The Edge of the World is regarded by Michael Powell himself as his first ‘real’ film after a series of low-budget British productions. One glance at the film’s opening scenes and you can see why. Huge, imposing cliffs which seem to exist solely so that a man’s heart will jump into his mouth, allied with cold, brutal waves crashing against them and the sun’s sole voice of calm above. A lone sailboat is pulling itself towards the island which holds ownership of these cliffs, into its only bay, like a tiny ant attempting to scale a mountain. Whilst The Edge of the World may not be a Technicolor extravaganza like Powell’s later films with Emeric Pressburger, his visual eye here is already strong and fully formed.
The film constantly returns to the cliffs and the sea and the sun. The island of Hirta and the cold sea around it dwarfs the inhabitants of the island whom the film follows. When the islanders scale the cliffs we genuinely fear for them, not least because it appears to be genuine, with not a single obvious studio shot in the whole film. For a film made almost 80 years ago, when studio shooting was the norm and location shooting a rare exception, this is quite impressive.
The way of life on these islands is slowly dying out. The few islanders left are mostly old and money is quite short. A returning son comes back to the islands. He extols the virtues of industrialised capitalism, proclaiming “it’s every man for himself!” to the old men on the island. This boy, Robbie Manson (Eric Berry), has a sister Ruth (Belle Chrystall) whose fiancé is Robbie’s best friend Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis). Robbie gets himself killed early on in a stupid race for which the film seems to have little explanation for, other than the fact that the islanders decided that the best way to solve the dilemma of whether to evacuate the island or not is to have a race to the top of a cliff. Yeah, I know. I don’t get it either. The film’s biggest issue is its plotting. Though Michael Powell’s visual eye is not in doubt here, his storytelling clearly still leaves much to be desired, with plot points frequently fairly nonsensical and often explained in a very mechanical way.
However, despite this, the film is quite rich thematically. Modernisation constantly brushes against the islanders. Their way of life has been relatively unchanged for centuries. Increased trawling of their waters by industrial fishermen and ever-increasing isolation from the outside world have made life extremely difficult. When a baby falls seriously ill, it is a race against time to reach a doctor on the mainland. Throughout it all, we return to the cliffs. They stand there, emotionless, simply existing alongside the islanders. The outside world changes. The people on these islands change. The cliffs stay the same (erosion notwithstanding). The conflict between the old way of life and the necessity of modernity is beautifully set up, as is the film’s frequent foregrounding of how completely small these humans are in the face of nature. Storms and dark waters are a far bigger issue than lack of electricity or communication. It is interesting that Robbie, the one most proudly proclaiming that it is “every man for himself” out in the modernised world, is also the one who pays the price for his proclamations with his life. I have read that Michael Powell was a lifelong Tory, but if I was to guess his political leanings from this film, I would have to guess that he wasn’t so fussed on industrialisation and capitalism, and more concerned with old-world conservatism.
The acting performances are the only other major issue in The Edge of the World. Most of these performances are very bland, with only John Laurie’s turn as Peter Manson, the island’s head and its most staunchly anti-modernising force the only strong performance of the lot. A man of infinite scowling and presence, Laurie is the only one who brings life to his character. Otherwise, the array of dodgy, unconvincing Scotch accents and forgettable line-deliveries ensure the film’s cast don’t leave too much of an impression upon the viewer.
But then again, it’s not the cast that matter here. It’s the island. The beautiful, raw, angry island. Despite its flaws in terms of basic storytelling and performing, the film’s visual character more than sees it through the day. Not only is The Edge of the World staggeringly beautiful to look at throughout, it uses its visuals to reinforce its themes, a superb case of content creating form and vice-versa. It is this that ensures that The Edge of the World is still worth a watch even after all these years.