Michael Powell

Scen.: Michael Powell. F.: Ernest Palmer, Skeets Kelly, Monty Berman. M.: Derek Twist. Int.: John Laurie (Peter Manson), Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray), Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray), Eric Berry (Robbie Manson), Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson), Grant Sutherland (John, il catechista), Campbell Robson (Dunbar), George Summers (il capitano del peschereccio). Prod.: Joe Rock per Rock Studios. DCP. D.: 75’. Bn.


T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

Michael Powell had quite literally carried around the idea of a film about the depopulation of the Scottish islands for seven years before seizing the opportunity to actually make it. A 1930 newspaper story about the inhabitants of St Kilda being evacuated had caught his attention, and he kept the cutting, ready to buttonhole anyone potentially interested. But not till he met Joe Rock, “an American with a craze for exterior pictures”, in 1936, did he find a producer willing to back his dream.
Making the film on the even more remote island of Foula proved an epic task, leading to newspaper headlines about “filmmakers marooned on stormswept island”. For five months they had laboured under harsh conditions to tell a simple story of two factions in the island’s dwindling community, and how their clash over leaving or staying had provoked tragedy, leaving John Laurie to lament the loss of his son, and Niall MacGinnis to return in time to rescue his beloved Belle Chrystall. Having brought back a mass of footage, Powell credited the editor Derek Twist with shaping it into a powerful expression of his original vision.
Among the film’s supporters, leading British critic C. A. Lejeune compared it favourably with Flaherty’s Man of Aran and with Norman Walker’s Turn of the Tide, which had led Rank into film production. But for all its “primitive honesty”, she noted that it was no simple documentary, but full of “double exposures, ghost figures, narrative fade-outs and superimpositions” – probably more so than in the surviving re-issue that has been restored by the BFI Archive. And it is the time-lapse devices, a haunting superimposition of Chrystall’s face over the sea, and the towering cliffs of Foula that continue to impress, looking forward to the Archers’ fascination with the physiognomy and morality of nature. More immediately, the film would rescue Powell from the treadmill of quota production, bringing him to the attention of Korda and leading to a contract with London Films.

Ian Christie

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