The Edge of the World

The Edge of the World (1937 UK 81 mins)

Source: BFI Prod Co: Rock Studios Prod: Joe Rock Dir, Scr: Michael Powell Phot: Ernest Palmer, Skeets Kelly, Monty Berman Ed: Derek Twist Mus Dir: Cyril Ray

Cast: John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric Berry, Kitty Kirwan, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, Grant Sutherland, Michael Powell

Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

– Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village” (1770)

IllyriaShe can’t return to you.

WesleyI know.

IllyriaYet there are fragments… memories…. We cling to what is gone.

– “Angel” (series 5, episode 16, 2004)

From the moment he first conceived the idea (reading a newspaper article in 1931 on the evacuation of the Hebridean island, St. Kilda (1)) to its completion (200,000 feet of film cut down to 7,300 by a professional editor when the task became overwhelming), Michael Powell spent nearly seven years learning his craft on the infamous “quota quickies” (2). Powell felt constrained by the technical, financial and artistic limitations of these cheap thrillers and comedies, and self-consciously yearned for the chance to create “art” (3). He was fired by the memory of great silent films made at a time when he worked in various capacities for the Irish director Rex Ingram (4). Although he would later become the master of studio artifice, it’s not surprising that Powell would choose a remote Scottish island to escape the bureaucratic confines of contract film-making. It was precisely this independence, however, this [freedom] from scrutiny that increasingly bothered the film’s producers during its troubled gestation (5): St. Kilda was unavailable for filming; the cast and crew were stranded on substitute island Foula for weeks at a time; the first cinematographer, Monty Berman, was fired when the first rushes turned out disastrously; the lead actor, John Laurie, became unavailable for a period after an accident; and the shoot’s completion was repeatedly delayed when vital coverage shots became near-impossible to achieve (6). Nevertheless, it was the film that brought Powell to international attention, and, more fatefully, the patronage of legendary producer, Alexander Korda, who would introduce him to future writing-partner, Emeric Pressburger.

The film’s story sets out a bleak choice faced by the natives of Hirta (7): stay on an economically unsustainable island despite the defection of its young, or migrate to the “mainland”, abandoning a millennia-old way of life.  This socio-economic problem is dramatised by conflicting two families, different members of which are for staying and going. A ritual cliff-climb to decide the issue turns out to be fatal in more ways than one.

The opening minutes offer three different entry points into The Edge of the World. The credits and opening titles generate an aesthetic that would become familiar in Powell & Pressburger films such as A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know where I’m Going! (1945) – a modernist mysticism, combining elements of non-naturalistic expression from classical culture (the invocation of “Ultima Thule”) to late-romanticism (a combination of Celtic Twilight (8) and the English folk revivalism of composers like Holst, Delius and Vaughan Williams, traced in the misty images and choral music by Hugh Robertson and the Glasgow Orpheus Choir). Later plot features, such as clouds darkening the hills, premonitoring Robbie Manson (Eric Berry)’s death on the cliff, the sending of messages in bottles (or, to be precise, miniature wooden boats) and the life-threatening search for a “magic” egg, all evoke the worlds of adventure, romance, myth and fairy tale. Behind the seeming modernity of the story, Edge plays out the pagan, immemorial rituals of the tribe (or “ancestors”), in its major sequences: going to church, the cliff-climb and the “christening”.

This introductory mood-setting underscores what appears to be the dominant tone of the film, the documentary. If Edge was inspired by a true-life event, than the slight story might appear to be mere scaffolding for documentary-like images of an island, “an illustration of a way of life no longer practical” (9). Although contemporary critics praised this quality (10) at the expense of the “melodramatic story”, it has become fashionable to emphasise Edge’s non-documentary elements, those premonitions of the subjective and fantastic that would become a mark of Powell’s later cinema (11). This follows Powell’s own (retrospective) lead: “I don’t want to make a documentary. Documentaries are for disappointed feature film-makers or out-of-work poets” (12).

Hindsight can take these things too far. A comparison with Return to The Edge of the World (Powell, 1978), a BBC documentary in which Powell and some of his collaborators returned to Foula 40 years after the film’s making, shows how valuable the earlier film was as a record, a document of how the place looked, how people now dead lived, and of a local economy radically changed by the recent discovery of North Sea oil (earlier scenes of sheep-shearing, fish-gutting and dockside activity (13) give way in Return to airplanes, telecommunications and power plants).

Powell’s making-of book shows how the various stages of the film’s development – from newspaper article to original treatment to the aborted plan to film on St. Kilda to the shoot on quite different conditions on Foula to the finished, edited product – allowed Edge to organically grow, especially in response to the reality of the island; Powell thrived even on extra-filmic collaboration. If the film is compared to the book, one might see how Edge ultimately “fails” as a documentary, or documentary-like film. The book, an attempt to recreate an actual place and conditions, real people and events, seems to give a more authentic sense of Foula, especially the wit and vitality of its people. I suggested earlier that Edge benefits from its “organic” growth, but Powell also suggests that “the bones in my original skeleton” (14) remained intact over seven years, and this can be seen in its rather humourless unity of tone (15).

