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Submitted by Neil Murray

FOULA: The Edge of the World
From: 'Scotland the Movie' by David Bruce (Polygon 1996)

Michael Powell's The Edge of the World, about the last days of an island community separated from the mainland by miles of Atlantic Ocean, was different from any other film of its time, and arguably from any other film ever made in Scotland. Although born and brought up in Kent, Powell was fascinated by Scotland long before he first came north of the Border. In June 1930 he saw an item in The Observer about the evacuation of St Kilda and became determined to make a film on the subject.

At the time, Powell was only just setting out on his directing career and it was several years before the opportunity arose to fulfil his ambition. That he did so, in 1936, was due to more than the usual quantities of luck, ingenuity and persistence needed for any production. Powell documented the entire process in one of the most entertaining and enlightening film books, originally published in 1938 as 200,000 Feet on Foula and reissued in 1990 as The Edge of the World.

Among the many obstacles that had to be overcome was the small matter of being refused permission to film on St Kilda which, since the story was specific to the island's recent history, entirely determined the script, down to the last detail. The owner of St Kilda was the Earl of Dumfries who had purchased it to be a bird sanctuary. The last thing he wanted was an invasion of film-makers. Within a period of twenty four hours, Powell was formally refused access to St Kilda and given clearance to make the film on another island (which he had never heard of).

The substitute was Foula, which exhibited many of the same physical characteristics as St Kilda - size, remoteness, height of cliffs - but in human terms could scarcely have been more different. Powell had to amend his conception of the story to take account of a Norse rather than a Gaelic culture. The name of the island remained 'Hirta' as in the main island of the St Kilda group (in any case a Norse word), but where the script had called for MacDonalds and Fergusons there now had to be Grays and Mansons and all thought of Gaelic had to be abandoned.

On the benefit side, whereas on St Kilda there was nothing left but the Earl of Dumfries' birds, on Foula Powell was at least able to count on local inhabitants to assist in the film -making. The changes were so substantial that the finished production (down from the 200,000 feet exposed to 7,300) was more of a Foula than a St Kilda film.

The logistics of filming on a Shetland island twenty miles from its nearest neighbour would be formidable today. In 1936 the difficulties included not only the frequently hostile weather but transporting and accommodating an entire cast and crew with their gear (including sound). In the event they had to be sustained on location for no less than five months. Filming on remote islands was not unknown (Powell had been close to Flaherty at Gaumont-British when the great documentary film-maker was laboriously editing Man of Aran), but it was usually for documentary rather than fiction.

The Edge of the World had a relatively simple narrative structure. The story is prefaced by a scene in which a yachtsman (played by Powell himself) lands on the deserted island of Hirta with two companions, one his wife (Frankie Powell) [They hadn't married when the film was made & she was credited as "Frankie Reidy"] and the other a seaman who had lived there and who proceeds to tell the tale of its abandonment. We learn of families and generations divided on whether or not to leave the island and of an intense love story all but thwarted by human intransigence and fate. The story and the drama of the place - the storms, the deaths on the cliffs, the sense of isolation - still has impact sixty years later.

For The Edge of the World Powell assembled a cast as committed to the adventure as he was. As the family heads, Manson and Gray, he had the excellent John Laurie and Finlay Currie, both convincing as Shetlanders. Their sons were played by Eric Berry and Niall MacGinnis, and Manson's daughter, Ruth, by Belle Chrystall, the least believable import. Many of the other players were not professional actors and most of the island's population played a part either in front of or behind the camera.

The uniqueness of The Edge of the World stems from the passionate compulsion of one individual to tell the dramatic, even shocking, story of the death of a community. Powell was in no doubt that the experience of making the film changed his life. His attachment to Scotland and its islands was reinforced by it and he returned north to make The Spy in Black (1939) in Orkney and I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) on Mull, both in partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

A more literal account of the evacuation of St Kilda, Bill Bryden's Ill Fares the Land (1983), had also to be filmed elsewhere.

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