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 Paula J. Vitaris
THEATER; The Misty, Mystical Start of a Film Career
The great British director Michael Powell never realized his dream to film Shakespeare's "Tempest," but he did complete several movies set on islands both enchanted and benighted. They include "The Spy in Black" (1939), "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945) and "Age of Consent" (1969). Yet the least seen of Powell's island films was the one that put him on the map as a filmmaker even as it traced an island's demise.
"The Edge of the World," as the black-and-white 1937 drama was called (and showing at Film Forum in Manhattan, Friday through Jan. 20), was inspired by a newspaper article Powell had read about the evacuation of the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, or Hirta, which lies in the Atlantic some 50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. On Aug. 8, 1930, the 36 remaining inhabitants of treeless St. Kilda were brought to the Scottish mainland to begin new lives as foresters.
This primitive community of fowlers and fishermen was the least integrated of British island peoples, one that had never risen above subsistence living or seen a telephone. Its fate was sealed in the 19th century by emigration, a tetanus epidemic and the depletion of the peat bogs and pastures. Crop failures and famine in the 1920's spelled the end. ("Ill Fares the Land," a 1982 film about St. Kilda, contended that in-breeding had also contributed to the decline.)
Powell, who had begun directing in 1931, felt he was squandering his talents making "quota quickies," cheap movies that supplied British theaters with the requisite domestic product. Stirred by a memoir about St. Kilda by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (who later sued him for plagiarism), Powell determined to make "The Edge of the World."
"I didn't see why this folk epic should cost any more per foot than the trash I was canning," he recalled in his autobiography. His deliverer was the producer Joe Rock, who agreed to finance the project.
Powell rebuked anyone who implied that his film would resemble "Man of Aran," Robert Flahertys pioneering 1934 documentary about Western Ireland fishermen. Powell wrote the script in eight days and, in June 1936, led a cast and crew of 23 to Foula, an island in the Shetlands as geologically imposing as St. Kilda. (He had been forbidden to film on St. Kilda by its owner, Lord Dumfries, who feared for his bird sanctuary there.) The gale-torn five-month shoot culminated in the crew's being airlifted to safety; Powell's book, "200,000 Feet on Foula," reveals both the production's hardships and the author's brinkmanship.
The movie is a lyrical montage enfolding expressive cutaways to the island's terrain and its wildlife. It starts with a prologue, in which a yachting couple, played by Powell and his wife-to-be, Frankie Reidy, arrive on Hirta (Norse for "death"). Their skipper, Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), explains that Hirta had been abandoned 10 years before. The ghosts of its former occupants drift past him in a double exposure reminiscent of the concluding shot of "All Quiet on the Western Front."
In a flashback, Andrew and his friend Robbie (Eric Berry) quarrel over Hirta's future. Andrew, who is in love with Robbie's twin, Ruth (Belle Chrystall), intends to stay; Robbie plans to leave and marry his girl on the mainland. They decide to resolve their differences by racing up a cliff, but Robbie falls to his death. Then Ruth bears a child -- a sign of hope. In the elegiac final passage, a fog engulfs the island as the people prepare to leave their homes forever, and the twins' stern father (John Laurie) embarks on a perilous search for a souvenir fulmar egg.
Powell's story is undeniably thin, but his film demonstrates his burgeoning visual mastery and appreciation of magic. Although the film shows the St. Kildan customs in quotidian detail (the outdoors meeting of the all-male parliament; the tossing of "mail boats" into the sea in the hope of eventual retrieval), it is charged with mysticism. Sightings of the mist-wreathed hills of Scotland auger death, and there's a suggestion that Robbie's blind, crippled grandmother knows the instant of his death.
Moments like these also crop up in other Powell films as diverse as "I Know Where I'm Going!" with its cursed whirlpool and castle, and "Peeping Tom" (1960), with its all-seeing blind mother.
And an image of Robbie and Ruth lying intimately (perhaps too intimately) on a clifftop, and a long shot that reduces Ruth and her father to Lilliputian figures on the horizon, as well as the soundtrack's abrupt crescendos and fleeting fanfares, would be echoed, again, in "I Know Where I'm Going!" and "A Canterbury Tale" (1944), the films that say much about Powell's sense of himself as an Anglo-Celtic magus.
"The Edge of the World" was the 24th film directed by Powell, and it won him a contract with the producer Alexander Korda, as well as the New York Film Critic's Circle award for best international film of 1937. An ancestor of the epiphany-laden 1996 film "Breaking the Waves," it remains an apprentice's film -- with a touch of sorcery. Over the years it has been shown at differing lengths, but Film Forum will present a new 35-millimeter print of the full 81-minute version. At the time of its release, Powell described it as "a picture about man's defeat"; he later recalled it as "a turning point of my life in art." A film embracing death and birth, it signified the end of the dues-paying first act of a great auteur's career and the beginning of his illustrious second act.
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