The Sunday Intertitle: The First Picture Show


In ST KILDA BRITAIN’S LONELIEST ISLE (1923-28) appears as an extra on the excellent BFI disc of Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. I happened to look at it as I was revisiting Powell’s follow-up film, RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1978), in order to write an entry on it for an academic publication, Directory of World Cinema: Scotland. I don’t know if my piece strikes the correct academic tone: I have lines about octogenarian actor John Laurie’s eyes darting about in his skull like mad spies.



Still, the little travelogue/documentary on ST KILDA, the real island that inspired Powell’s movie, is a treat. I was particularly intrigued by an item at the end suggesting that the film crew projected the islanders’ first movie show — this was apparently in 1923, and is confirmed by news reports at the time which indicated that a shot of a steam train caused the audience to stampede from the hall, Lumiere-fashion. It’s always the same story: you can show them movies, by all means, but don’t show them movies of steam trains. You have to work up to that stuff.


Scottish children are baffled by the inert projector. I’m baffled too — why is it labelled “The Brunette”?

The Edge Of The World [1938] [DVD]

13 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The First Picture Show”

  1. I love the picture below. I’ve had a long time ambition to go to St Kilda. Almost the only way is to take a cruise with the National Trust and a bunch of crumblies. Have you seen Bill Bryden’s Ill Fares the Land?

  2. Count me as one of those who likes to visit that island. I’ve been fascinated with it since reading Charles Maclean’s ‘Island at the Edge of the World. The Story of St Kilda’. Haven’t seen Powell’s film yet, but will now.

    Oh, and apparently The Brunette was a brand of film projectors!

  3. …and blondes and redheads are varieties of movie light.

    Powell’s film was shot on Foula, in an entirely different island range, since the government refused him permission to film on the depopulated St Kilda (I’m not sure why). You might also check out I Know Where I’m Going, his other Scottish island film, which is even better.

  4. Didn’t know about those movie light names. (Although I do own a microphone windscreen by the brand Redhead!)

    Regarding the reason to film on Foula, I found this interesting bit on “The owner of St Kilda was the Earl of Dumfries who had purchased it to be a bird sanctuary. The last thing he wanted was an invasion of film-makers. Within a period of twenty four hours, Powell was formally refused access to St Kilda and given clearance to make the film on another island (which he had never heard of).” So rather a personal than governmental refusal.

    And yes: I Know Where I’m Going! is gorgeous.

  5. I’ve just checked out the national trust site which sometimes ran conservation camps there but not this year and Fair Isle which is pretty remote too is full

  6. “The Machine Puzzled Them” is Very Gorey

  7. So are all those waifs! The Gashliecrumb Tinies of St Kilda.

  8. The Edge of the World is one of Powell’s best movies, at least in my opinion. Return to the Edge is an elegant, return by Powell. His last credited work as a director and kind of a fitting swan song.

  9. ‘news reports … indicated that a shot of a steam train caused the audience to stampede from the hall, Lumiere-fashion. It’s always the same story: you can show them movies, by all means, but don’t show them movies of steam trains. You have to work up to that stuff.’

    As you suggest, the audience panicking at the shot of an on-rushing steam-train may be a legend, but nearly all of the inhabitants of St. Kilda would never have seen a steam-train, so it’s more credible here than in most reports.

  10. It’s easy to get to St Kilda provided you’ve got plenty of cash in your pocket as there are several companies that run boats from South Harris. It’s heavily weather dependent but that’s a chance you’d have to take. Of course, you’d also have to tolerate the presence of any “crumblies” who might be fellow passengers, but I’m sure – even then – it could be well worth the effort and expense.

  11. Gashliecrumb crumblies?

    Roger, I thought of that, but I couldn’t decide whether unfamiliarity with trains would make the image more of less frightening… Since the report appeared in a tabloid, it seems possible that some hack simply made up the incident to make the story more arresting.

  12. Judydean I was under the impression the only way to get their was via nat trust cruise or when it was a rocket station via the army. As i’m broke a saga type cruise is WAY out of my monetary league and I’m probalby too old to join the army… It was looking more like I’d have to build a coracle and paddle over… but I’ll look into South Harris and see if I can get a boat. Very worried aobut the near extintion of the St Kildian House Mouse (threatened but the lack of inhabited houses on the island…)

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