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The Light at the Edge of the World

by Glenn Erickson Feb 04, 2020

Jules Verne’s version of ‘Die Hard’ takes place not on Christmas Eve in Century City, but 160 years ago at a lonely lighthouse in Tierra Del Fuego. The mini-moguls the Salkinds rounded up a great cast — Kirk Douglas! Samantha Eggar! Yul Brynner! — but let them down severely in production details and particularly the edit. Most everything is here for a classic adventure-suspense picture, but somebody thought it had to be ultra-violent and nihilistic. The new Blu-ray restores it to good color and an uncut state.


The Light at the Edge of the World
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 126 min. / La Luz del fin del mundo / 129 min. / Street Date February 18, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Samantha Eggar, Jean-Claude Drouot,
Fernando Rey, Renato Salvatori.
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Original Music: Piero Piccioni
Written by Tom Rowe, Rachel Billington from a book by Jules Verne
Produced by Alfredo Matas, Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Kirk Douglas
Directed by
Kevin Billington

 

This one sounded promising in 1971, and still sounds good now: Kirk Douglas in a two-hour ordeal on a forbidding rock of an island, fighting for his life against murderous pirates. Actually, in 1971 we didn’t know what the subject matter was, as all we had to go by was a newspaper ad and the star names. The Light at the Edge of the World sounds a lot more poetic than ‘Lighthouse at the Edge of the World’ (Verne’s original title), and the advertising tag lines suggested weird fantasy or classic science fiction. The gripping story of Kirk Douglas’ running battle with a ruthless band of pirates came as a complete surprise. The movie seemed a bit strange — we could tell it was a foreign production by the dubbing and the crude title sequence, and some of the special effects were sub-par. But who cared?  It was Spartacus vs. the killer pirates, for cripes’ sake. If Burt Lancaster could plunge into physically demanding action fare in his late ‘fifties, why couldn’t our beloved ‘Kirk baby?’

It’s a great idea and it almost works. Kirk looks sea-worthy in a beard, and the monkey-playmate they give him makes an early exit. Just the month before, Kirk’s big hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with its cute seal, had been given a major reissue (its last, I believe). The uncut version on this new Blu-ray is very different than what we saw in 1971, when National General removed substantial footage, some of it to secure a GP rating. (Note 02 04 2020: The New York Times cited a running time of only 101 minutes … 28 minutes shorter than what’s on this disc. Thanks to correspondent ‘B’)

 

It’s 1865. Will Denton (Kirk Douglas) is learning to tend a lighthouse at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. He’s meeting his new supervisor Captain Moriz (Fernando Rey) and tries to forget bad memories from his past in the California gold fields. Then a shipload of pirates shows up, murders everyone they can find and extinguishes the light. They’re wreckers, brigands that misdirect ships onto the rocks, slaughters any survivors and loots the cargo. Their leader Captain Jonathan Kongre (Yul Brynner) is a diabolical fiend. He occupies the lighthouse cabin while his men bring his horse, a magnificent stallion, in from the ship. Will hides in the rocks and strikes back. He saves innocent survivor Montefiore (Renato Salvatori) from the pirates’ next massacre, and together they wage a game of cat and mouse against Kongre and his cutthroats. Kongre keeps one captive alive — a beautiful Englishwoman named Arabella (Samantha Eggar). Her presence brings radical changes to the cruel rules of the game.

What should be a gripping adventure movie, The Light at the Edge of the World instead opts for hardcore violence and cruelty, as if the producers thought they were competing with edgy attractions like Straw Dogs. In 1971 we could tell the show had been censored when splices interrupted violent scenes. And a big cut at the end removed a bedroom scene between the Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar characters.

Even uncut, the picture isn’t wholly satisfying, just much more violent and coarse. The murders of Douglas’ comrades are crude and brutal, and later details are even more unpleasant. Dummies and makeup effects depict a monkey being ripped to shreds and a man being flayed alive. All these ‘fun’ Acts are perpetrated by a perverted pirates that laugh like bad guys from a Spaghetti western. That connection is made even more explicit, as this Spanish production uses several faces familiar from Sergio Leone pictures.

 

The Spaghetti westerns craze was already fading by 1970 but their nihilistic influence was felt in all genres. Alexander and Illya Salkind opt for cruelty and sadism at every turn. The uncut show better establishes that Samantha Eggar’s shipwreck survivor Arabella is not a traditional damsel to be rescued from a fate worse than death. She sleeps with Brynner almost willingly, the implied alternative being gang rape and murder at the hands of his men. Thus we back off from full emotional engagement. If everything ends in rape and slaughter, what’s the point? The ‘edge of the world’ is really the nihilistic realm of Euro action thrillers in a rough year.

