William Denton (Kirk Douglas) is on this lonely, godforsaken island at Cape Horn to forget. He tells his boss (Fernando Rey) that being a lighthouse keeper there is simply a job to him and that's all there is to it, which is met with a disparaging reaction from the Captain, but really he is there to cut himself off from society which he doesn't feel he wishes to be part of anymore. The other member of the lighthouse crew is Felipe (Massimo Ranieri), the owner of a monkey, and it seems as if these three can keep the light burning then life should be quiet there. But someone is approaching to shatter the peace...
The Light at the Edge of the World was another Kirk Douglas film to be adapted from a novel by Jules Verne after the Disney megahit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea back in the fifites. It was a production of his own company and presumably he hoped this would be another international success, an adventure movie to stir the blood of family audiences across the globe, but it was not to turn out that way. This was largely because it was not considered to be suitable for all ages at all, due to the rather too graphic violence implemented by the filmmakers in the search for thrills.
There are not many family films that include gang rape and flaying alive, so you can see where many would have balked at popping along to see it; yet even if you had open-minded parents, if you were a child watching this you were likely to be put off by the overwhelmingly ponderous mood of despair that hangs over the proceedings. Denton has joined the ranks of lighthouse keepers as if it were the Foreign Legion, so he can forget the love of his life who married someone else back in the United States, but he finds something far worse than civilisation to contend with, and that is utter lawlessness courtesy of the pirates.
These outlaws of the sea are led by Jonathan Kongre, played with steely relish by Yul Brynner, showing even with second rate material he could be one of the most charismatic stars around. You anticipate a wealth of scenes between him and Douglas as their characters lock horns, but again you're let down because they only have two short encounters, one near the middle and the other the final confrontation at the end. Mainly when the pirates arrive and kill the Captain and Felipe, Denton goes off on his own and hides, or when he is under threat of capture he runs away, as if still utterly unwilling to face up to being a member of any society.
The pirates have a notion to make themselves some money from salvage, and what better way to do so than actually failing to light the lamp in the lighthouse and allow vessels from this busy shipping lane to crash into the rocks, thereby offering the villains the opportunity to help themselves to whatever loot they carry. The first ship they wreck, they kill the survivors all except for two: the engineer who joins Denton, and a young woman who claims to be Lady Arabella Ponsonby (Samantha Eggar), catching the attention of Kongre who spares her because he likes the idea of her at his beck and call. There's a none too clear message about the price of community here, with the uncompromising Denton forced to defend the common good, and Arabella finding that getting into bed with a pirate (literally) is far too high a price to pay for security. The film looks great if nothing else, the rocky scenery of the island appropriately bleak, as is the conclusion, but while it is impressive in places it's far from the rousing romp that might have been intended. Music by Piero Piccioni.