Compare Edge to a “real” documentary, however, such as St. Kilda: Britain’s loneliest isle (Paul Robello & Bobbie Mann, 1928) (16), a contrived and patronising newsreel of exotic outsiders for metropolitan audiences. It says something about this kind of documentary that, while we snigger at “typical island kiddies”, “my ain wee hoose” and “timid” women who shun the unfamiliar “movie cameraman”, we get little inkling that within three years the island would be evacuated after winters of terrible privation.

As if to emphasise the ultimate inadequacy of the form (certainly as practised by Robert Flaherty and John Grierson; later documentarians, such as Humphrey Jennings and Chris Marker, would be closer to Powell in spirit), the opening “documentary” sequences introducing the island are shown from the myopic point of view of English tourists (17), filming “picturesque” travelogue, roaming and hunting on the island like insensitive barbarians (18).

The third entry point into the film is offered by Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), their grumpy pilot, whose wandering through the deserted island (its buildings in ruins, verdure overgrown, implements rusting), leads into the flashback narrative. The ‘objective’, ‘observational’ documentary can only show the surface of things; Powell uses the techniques of “fiction and fantasy as the best way to reach the heart of the matter” (19). At three major points of the film – as Andrew wanders, the ghosts of his former neighbours walk past and acknowledge him; as Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall) contemplates suicide, abandoned by her lover and carrying his child; and as her father Peter (Laurie), on the day of the evacuation, remembers life on the island – superimpositions, double-exposures and sound effects are used to illuminate the emotions and memories of the main characters (and, by metonymy, the island culture as a whole (20)). This inner life is probed by Andrew, a characteristic Powell figure, a visionary exile in his own homeland.

These three lines of development aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive, but played with and against each other to evoke something grander. For Powell, Edge was a “turning point” in his career (21) – it is certainly the first film in which he essays sequences of the “total cinema” that would explode in masterpieces such as The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) (22). The film’s organising principle, as so often with Powell, is patterned musically, as a series of (often wordless) sequences, not as linear narrative (23). This patterning contrasts stasis with movement, vertical with horizontal, close-up with long-shot; music, sound, image and light are counter pointed to created a three-dimensional sense experience – see in particular the church sequence, where the rhythms of going to and attending sermon, and the passing of time, are edited against the unmoving focal point of the blind grandmother (a kind of unseeing seer). The island is a geographical fact, a central force, against which the crises of the characters (trying to reconcile modernity and tradition) are shot, often in decentred compositions, with angles varying unexpectedly, relations between people and landscape thrown off-balance, and a fondness for “cutting away from the central action” (24).

Endnotes

  1. Scott Salwolke, The Films of Michael Powell and the Archers, Scarecrow, London, p. 41.
  2. Quota-quickies were barely-scripted and –budgeted films churned out by British studios in the 1930s to comply with the 1927 Cinematographic Act, which demanded a certain quota of films shown each week must be domestically-produced; Powell directed 23 in seven years. See Ian Christie, “Introduction: Returning to The Edge of the World”, in Michael Powell, Edge of the World: The Making of a Film, Faber, London, 1990 (originally published as 200,000 Feet on Foula, 1938), pp. ix, vii.
  3. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, Faber, London, 2000 (first published, 1986), p. 259.
  4. Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, pp. 259-60.
  5. Salwolke, p. 43.
  6. For an account of the film’s genesis and making, see Powell, Edge of the World: The Making of a Film, described by Christie as “probably the most vivid book ever written about a film’s making by its director”, p. xiv.
  7. “The island’s very name means death”; Salwolke, p. 46.
  8. John Russell Taylor, “Michael Powell”, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – Volume 2: Kinugasa to Zanussi, ed. Richard Roud, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980, p. 793.
  9. Salwolke, p. 47.
  10. James Howard, Michael Powell, Batsford, London, p. 31.
  11. Taylor, p. 792.
  12. Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, p. 241. See also Christie, in Powell, Edge of the World: The Making of a Film, pp. xi-xii.
  13. Although Salwolke suggests “how little of [the islanders’] lifestyle is shown”, p. 45.
  14. Powell, Edge of the World: The Making of a Film, p. 161.
  15. One exception to this is the visualising of time passing in the church sequence, through a montage of increasingly weary dogs and parishioners.
  16. Available on the British Film Institute DVD of The Edge of the World, 2004.
  17. With the same self-awareness that would inform Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), Powell and his future wife Frankie Reidy play the English couple.
  18. Powell would at various times describe the film crew in Foula as “pioneers”, “invaders” and “explorer(s)”.  Powell, Edge, p. 53; Life, pp. 243, 249.
  19. Christie, commentary to I Know where I’m Going!, Criterion, 2001.
  20. Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, pp. 258-259.
  21. Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, p. 259.
  22. Although there are thrilling intimations in films like Red Ensign, 1934.
  23. Powell described the shoot as “stormy orchestrations”, the film’s climax as a “Wagnerian sequence”; and the final film as a “lyric drama”; some sequences were shot to the accompaniment of classical music on a hand-cranked gramophone.  Powell, Edge of the World: The Making of a Film, p. 182; A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, pp. 258, 261.
  24. Salwolke, p. 48.

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue is an archivist at Tate Britain, and has begun a PhD. with the Department of Art, University of Reading.