 

Yul Brynner’s Captain Kongre is a maniac with dreams of grandeur. He dresses like an Asian warlord and sits on a throne-like chair; he rides a horse equipped with a unicorn-like horn to resemble the beast from mythology. Kongre commits his crimes with legalistic arrogance, as if he were the lawful king of a portable domain. He sets Will Denton free just so he can perversely hunt him down again. Kongre treats the desperate Arabella as a plaything to be disposed of when he grows weary of her.

Douglas’ ability to evade capture works because of adventure movie conventions, but also because the rocky, cave-riddled island offers good hiding places. The isolation of the characters allows the story to be told without too much dialogue. Arabella has nobody in whom she can confide, and Brynner doesn’t telegraph his intentions to anyone either. Kongre finds some love letters Denton once exchanged with a woman named ‘Emily Jane.’ He instructs Arabella to pretend she’s this Emily, and when Denton comes out of hiding to rescue a woman he thinks is his lost love, we’re not entirely sure how much Arabella knows. We also don’t understand why, after going to all that trouble, Kongre hasn’t set a better trap to catch Denton.

A subdued Kirk Douglas is fine as the hero with a troubled past. He’s in such good physical shape, his advancing age is no concern. The writing and direction stumble badly by giving Douglas’s hero several shoddy flashbacks to the Gold Rush, where he lost the love of his life, ‘Emily Jane.’ These artless detours into backstory would seem cribbed from Sergio Leone as well.

 

Samantha Eggar is an equally formidable screen presence, but her underwritten character must remain in a state of nagging, numbing terror. Ms. Eggar exudes intelligence, but Arabella is in no position to negotiate. We wait for her to hatch scheme to oppose Kongre, but he shows no weaknesses. When Denton comes to ‘rescue’ the woman, he gets a rude surprise. The bleakness of events is logical enough, but there is little reward in seeing Arabella suffer and then be sacrificed so mercilessly. Although she frees Denton of his romantic illusions, none of what happens is particularly illuminating.  Is Verne saying that lonely lighthouse tenders  are lucky to be away from troublesome women?

The direction pretty much leaves Eggar high and dry, and the two strong leading men appear to be directing themselves. The autocratic Kongre orders his crew about with convincing authority. A conventional story of this type would have the villain undone by his own human qualities — caring for his captive Arabella, taking pity on somebody. But when Kongre ceases to look out for his best interests, his motivations become murky. He’s utterly ruthless one moment, and then inconsistently trusting the next. Considering what he’s trying to accomplish, Kongre shouldn’t be so cavalier about the threat represented by Denton — Hans Gruber in Die Hard would never be so slack-minded. Kongre persists inn delaying the killing of Denton, as if compelled by some ‘Secret Sharer’ relationship left out of the story.

 

Kongre’s scurvy henchmen are bit like the kinky, overdressed crazies of the later Mad Max movies. Some appear to be South American Indians. They’re forever in a party mood, jumping around, dressing in women’s clothing, and enjoying their tortures. They’re a stupid mob, toying with the captured hero and letting him get away. The pirates don’t even mind too much when Denton and his friend Montefiore manage to kill a few of their number. Kongre’s favorite, the narcissistic pretty-boy Virgilio, is played by Jean-Claude Druot (just above, right ↑ ). The actor was best known as the deceptively passive husband in Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur.

These script and direction shortcomings should be laid directly at the feet of the producers. The Light at the Edge of the World is one of the first big Alexander and Ilya Salkind movies, the pair that would later bring us the charming Richard Lester Three Musketeers double bill, and the blockbuster Superman franchise. The special location and the pirate ship are assets that only an expensive production could muster. A big effort must have been made to put the beautiful white horse in the movie — the shot of it being unloaded from the ship is highly unusual.

 

Director Kevin Billington’s work is almost all in television. He does well considering how difficult it must have been to film on the rocky location landscape. Many scenes take place at night on an unlit island, and when pirates and prey sneak around in full view of one another, the day-for-night photography just doesn’t hack it. Even in broad daylight, there are far too many scenes of Douglas and Salvatori ‘hiding’ from passing pirates when they are obviously in plain sight. Most of the action is fairly convincing, especially a brutal horse-fall that was censored in the U.K.. The final demise of a main character, playing with fire while doused in flammable whale oil, might seem unintentionally humorous to some. It reminds me a bit of the demise of Lee J. Cobb’s gangster in Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl — in one shot, the actor has to splash acid on himself, and then find his way to a window so he can manage an ‘accidental’ fall.

