Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Location, location, location

Last night, TCM showed a remarkable example of location shooting: Michael Powell's The Edge of the World.

This 1937 film tells the story of the remote Scottish island of Hirta, where life is difficult, to put it mildly. The islanders scratch out a meager living herding sheep, but the state of the island has deteriorated to the point where even that may no longer enable the islanders to survive. So, the islanders are faced with the difficult decision of whether to abandon their island lives and find a place on the mainland to live.

The Edge of the World is based on a real-life story. Several years earlier, the even more remote island of St. Kilda, off the Hebrides in western Scotland, had to be abandonded for similar reasons. Powell had read an article about the evacuation fo St. Kilda as a young man, and wanted to make a movie about it. However, by the time he had become enough of a director to get the wherewithal to make such a movie, the owner of St. Kilda had turned it into a bird sanctuary, and wouldn't allow Powell to film a movie there as it would harm the bird life.

Powell searched for a suitably remote island, and eventually found Foula, just to the soutwest of the Shetland Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland. Not only was Foula remote; it had the advantage of still being inhabited, meaning that Powell had a ready cast of extras.

One can only imagine the difficulties of shooting on an island with no electricity, and the dangers of all those cliffs that play an important part in the plot. The result, however, is a cinematically goregous movie, even 70 years on, and in spite of the fact that Powell didn't have the resources of the Hollywood studios, whose cinematography may have made the island look even more stunning.

There's a happy postscript to the story, as well. Foula, like the Hirta it portrays and St. Kilda before it, was threatened with evacuation by the 1960s, but the locals held on, and eventually built an airstrip to make the island more accessible. A power plant for permanent electricity was also built; to this day, Foula remains inhabited. Also, in 1977, for the 40th anniversary of The Edge of the World, Michael Powell and the surviving cast members returned to Foula to make a BBC TV special about the movie they had made, and the islanders of Foula. Several of the surviving islanders, who had appeared as extras in the movie, show up in the TV special. The TV special is available as an extra on the DVD version of The Edge of the World.

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