Michael Powell’s 1937 movie The Edge of the World was the first of his films that he claimed ownership of after quota quickies and contract jobs that did not stir his passion or come from his heart. Ultimately, it was also his last movie, rereleased in 1978 as Return to the Edge of the World, complete with colour book-ends commissioned by the BBC. Alpha and Omega, then, maybe – but is it really the be-all and end-all of his career?
I feel it’s unfair to compare any of Powell’s non-Archers films with his best collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are pretty much unassailable peaks, and films for which I think Pressburger goes unfairly without due credit. Some might say such a comparison is a case of apples and oranges, however, because Edge of the World is as rooted in documentary technique as those Archers pictures are in painting and theatre. The films draw upon an entirely different aesthetics.
Powell himself knew that his film was going to be compared to the documentary films of Flaherty, particularly Man of Aran, but he argued that his film contained drama that Flaherty’s didn’t. I think it’s fair to say that The Edge of the World contains both more dramatic devices, and more ordered, potent and striking drama than Aran. Myself, I’ll always side with the dramaturge, but I won’t deny there’s raw drama in the films of Flaherty and their ilk.
Powell’s dramatic story starts something like this: tourists on an abandoned island are told the story of its desertion a decade earlier. Factions on the island were in disagreement about the need to leave, so two men decided to settle the argument with an ancient ritual. Whichever of them could reach the top of a cliff first would get to make the decision for the whole island. However, the climb is neither easy nor safe.
That is just the beginning. This is not a film about a competition between men, or at least not a cliff-climbing competition.
The film’s presentation on this new BFI Blu-ray is honestly notable and special, even in view of the Institute’s recent very high standards. For the first time ever, I’m seeing one of Powell’s black and white films boast visuals to compete with his famous technicolour works. I’m a child of the TV era, so I was lucky enough to see vintage cinema several times a week, but the telecine transfers often left an awful lot to be desired. When I first saw The Edge of the World, what I saw was a ghost of the film Powell had made, and it was never possible to fully appreciate it then. Now, the landscapes are solid and real, the weather and elements palpable, and the amazing faces of the cast vivid and immediate. On the downside, the difference between the majority of location material and the sprinkling of studio shots is all too obvious.
The disc is well put together even beyond the image and audio quality. Even the menu page is smartly conceived, playing for a while with audio but going silent quickly so that it doesn’t become a hellish loop (I don’t know why I end up on menu pages for such long stretches, but it does seem to happen a great deal).
Among the special features is the Return footage offered up as a featurette separate from the main movie, as well as a 1928 film that shows the effects of depopulation on the isle of Kilda, Powell’s inspiration. There is also a commentary by Thelma Schoonmaker and Ian Christie which didn’t quite strike the right chord with me, but has the kind of film nerd star power that’s going to guarantee it listeners. I was more in tune with Daniel Day Lewis’ readings from Michael Powell’s literary account of the film’s making, 200,000 Feet on Foula, but would still recommend reading the whole book for yourself. They might be once-around special features, but such a beautiful rendering of the film itself justifies far more than the asking price.
The DVD and Blu-ray are available now.