Kongre’s pirate schooner is a full-sized live-action beauty, but the film’s other ships are represented by large models filmed in the ocean. The miniature ships are so good that a few foregrounded shots come off extremely well, even one of a boat deck with miniature crew members. But the camera techniques do little to sell the illusions. When filmed from above, the models can’t help but betray their scale. Slightly over-cranking to slow down wave action and smoke is SOP for filming miniatures, but it doesn’t work well here. Other stunts and trickery with special props are good, but the film’s special gore effects are wildly uneven. A dummy for a beheaded corpse doesn’t convince, even in a telephoto shot. The shredded monkey, seen just for a second or so, is disgusting and little else.

The movie doesn’t try to work up feeling of grandeur or accomplishment for Will Denton, but the plot mechanics do present some pleasing harmonies. Kongre’s business is to turn lighthouses into traps that lure ships to their doom, and he uses Arabella as a ‘false lighthouse’ to attract and trap Will Denton. The presence of a dead goat brings up biblical references to sacrifice, while the image of Douglas suspended upside-down from the lighthouse conjures demonic images from Tarot cards. When a man is being tortured to death on the deck of the pirate ship, Denton shoots him from far away, as a gesture of mercy. It echoes a similar scene from The Sand Pebbles.

 

The direction (unknowingly) places the audience in a sadistic position, regarding Kongre’s gruesome crimes. When the slaughter commences on the deck of the pirate ship, Denton can only observe it from afar, through a telescope. Although the situation is different, the setup prefigures a scene in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s intolerably horrid Salò. At the conclusion of that film, the Fascist perverts observe their horrifying tortures from a discreet distance, through telescopes, luxuriating in their sadism as if watching a movie. We in the audience are placed in a slightly similar position here. If we’re too far away to help the poor victims, should we still care?

Light tale of savage instincts lacks the conviction of Cy Endfield’s more coherently misanthropic Sands of the Kalahari. Will Denton’s fight never jumps to a plane higher than simple survival. He cannot prevent everybody he knows from horrible torment and death, and because his retaliation doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe, his victory seems empty. The filmmakers don’t underscore what should be ‘big’ moments. Relighting the lighthouse beacon ought to have been a meaningful event, where Denton gets to symbolically strike back against Kongre by reasserting his vocational purpose. Had Spielberg directed this movie, the re-lighting would surely be given a flashy montage of cinematic imagery: “Everything is presentation!”

The Light at the Edge of the World is a strange, uncommercial mix of adventure and violence that didn’t find a major distributor despite having three name stars on the marquee. Cleaned up for kiddie shows, it was a confusing mess. Intact as restored here, it’s a violent, intriguing puzzle.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Light at the Edge of the World is going to please curious fans, especially those that remember it from 1971. Not only is the new video transfer a beauty, a new commentary answers a lot of our questions.

The excellent scan brings out the beauty in Henry Decae’s Panavision cinematography, even if the disc colorist didn’t find a good way to time the day-for-night scenes. I remember it being fairly easy to tell when it was supposed to be nighttime, but that distinction becomes blurred here. The sharp transfer also gives us a good look at the production’s overall lack of technical polish, what with the ugly, cheap titles and a handsome Piero Piccioni music score that isn’t well-used.

Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger offer a fact and observation-filled commentary, augmented with newly-recorded segments with Illya Salkind and Kevin Billington. Berger meanders a bit in his enthusiastic musings, and offers his extended personal story of being traumatized by Light at the age of five. Then we hear some recollections from the director and producer. This was Salkind’s first big feature, and the Spanish and Italian production partners exercised a lot of influence over the shooting, as did Kirk Douglas. Billington says he was fluent in Spanish, which we imagine was an aid in securing the job. Salkind says (I think) that Cy Endfield was for a time considered to direct. He adds that the Lighthouse was built for the movie, and that the weather was wonderfully cooperative with the shoot.

Salkind drifts a lot in his talk, with descriptions of hotels etc., but how often do we hear the musings of a former big-time producer?  When Nate Thompson finally dishes out some hard production info, he confirms that Light was very expensive for a Spanish production, and was initially tagged to be a Road Show attraction. The only really bad turn taken by the commentary is when Berger draws tenuous parallels between Light and the Vietnam War, current politics, etc. And don’t let me start about the ‘burning phallus’ allusion to the final shot of the lighthouse in flames. Is that a fair criticism, from a reviewer that frequently comments about politics in movies?

A radio spot and a (really terrible) trailer finish off the presentation. Decent photos from the movie are difficult to find on the web; Kino’s transfer looks far better than the images seen here. Of the locations listed in the IMDB, Cabo de Creus at Girona, Spain looks the most like the landscape seen in the movie. Billington says that the rocks were sharp enough to cut flesh, and they look it.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Light at the Edge of the World
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, Illya Salkind and Kevin Billington; trailer, radio spot.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 1, 2020
(6199end)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.