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EDGE OF THE WORLD (director/writer: Michael Powell; cinematographers: Monty Berman/Skeets Kelly/Ernest Palmer; editors: Derek N. Twist/Robert Walters; music: Lambert Williamson; cast: John Laurie (Peter Manson), Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson), Eric Berry (Robbie Manson), Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray), Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray), Grant Sutherland (John, the catechist), Campbell Robson (Dunbar, the laird), George Summers (Trawler skipper); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joe Rock; Milestone Film; 1937-UK)
“… a must-see for Powell enthusiasts; the visuals are indescribably forceful.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Michael Powell’s (“The Red Shoes”/”Peeping Tom”/”The Thief of Baghdad”) first major film; it’s shot Flaherty’s “Man of Aran” style (made in 1934) on location in Foula on a remote Scottish Shetland island. Not much on plot, but there’s drama (which Flaherty’s film didn’t have) and it remains fascinating for catching the natives (most of the actors were nonprofessional locals) trying to exist in such a rugged area.

The story is told in flashback by a former resident Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), who returns to the now-abandoned island and tells what it means to him as he stands by the gravestone at the top of the cliff that’s marked “Peter Manson…gone over.”

Warning: spoiler to follow.

The Scottish island keeps losing in population (the young ones keep leaving for the mainland), the winters are increasingly becoming unbearable, steam trawlers from the mainland place Foula’s survival as a fishing port in jeopardy and to boot the poor harvests have left the crofters with not much food or peat for keeping warm. This hardship has divided the residents: the father of Andrew’s, James Gray (Finlay Currie), and the 24-year-old best friend of Andrew’s and twin brother of his love interest, Robbie Manson (Eric Berry), strongly suggest they go to the mainland that “it’s every man for himself,” but Andrew and Robbie’s father Peter (John Laurie) wish to stay and stick together to overcome their obstacles. Andrew and Robbie decide to settle it in a traditional macho style, by a race to see who makes it up the 1,300-foot-high sea cliff first. Unfortunately Robbie falls and dies. Peter bears a grudge against Andrew and refuses to allow his daughter Ruth (Belle Chrystall) to marry him. With that, the frustrated Andrew leaves for the mainland. Later Andrew learns that Ruth’s pregnant and returns to find the baby ill and must be taken to a doctor on the mainland. The residents at last admit that their way of life has come to an end and agree to be evacuated to the mainland. Peter feels compelled to make one last climb up the cliff for rare eggs, but falls to his death.

It plays out as a haunting struggle between two friends who are up against the harsh elements and how to survive best. In 1978 Powell took the BBC TV offer to return to Foula and shoot a new introduction and epilogue. They are both shot in color and the film is retitled “Return to the Edge of the World.”

This rarely seen film is a must-see for Powell enthusiasts; the visuals are indescribably forceful.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”