Edge of the World, The (1937) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Jan 05, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Edge of the World, The (1937) (Blu-ray Review)


Michael Powell

Release Date(s)

1937 (October 17, 2023)


Joe Rock Productions (Milestone Films/Kino Lorber)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

The Edge of the World (1937) (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Before he became famous as one-half of The Archers, teaming with Emeric Pressburger for many of the finest films ever made—A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, etc.—and well before the controversy surrounding his long-misunderstood masterpiece Peeping Tom, director Michael Powell had been in films for about a dozen years, working his way up through the ranks from gofer to director with impressive speed, helming his first feature in 1931. But his first truly personal project, his first masterpiece, was the unusual The Edge of the World (1937). He had difficulty financing it, eventually turning to ex-silent film comedian Joe Rock who, among other things, had produced a series of Stan Laurel shorts several years before Stan famously teamed with Ollie.

The story is based on the real-life evacuation of St. Kida, a remote Scottish archipelago depopulated out of sustainability. Powell’s fictional drama, filmed on Foula in the Shetland Islands, has a rudimentary storyline, but visually is outstanding and everything about it feels authentic.

A yachtsman (played by Powell himself) and his girlfriend (Frankie Reidy, Powell’s girlfriend and, later, wife) want to explore the now-abandoned island of Hirta, a bittersweet port of call for crewman Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis), who once lived there. In flashbacks, we see that Andrew was once in love with Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall), fraternal twin sister of his best friend, Robbie (Eric Berry). Unlike Andrew and Ruth, Robbie wants to leave the island and marry Polly, a Norwegian girl, but to leave would be sacrilege in the eyes of his stern father, Peter (John Laurie). Conversely, Andrew’s father, James Gray (Finlay Currie), sadly recognizes that poor harvests and declining peat won’t sustain the several dozen islanders and their crofting much longer, not even another winter. What’s more, trawlers are cutting into their fish catches, and if Robbie—one of the handful of young men still left—were to leave the situation, will only become bleaker than it already is.

Andrew and Robbie decide to settle the matter with a dangerous race up a perilous 1,200-foot cliff without safety ropes, an old islander way of resolving differences. Predictably, it ends tragically with Robbie’s death, and Andrew decides to leave the island for Lerwick where, almost masochistically, he joins the crew of a trawler. Meanwhile, Ruth turns out to be pregnant, and later her infant develops diphtheria. The baby’s only hope is surgery on the mainland but a fierce gale prevents travel by smaller boats.

The story of The Edge of the World may be simple and familiar, almost schematic, but Powell’s direction and approach to the material is not. At once it’s both documentary-like and impressionistic. The beautiful cinematography by Ernest Palmer, Skeets Kelly, and Monty Berman is striking in much the same way as Powell’s later films with Pressburger, and composed by Powell that in some ways resembles the best black-and-white work of director John Ford on pictures like The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley.

John Laurie, Niall MacGinnis, and Finlay Currie each appeared in countless British films as supporting players, so we know they’re actors; yet they so believably blend in with the local population, hired as background extras and smaller speaking parts, that it feels very strongly like a real story unfolding before us. A few of the love scenes with MacGinnis and Chrystall are more conventionally filmed, but these are greatly offset but harrowing footage of the leading actors in very dangerous-looking footage. Doubles may have been used in a few long shots of the most dangerous parts of the cliff race, but it’s clearly MacGinnis and Berry most of the time. In another scene, John Laurie, secured with only a safety rope, rescues a spooked sheep off another steep cliff. In later scenes, we see footage aboard boats in storming seas, including Chrystall carrying not a doll wrapped in blankets, but a real infant amidst the heaving waves.

Powell also captures myriad authentic details of the romantic but hard and isolated life on an island with no hospital, no telephones, no electricity even, and where the fastest way to send a message is by “mail boat,” letters put into airtight wooden boxes with what look like sheep bladders to both buoy them and make them easier for passing boats to spot. In another scene an elderly grandmother, too frail to make the long walk to the remote, cramped church, is left outside her home, sitting on a wooden chair, the children promising to sing loud enough for her to hear them.

Milestone’s Blu-ray of The Edge of the World (via the BFI and released here through Kino Lorber) looks great. In its original 1.37:1 standard frame, the images are more striking than they’ve perhaps ever been—I think I last saw it on LaserDisc—with only title elements and other opticals looking less than pristine. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also an improvement over previous home video versions. Optional subtitles are included for those who might struggle with the sometimes thick Scottish burrs.

Also included is Return to the Edge of the World (1979), a 30-minute documentary directed by and starring Powell, which reunites surviving cast and crew with the islanders. Opening with some startling footage taken on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, it’s a warm, lovely little film. Other bonus features continue with An Airman’s Letter to His Mother, a 1941 short directed by Powell; outtakes and alternate scenes (nine minutes); an audio commentary by Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow, and film historian Ian Christie; and a reading from Powell’s book on the making of the film by no less a talent than Daniel Day-Lewis. Finally, there are circa 1955 home movies of and by Powell (seven minutes), again narrated by Schoonmaker.

The Edge of the World is a terrific, visually striking film that anticipates director Michael Powell’s later great successes. Its themes of depopulation and community sustainability are as timely as ever, and the film holds up well because its themes are so universal. Heartily recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV