The Edge of the World (Kino Lorber, NR)

There’s a lot of ways that modern life is a great improvement over times past, particularly in matters like dentistry and air travel. However, modernity destroys as well as creates, and sometimes distinctive cultures get wiped out in the push toward the future. The demise of one such culture, that of the residents of Hirta (a.k.a. St. Kilda*), an island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, is the subject of Michael Powell’s 1937 film The Edge of the World.

The spark for The Edge of the World was a newspaper article Powell read about the evacuation of St. Kilda in 1930. Although it was not possible to shoot on St. Kilda, it was possible on another remote island, Foula (in the Shetlands), which it makes a fine stand-in. Working in so isolated a location made for an interesting filmmaking experience, which Powell describes in his 1938 book 200,000 Feet on Foula: there were no flights to the island, and only occasional radio communications, so cast and crew lived and worked in a briefer version of the kind of apartness which was a way of life for the islanders.

The Edge of the World opens with a frame story about a yachtsman (Powell) who is surprised to discover that Hirta is uninhabited. As it happens, his crewman Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis) is a former islander, and visiting brings back old memories, realized on the screen as ghostly islanders preparing for evacuation. It’s a marvelous bit of cinematography using double exposures created in the camera, as Thelma Schoonmaker (editor of many Martin Scorsese movies, for which she won three Oscars, and also Powell’s widow) explains in the commentary track.

The film then jumps back to pre-evacuation life on the island, which was dominated by two families, the Grays and the Mansons. Andrew is engaged to Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall) but has a dispute with her twin brother Robbie (Eric Berry), just back from work on the mainland and planning to leave the island permanently. Michael, who wants to stay on Hirta, argues that if Robbie leaves, it will make it harder on those who stay, particularly the older people who need the young men to help with the hard work of crofting and fishing. Robbie argues that life on the island will soon be a thing of the past, so everyone should make plans to leave, and he’s certainly not going to delay his departure at any rate. The older generation is also split on this issue, although in the opposite direction: Peter Manson (John Laurie) wants to stay on Hirta, while James Gray (Finlay Currie) agrees with Robbie that they can’t last much longer on the island.

Robbie and Andrew decide to settle their dispute through a climbing contest, which I suppose makes as much sense as most wars. The outcome drives a wedge between the two families, so Peter withholds his permission for Ruth to marry Michael, and Michael leaves for work in Shetland, not knowing Ruth is already pregnant.

The Edge of the World is a beautiful film, demonstrating the possibilities of black and white cinematography in a distinctive outdoor location. Three cinematographers are credited—Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly, and Ernest Palmer—and their work makes island life look so attractive that you may contemplate moving there (not possible, but you can visit—it’s a World Heritage Site for both its natural and cultural qualities). Lambert Williamson’s traditional score adds an additional dimension to the film, and there’s a bit of what sounds like bonafide folk fiddling toward the end as well.

The title refers to the Latin term “Ultima Thule,” a term used in Roman times to refer to an island north of Britain (it’s not clear which one), and more generally anywhere beyond the known world. This idea is introduced by title cards, and the back-of-beyondness of Hirta gives rise to the key question of the film: do the benefits of living in an isolated place (strong sense of community, closeness to nature, lack of modern stressors) outweigh the disadvantages (lack of medical care, limited possibilities for making a living)? It’s an issue that’s still valid today, although there are fewer and fewer places in the world that can be considered truly isolated from modern culture. | Sarah Boslaugh

*St. Kilda is actually an archipelago, with Hirta the only inhabited island within it by 1930. More importantly, the name “St. Kilda” is immortalized in the fiddle tune St. Kilda wedding.  

The Edges of the World is distributed on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and is also available digitally from Kino Now. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (who reads excerpts from Powell’s book 200,000 Feet on Foula; the 1979 short documentary Return to the Edge of the World;  the 1941 Powell short film “An Airman’s Letter to his Mother,” the short film “Michael Powell’s Home Movies,” narrated by Thelma Schoonmaker, a selection of alternative scenes, and the film’s original trailer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *