BFI DVD Sale: The Edge of the World (1937)

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Aug 30 19:01:07 BST 2014

The Edge Of The World (1937) DVD

MacGinnis (Actor, Primary Contributor), 
Chrystall (Actor, Primary Contributor), 
Powell (Director)
UK | 1937 | black & white | 74 minutes + 50 minutes extra material | 
Academy ratio 1.33:1 | Optional hard-of-hearing subtitles | Region 2 DVD
The Edge of the World tells the moving story of a remote island and 
its inhabitants, whose traditions and way of life are threatened by a 
rapidly industrialising world. To settle an argument over whether the 
islanders should give up their livelihood and move to the mainland, 
two childhood friends follow an ancient tradition and climb the 
island's highest cliff face. The outcome shatters the island's peace 
and splits the two clans apart.

This 1937 film by the great British film-maker Michael Powell, who, 
of course, went on to make a number of classic films (The Red Shoes, 
Black Narcissus, etc) with screen-writer Emeric Pressburger, is an 
evocative, romantic and dramatic tale of an isolated community on a 
remote Scottish island. Based on the real-life evacuation of the 
Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda, although actually shot on Foula 
(part of the Shetlands), at the heart of The Edge Of The World is the 
tale of two families, the Mansons, led by father Peter (John Laurie) 
with twins Robbie (Eric Berry) and Ruth (Belle Chrystall), the latter 
of whom is in love (Romeo and Juliet-style) with Andrew (Niall 
MacGinnis), the son of (friendly) rival to the Hansons, James Gray 
(Finlay Currie).

What emerges from Powell's film, probably above all else, is the 
man's affectionate feelings for this far-flung rural community - fond 
subject matter that he was to revisit on later films such as The Spy 
In Black, set on and around the Orkneys, and the romantic classic I 
Know Where I'm Going, set on Mull. (The other obvious comparator for 
Powell's film is Robert Flaherty's 1934 island epic, Man of Aran). 
The BFI's superlative restoration and Ernest Palmer's (and others) 
excellent camerawork (no doubt under the expert tutelage of Powell 
himself) serve to create an authentic backdrop for the film. This is 
a resilient, strictly religious community, whose only form of 
communication with the outside world is (literally) via messages in 
bottles (thrown out to sea), as they go about their business of sheep 
shearing (and rescuing), fishing and peat cutting, with entertainment 
being provided for now and again in the form of a small-scale ceilidh.

Not only is the setting for Powell's film on 'the edge of the world', 
but the islanders' livelihood is teetering on the edge of viability, 
as most younger members of the community (including Peter's son 
Robbie) seek to leave the island ('the world's changed') for better 
prospects on the mainland. Unable to decide, via the island's 
small-scale 'parliament', on whether to vacate Hirta (the Scottish 
Gaelic name for St Kilda that Powell gave to his fictional island), 
the two sons, Robbie and Andrew challenge each other (in traditional 
fashion) to climb the island's tallest sea cliff for the right to 
determine their future. There follows a superb sequence showcasing 
Powell's nascent visual and dramatic flair (plus moments of 
Hitchcockian suspense to boot) as the two rivals risk life and limb 
against the extraordinary island and marine backdrop.

Acting-wise, of course, given that many of Powell's cast were either 
complete novices, or relatively inexperienced, the film has its fair 
share of stilted dialogue. However, each of Berry, Chrystall and 
MacGinnis are generally nicely affecting, whilst Finlay Currie as 
Gray Snr. is (as ever) excellent and wryly comic (quipping to the 
priest, 'Grand sermon John, one hour and fifteen minutes. Let them 
beat that in Edinburgh if they can!'). But the thespian honours must 
go to John Laurie's dour (though eventually smiling) traditionalist, 
Manson Snr., in effect a reincarnation of his crofting character in 
The 39 Steps (made two years earlier) and one that he (no doubt) 
frequently re-used right through to his fabulous Sergeant Fraser in Dad's Army.

For the DVD, the BFI have performed a remarkably good restoration, 
resulting in an unblemished black-and-white 'print'. Among the 
excellent extras included are a commentary by Ian Christie and Thelma 
Schoonmaker, a documentary on Powell's return to Foula 41 years later 
and a documentary on St Kilda.

Obviously, The Edge Of The World is not as polished or substantive as 
some of Powell's later masterpieces, but it is nevertheless a fine 
piece of work (particularly for its time) and a significant portent 
of things to come.

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