Like the proud yet long-vanished way of life it meticulously documents, “The Edge of the World” grows on the viewer with a hardy fervor. This new DVD fills a pivotal homevid hole in the filmography of revered British director Michael Powell, whose first important work this was in a career central to cinema’s marriage of nature and drama. This film has influenced many filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, who presents this DVD version. Daniel Day-Lewis and Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime editor and Powell’s wife from 1984 until his death in 1990, contribute illuminating commentary.
In 1930, Powell read a one-paragraph report describing the evacuation of Scottish island St. Kilda as modernization forced residents to the mainland. Six years and numerous quota quickies later, the 32-year-old filmmaker, in thrall to story’s fictive possibilities, led some two dozen cast and crew to the North Sea isle of Foula, chosen after St. Kilda became an off-limits bird sanctuary.
Pic’s melodramatic plot of star-crossed lovers and familial rivalries is punctuated by startlingly beautiful rituals and traditions. A pair of proud, prominent clans debate the merits of relocation. Two young men race up a dizzying cliff to settle matter, with one falling tragically to his death. A single new life is celebrated with music and dance, as grins erupt on weather-beaten faces.
Subsequently, with partner Emeric Pressburger and solo, Powell made a slew of important pics including “A Matter of Life and Death” (aka “Stairway to Heaven”), “Black Narcissus,” “The Red Shoes” and “Peeping Tom.” “Edge” also has a prominent place in historical chain of ethnographic docus and features that stretch from Murnau-Flaherty collaboration “Tabu” to the work of Pare Lorentz and Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves.”
“Edge” earned foreign film kudos from the New York Film Critics’ Circle in 1937, was restored by the British Film Institute six decades later, and re-preemed at 1999 New York Film Festival. Some blemishes and reel markers do not detract from velvety image quality of new pressing from the nitrate negative, clearly superior to the 2001 VHS edition.
Extras include Powell’s moving 1941 propaganda short “An Airman’s Letter to His Mother” and supplemental 1978 docu “Return to the Edge of the World.”
Film scholar Ian Christie offers insights on the commentary track, joined by Schoonmaker and Day-Lewis, who reads from helmer’s published writings on the eventful shoot.