of the World, financed by an American producer named Joe Rock.

Martin Scorsese, a champion of Powell's, came across the film in the '80s. "I saw that he had this personal vision even before his work with Pressburger," Scorsese says. For months Powell and his crew lived in isolation on Foula filming the story of a culture slowly being forced into evacuation and extinction on the Scottish mainland.

In the movie, the island is named Hirta, or 'Death'. For centuries its now failing businesses were fish, wool and peat. Sheep dogs huddle against houses and walls of beautifully fitted stone, and a mute old woman stares knowingly at the windswept bluffs. "We'll live through this winter but not another," says James Gray (Finlay Currie), a patriarch and perpetual pipe-puffer.

His son, Andrew (Niall MacGinniss), favors trying to survive on Hirta, a position supported by Peter Manson (Laurie). Manson's son, Robbie (Eric Berry), advises the islanders to evacuate, and in an ancient tradition he and Andrew advocate their differing viewpoints by racing each other to the top of a sheer headland. Robbie falls into the sea.

"On one hand there is a documentary; on the other there is a very mystical, romantic feeling," Scorsese says. "It has the elements of all: documentary, drama, avant-garde." By avant-garde, he adds, he means "cinema language." At one point a young woman (Belle Chrystall) stands at the top of a cliff contemplating suicide while the image of ocean waves plays across her face. "Creating images like that hearken to American underground film," Scorsese says. "You wouldn't think of images coming together that way."

Information about ordering Edge of the World: (800) 603-1104 or

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