Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sleeper Alert: THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1971)

Kirk Douglas as the embittered, withdrawn hero, William Denton.


Last night, I made a spontaneous decision to go back and check out LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, an early (1971) Alexander and Ilya Salkind production made in concert with Kirk Douglas' company Bryna Productions. It's based on Jules Verne's THE LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD, one of Verne's last novels, one of his few to be written in the 20th century, when he was recovering from an attempt on his life by a family member and in his most cynical and disillusioned state of mind. To find Verne's name emblazoned on the advertising for any post-1960s film is usually shorthand for cheesy family entertainment - but, suffice to say, LIGHT is anything but.

If anything, it's a counterpart to the savage streak found in other contemporary releases, ranging from Cy Endfield's SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965) and Elliot Silverstein's A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) to Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971), while also anticipating the even greater extremes of Umberto Lenzi's THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972) and other Italian adventure films to follow. To condense a gratifyingly intense and complex response, it was nothing like what I expected. 

The film opens very slowly - indeed, I would have to say it feels juvenile and borderline asinine for its first 10-15 minutes, with that stale sense of remove one feels with some cheaply post-produced international co-productions. I was actually on the point of reconsidering my decision to watch when the film suddenly bit down hard, refusing to let up for the remainder of the sometimes hallucinatory, often harrowing adventure.


Douglas (and monkey companion Mario) sights unwelcome visitors. 
In short, it’s a film about a man named William Denton (Douglas) who has retreated from life due to a broken heart, who has retired to an isolated island to serve as an assistant lighthouse keeper with two other men, one of them a retired sea captain played by Fernando Rey, speaking English in his own voice for a change. His idyllic, monastic evasion of life is then suddenly challenged by the arrival of a ship of pirates, led by the serenely imperious Captain Jonathan Kongre (an implacable Yul Brynner, whose birthday it is today). His band of raucous cut-throats (including future Jess Franco repertory players Aldo Sambrell, Luis Barboo, and Tony Skios, Jean-Claude Druout as a flamboyantly decadent gay member, and Victor Israel to boot!) cruelly overtake the island, which Kongre intends to use as an ideally placed base from which to misguide, wreck, and plunder other ships.


Douglas makes the acquaintance of his island captor.
To say more would ruin the surprise of the often horrific shifts that take place in the narrative. Suffice to say, this is a sometimes shockingly perverse and Sadean adventure, that includes one moment of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST intensity that I presume was faked but does not play that way - and is one of several reasons why this film should be kept away from children. I've learned that Verne himself did not shy away from animal violence in his novels of survival, and also that his reputation as a writer for all ages was largely rooted in the often barbarically reductive translations of his work - so the content of this film may well be a plausible adaptation of his original novel - for a long time available here only in a more child-friendly version revised by Verne's son, Michel. 


Yul Brynner with Samantha Eggar.
Much like Burt Lancaster in THE TRAIN, this film presents a 50-something Douglas in most impressive physical condition, doing many of his own stunts in a highly physical performance shot entirely on location. The film finds its dramatic crux when the wreckers overtake a ship whose unfortunate passengers include a lookalike for Will's lost love (Samantha Eggar), a subplot that - rather admirably - plays out in a manner quite opposite to what we may expect, further confirming the hero’s disillusionment with mankind. The flashbacks to this backstory stylistically evoke the similar structure of Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and director Kevin Billington's handling of the picture - photographed by Henri DecaĆ« (PURPLE NOON), with second unit special effects photography by Cecilia Paniagua (LISA AND THE DEVIL) - evokes Leone more than once. The score by the usually reliable Piero Piccioni is frankly uninspired, not one of his best.


Original US half-sheet.
All in all, though admittedly erratic and downbeat, THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is a nonetheless strangely rousing and uneasily shaken adventure, worthy of rediscovery. I understand this film's current US DVD release is quite poor in quality and a must to avoid; alternately, there is a region-free Spanish DVD import with optional English audio with 2.1 stereo sound which Amazon user comments seem to think is quite good, though it's reportedly missing a few seconds involving a vicious stunt overturning a horse. Clearly, a definitive Blu-ray edition is much needed.

In related news, please be aware that Walt Disney has finally just issued their classic 1954 film of Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, starring Kirk Douglas, on Blu-ray. Though it's Disney Movie Club exclusive, it is also available from various eBay sellers for those with aversions to membership.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

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