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Retro Review: THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1971)

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THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
(US/Spain/Liechtenstein - 1971)

Directed by Kevin Billington. Written by Tom Rowe and Rachel Billington. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Samantha Eggar, Renato Salvatori, Jean-Claude Drouot, Fernando Rey, Massimo Ranieri, Aldo Sambrell, Tito Garcia, Victor Israel, Tony Skios, Luis Barboo, Tony Cyrus, Raul Castro, Maria Borge. (PG, 128 mins)

Kino's new Blu-ray edition of 1971's THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was already announced several months before the legendary Kirk Douglas died just before before its release at the age of 103. Unfortunately, it's not one of the iconic actor's better films, but of course, in a storied career as long as his, there will be inevitable ups and downs. LIGHT was made at a time when Douglas found himself in a major slump following a trio of costly big-studio duds with 1968's THE BROTHERHOOD, 1969's THE ARRANGEMENT, and 1970's THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN. His box-office misfortune probably wasn't helped by the youth-driven "New Hollywood" era being ushered in by the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, and EASY RIDER, so there was little chance Douglas was going to secure the Hollywood studio funding he needed for THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, a passion project that he'd been trying to get off the ground since 1965.





Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)
THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was based on Jules Verne's posthumously-published 1905 adventure novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World, and Douglas had a history with the author's work, having starred with James Mason in Disney's 1954 live-action Verne adaptation 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. It was hugely popular box-office smash, kickstarting a Verneassaince in Hollywood that led to the likes of 1956's Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, 1958's FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, and 1959's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH among several others. Douglas' own production company Bryna was able to front some of the budget for LIGHT, but he had to secure the remainder of the funding through European sources, namely producer Alexander Salkind, who would soon go on to oversee THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, and the SUPERMAN franchise. Salkind had been a minor player in the European film scene for some time, and, at least until his attempted "make two movies but only pay the actors for one" chicancery on the THREE/FOUR MUSKETEERS and SUPERMAN/SUPERMAN II, had a reputation as a hands-off producer who put up the money and let directors make the films they wanted to make. Salkind produced Orson Welles' 1962 Franz Kafka adaptation THE TRIAL and while the money ran out before the end of the shoot, it was one of the very few instances in his directing career that the mercurial Welles was able to work without meddling financiers looking over his shoulder and questioning every decision he made, and he always remained grateful to Salkind for demonstrating that trust and respect.


Similar money issues are apparent in much of THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, particularly some almost Antonio Margheriti-worthy miniatures and one embarrassing shot where a ship's crew is obviously just tiny, immobile action figures on a model vessel that could very well be floating in the bathtub in Douglas' hotel room. With its mostly European supporting cast (including spaghetti western stalwart Aldo Sambrell and Spanish genre vet Victor Israel) dubbed by numerous familiar voices, and some shocking violence that flirts with grindhouse brutality (surprising, considering that Verne adaptations were typically family-oriented fare), LIGHT frequently resembles a cost-cutting Harry Alan Towers production of the time despite some class brought to the proceedings by Douglas and Yul Brynner, which is probably where a good chunk of the money went. Douglas is Denton, an assistant lighthouse keeper at the southernmost tip of Argentina in 1865. An American Gold Rush prospector on the run from a checkered past and a broken heart, Denton butts heads with head lighthouse operator Capt. Moritz (Fernando Rey, right before his memorable turn as the villain in THE FRENCH CONNECTION), but gets along fine with affable young apprentice Felipe (Massimo Ranieri), who has a cute capuchin monkey sidekick named Mario. Mario is about as kiddie-friendly as LIGHT ever gets, as the monkey, Moritz, and Felipe will soon be murdered by a crew of slobbering pirates led by the sadistic Kongre (Brynner), who takes over the island and has a testy exchange with Denton ("Do I detect an American accent? I used to have dealings with your countrymen during the happy days of the slave trade!" Kongre sneers), as a cat-and-mouse game unfolds between his psycho crew and the sole surviving lighthouse keeper, who escapes and spends the rest of the film running around the island trying to stay out of sight and stay alive.


Shot on some treacherous, rocky terrain on the coast of Spain, surrounded by some intimidatingly rough waters, THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is buoyed by some often breathtaking location work, and it's undeniably impressive watching a 55-year-old Douglas doing a lot of his own stunts, sprinting around the island, climbing rocks, and putting himself in harm's way as the waves violently crash on the shore. But that's also a LIGHT stumbling block as it suffers from erratic pacing and numerous shots that seem drawn-out and repetitive (how much of this movie is just people walking around?), and after a while, you realize it's by design so middle-aged Kirk can show off his spry athleticism and make sure we see that it's really him doing all this dangerous shit. British TV director Kevin Billington is at the helm, and his wife Rachel has an "additional dialogue" credit (along with an "additional ideas" credit for Salkind's wife Berta Dominguez D, the driving force behind the later Salkind fiasco WHERE IS PARSIFAL?), but make no mistake--this, like SPARTACUS, is Kirk's baby all the way. But it's not 1960, it's not a mega-budget Hollywood epic, and Kevin Billington is not Stanley Kubrick. The pacing issues improve somewhat at the midpoint when a ship en route from San Francisco to England wrecks and Kongre's men slaughter all of the survivors except Montefiore (Renato Salvatori), who's rescued by Denton, and high society matron Arabella (Samantha Eggar), who is held prisoner by Kongre for obvious assumed reasons.


There's an unconvincing subplot involving Kongre's attempt to trick Denton into believing that Arabella is really his long-lost love Emily Jane (Maria Borge in flashbacks), but it doesn't work at all--either as a Kongre plan or a LIGHT plot device. The film takes numerous liberties with the source material, and the finale gets dangerously close to turning into THE LAST LIGHTHOUSE ON THE LEFT, as Kongre has Montefiore strung up and flayed alive and Arabella gang-raped by his subhuman flunkies. The former is pretty tough to watch even now, and the latter mostly implied, and with the downbeat, nihilistic ending (not to mention a still-controversial instance of animal cruelty where a galloping horse is tripped), LIGHT is decidedly not the kind of film one generally associates with the idea of "Jules Verne." National General Pictures cut nearly 30 minutes from THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD for its US release in the summer of 1971 release. The US cut ran 101 minutes and carried an all-ages "GP" rating, obviously losing the more graphic material but likely tightening up some of the extremely slack pacing. Regardless, it was another flop for Douglas, but Brynner and Eggar would reteam in 1972 on the short-lived CBS series ANNA AND THE KING, an ill-advised period sitcom that was canceled mid-season, with Brynner reprising his Oscar-winning role from the 1956 film. Kino's LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD Blu-ray (because physical media is dead) is the uncut--and entirely too long--128-minute European version, still sporting a PG rating on the packaging but with all of the hard-R violence intact.



THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
opening in Toledo, OH on 8/25/1971



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