A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Michael Powell was one of the greatest British directors--the best in the land after Alfred Hitchcock decamped to Hollywood--and his major films stand like bedrock in film history: "The Red Shoes," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Black Narcissus," "The Thief of Bagdad," "A Matter of Life and Death," "Stairway to Heaven," "Peeping Tom." Powell was a quixotic individualist whose works also include films far from the mainstream, strange works like "A Canterbury Tale," about a pervert who takes advantage of wartime blackouts to pour glue into women's hair. When I taught a class on Powell at the University of Chicago, the students applauded all of his films but one, "Tales of Hoffman," a mannered operatic production they found unbearable, walking out to discuss it mournfully in the hallway.
His two-volume autobiography is the best ever written by a director: My Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie. His life paralleled the development of the cinema. Born in 1905, he died in 1990 still deeply involved in the cinema as a consultant to Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and other successors. He began in silent films, made talkie thrillers he was indifferent to, and reached "the turning point of my life in art" with "The Edge of the World" (1937), the first of his films that he "wanted to make." It has long been unavailable, but has now returned in a restored 35mm print, playing at the Music Box on its way to video.
It is a strange, haunting, beautiful film, shot on location on the spare Scottish island of Foula, in the cold North Sea. Like Robert Flaherty's documentary of Irish islanders, "Man of Aran," made three years earlier, it tells the story of a dying way of life. But it was risky to mention Flaherty's film to Powell, who rejected comparisons: "He hasn't got a story," he tells a friend in his autobiography, "just a lot of waves and seaweed and pretty pictures. This is a Drama! an Epic! About people!" The inhabitants of Foula have supported themselves since time immemorial by fishing and by the wool from their prized sheep herds. Now modern trawlers are grabbing the fishing market, and it is time for these rugged islanders to weigh their future. Should they move to the mainland? The story involves two young men, Andrew and Robbie, and Robbie's twin sister, Ruth. Ruth and Andrew are engaged to be wed. The two men and their fathers stand on opposite sides of the question of evacuating the island, and there is a "parliament" at which all the island men sit in a circle and discuss the issue. Andrew and Robbie decide to settle it more simply: They will have a race to the top of a 1,300-foot-high sea cliff.
One is killed, which leads to the estrangement of the two families, and more complications when it becomes evident that Ruth is pregnant. But the story is not told as ham-handed melodrama; all of the characters respect one another, and the daily struggle to win a living from the hard land has made them stalwart and brave.