In the first of an occasional series of reviews of Michael Powell films on DVD, Gary Couzens looks at the Region 2 DVD of The Edge of the World. Powell’s breakthrough film from 1937 gets an excellent release from the BFI.
On the remote Scottish island of Hirta life continues as it has for centuries, but the traditions are threatened by a changing world. Two childhood friends, Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis) and Robbie Manson (Eric Berry) decide to settle an argument by the age-old method of climbing Wester Hoevde, one of the sheerest cliffs on the island. The tragic outcome drives a rift between their families, and life on the island will never be the same again.
By 1937, Michael Powell had directed twenty-four “quota quickies”, low-budget British films funded by the Eady Levy, which used a proportion of ticket prices to fund local film productions. Many of these early films no longer exist. Those which do are often of interest, showing that Powell took the chance to learn his craft in a short time. Inspired by the evacuation of the Outer Hebridean island group of St Kilda in 1930, The Edge of the World was Powell’s first “personal” film. Powell was unable to gain permission to film on St Kilda itself, which was then owned by the Marquess of Bute with the intention of making it a bird sanctuary – the Marquess bequeathed the islands to the National Trust on his death – so instead he took his cast and crew to the Shetland island of Foula. (Incidentally, the name is pronounced “FOO-ler”, not “FOW-ler”). The island is called Hirta in the film, after the main island of the St Kilda group, but its place-names are Foula’s, including the 1220-foot Kame, the second-highest sea cliff in the United Kingdom. Foula’s stark and dramatic scenery, captured in Ernest Palmer’s striking black-and-white photography, is virtually a character itself in the film. (For the record, the St Kilda evacuation also inspired Bill Bryden’s 1981 film Ill Fares the Land. The forgettable 1999 comedy Captain Jack has a sequence set on Foula, but it was filmed on Skye.)
Watching The Edge of the World today, it’s striking how modern the film seems, certainly more so than almost any other 1930s British film. As Ian Christie points out in the commentary, some sequences anticipate the Italian neo-realist films made a decade later. There’s no doubt the location shoot on Foula must have been very arduous, but at a time when most British films didn’t venture out of the studio, the benefits of realism are considerable. Eric Berry really was climbing through a waterfall, at not inconsiderable danger to himself. But The Edge of the World is no documentary: Powell overlaps sound, doubles exposure and uses time-lapse photography. In later films, Powell’s expressive use of the camera and sound (and, later, colour as well) would be more to the fore, but they have their roots here.
The Edge of the World is a simple story, spare enough to be moving rather than sentimental, and it’s arguable that its dramatic highlight (the cliff climb) takes place halfway through. It’s a director’s film rather than an actor’s one, but John Laurie makes a strong impression as the patriarchal Peter Manson. Laurie was only forty at the time but he was made up to look some twenty years older, to match Finlay Currie, who played the head of the Gray family. Laurie’s character for most of the film is the major opponent of change, but the actor creates a memorable portrait of a man who is out of his time and knows it. The three younger actors – MacGinnis, Berry and Belle Chrystal as Ruth Manson, in love with Andrew Gray – do good work, but in the end it’s the landscape you remember rather than the figures in it.
The Edge of the World was filmed, like virtually every film made at the time, in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), so naturally it gets a full-frame transfer. Anamorphic enhancement is not necessary. The result is one of the best transfers of a film this old that I’ve seen. Blacks are strong, but not so strong as to be overwhelming, and whites not too sharp, with many shades of grey in between. The DVD transfer copes admirably with scenes which are meant to be softer, such as the funeral sequence in the mist.
The soundtrack is mono, which is as it should be, playing through your centre speaker only. Dialogue, sound effects and Cyril Ray’s music score are well balanced. The dynamic range is fine, especially for a film of this period. The DVD has fifteen chapter stops and is encoded for Region 2 only. Subtitles are provided for the feature and the extras.
The main extra is an audio commentary. The main speaker is Ian Christie, an acknowledged authority on Powell. He also features on Criterion’s Powell and Pressburger DVDs. Also on the track are comments from Powell’s widow, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, plus extracts from Powell’s making-of book 200,000 Feet on Foula, read by Daniel Day-Lewis. As you might expect, the commentary track is very informative and is well edited together. With only an hour and a quarter to fill, there’s no slack and only a few pauses.
Other extras include material from Powell’s collection, mainly press-kit materials and newspaper cuttings. We also get extracts from his home movies. Powell, though not a Scot himself, loved the country and often went on holiday there between films. This footage was shot probably in the late 1940s and is in colour. It is in 4:3 and runs 6:53. The film extracts are narrated by Thelma Schoonmaker Powell. This extra also features on Criterion’s edition of I Know Where I’m Going!.
St Kilda: Britain’s Loneliest Isle is a film begun in 1923. At the time, steamships visited the islands to deliver supplies in the summer months only – for nine months of the year, the islands were isolated. This film is thought to be an advertisement for island tourism to be shown in Glasgow cinemas. The film was released in 1928 with some additional scenes. The film is silent with a music score, in 4:3 and runs 16:53. Picture quality is uneven, very contrasty and often flickering. There is an optional commentary by Kathryn Howden. The film is a fascinating look at a vanished way of life.
In 1978, in his last work as a director, Powell and the surviving cast and crewmembers of The Edge of the World back to Foula. Return to the Edge of the World was the resulting documentary, shot in 16mm colour, made for BBC Television to accompany a screening of the film. The film is in 4:3, as you might expect, and runs 22:58. It’s a little grainy and there are occasional scratches, but it’s certainly acceptable: as with all non-recent TV material, we have to accept that it was designed to be watched on much lower-resolution equipment than we use today to view DVDs. The film is a charming exercise in nostalgia. It’s moving to see a clearly emotional John Laurie, over eighty and two years away from his death, visiting this remote island one last time. “On Location with Return to the Edge of the World” is a small self-navigating stills gallery, with four black-and-white pictures. The extras are completed by biographies of Powell and producer Joe Rock, and a page of acknowledgements.
The Edge of the World was the first major work of a great British director. It’s clear that a lot of care has been put into this DVD, and I fail to see how its picture and sound can be bettered, especially considering the fact that the film is nearly seventy years old. The extras on this DVD make it a disc worthy to stand next to Criterion’s Powell and Pressburger releases.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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