19 June 2010
As I’ve mentioned before here, I’m a big fan of “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945), the Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger love story. Sure, Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey fall in love, but the rest of us fall for the magic of Scotland by way of Powell’s love of those extraordinary landscapes and cragged faces of the locals who proudly worked the land like their ancestors. What I didn’t know was that Powell’s first full-length feature, “The Edge of the World,” is another love song to Scotland and its old ways.
It’s told as a tragedy. The people of the remote island of Hirta, far north of the Orkney Islands — with no radio, phone, doctor, or reliable mail service — have reached a crossroads: many of their young people can’t make this hard life work anymore and are leaving for the mainland. Without the young to help fish, farm, and herd, their way of life is becoming impossible. The two young men Robbie and Andrew fall on either side of the divide. Robbie, who earned many pounds working on an Irish trawler all winter, wants to leave and marry his new Irish sweetheart. His best friend, the darkly handsome Andrew (Niall MacGinnis), is determined to stay and marry Robbie’s beautiful sister Ruth (Belle Chrystall). They good-naturedly decide that they’ll participate in a battle: whoever climbs the terrific cliffs from seaside to the top first will determine which way both youths go in their lives.
But something goes wrong. Though he knows better than to take the most treacherous route, Robbie inexplicably goes the wrong way and falls to his death. His distraught father (John Laurie) blames Andrew for the death and refuses to allow him to marry Ruth; and when Andrew determines to find work elsewhere, suddenly everything seems to go wrong for the island.
Don’t be fooled: you’re not watching this film for the story, but for the way it documents some of the real life on the island of Foula in the Shetland Islands, which likewise had no cars, radio, or phone in 1936 when the film was shot. So remote from Scotland that the residents spoke Norse rather than Gaelic, the island was difficult enough to reach that Powell hired every single resident to participate as crew and extras. The village’s old women posed as they knitted their extraordinary sweaters; they displayed the way they did not shear their sheep’s wool, but plucked it right off the sheep’s backs; at other times they lowered themselves on ropes down the cliffs to collect sea birds’ eggs. The film takes its time pursuing the narrative so it can wander the landscape, lingering on the coming of winter with crashing waves and dangerous seas, the most extraordinarily vast cliffs in Scotland, darkening skies, fog and rain. It’s a gorgeous paean to a vanishing way of life.
“It was like his baby,” the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker recently remembered about Powell, who later became her husband. He was originally inspired by a news story from the early 1930s about precisely this dilemma faced by the residents of a different Scottish island in the Hebrides, St. Kilda, who had begged for and been granted the right to resettle on the mainland. In addition, he published a book about the making of the film that was released simultaneously in 1937, 200,000 Feet on Foula, to help advance the film. And in the late 1970s Powell would return to Foula to film a short, highly sentimental documentary (with John Laurie, one of the film’s stars, by the 70s an insufferable man who always appeared to be on stage), “Return to the Edge of the World.”
The film shows Powell’s pressures making the film during the Depression. It’s choppy and sometimes seems not to know whether it’s a documentary or a narrative, so it bears watching with generosity. But its success, particularly with the American National Board of Review (which selected it as one of the best foreign films of 1937), gave Powell the opportunity to become a feature-length director in his own right and led him to collaborations with Pressburger and Alexander Korda. Thus, when you watch “I Know Where I’m Going” again (and you should), you’ll see where his affection for Scots farmers comes from.