Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)



          Possibly the grisliest adaptation of a Jules Verne novel ever made, The Light at the Edge of the World depicts the conflict between a gang of pirates and the lone survivor of a lighthouse crew on a remote island. Kirk Douglas plays the survivor with clenched-teeth intensity and nimble physicality, Yul Brynner offers an interesting contrast by portraying the main villain as a sadist with the courtly manners of a European gentleman, and the action unfolds on rocky terrain so barren that it might as well be the surface of the moon. Those seeking the lighthearted escapism one normally associates with Verne’s fiction should look elsewhere, because this is a brutal picture featuring a beheading, gang rape, and a horrific scene of a man being flayed alive. That could be why The Light at the Edge of the World fared poorly during its initial release, because viewers presumably expected something like Douglas’ previous Verne exploit, the family-friendly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
          It should also be noted that The Light at the Edge of the World has no discernible thematic content, so it’s not as if the producers tried to elevate Verne’s pulpy storytelling. Viewed unfavorably, The Light at the Edge of the World is a Saturday-matinee adventure gone wrong. Viewed favorably, it’s a pirate picture that avoids romanticizing outlaws.
          The movie opens with the arrival of a three-man crew on a remote island. Assistant lightkeeper Will Denton (Douglas) is the crew’s outlier, since his companions are an old man at the end of his career and a young man just starting his. (Clues about Will’s tragic past are sprinkled throughout the movie, though the backstory payoff is underwhelming.) One day, a pirate ship sails into the island’s harbor, and marauders under the command of Jonathan Kongre (Brynner) murder Will’s compatriots. Despite briefly evading capture, Will is apprehended and used for sport by the vicious Jonathan. Only a brazen leap off a high cliff saves Will’s life. Eventually, the pirates dismantle the lighthouse and trick another ship into crashing upon deadly reefs. The pirates kill all the survivors except pretty Arabella (Samantha Eggar), whom Jonathan takes for a plaything, and the ship’s engineer, whom Will rescues. These two men plot revenge against the pirates.
          Despite being overlong at two hours and change, The Light at the Edge of the World is quite consistent. Not only do the filmmakers steer clear of swashbuckling fluff, but they allow the story to grow darker as it progresses—in one demented scene, Jonathan’s sexually ambiguous henchman cross-dresses so he can torment Arabella with a weird dance. Although Douglas has never been the subtlest of actors, he fares well in this milieu, conveying a mixture of brokenhearted angst, righteous anger, and sheer terror. Brynner, conversely, camps it up by grinning and laughing while his character commissions one atrocity after another. Naturally, these two big-screen alpha males have at each other during the requisite action-packed finale.

The Light at the Edge of the World: GROOVY

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