Saturday, November 18, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #16: The Last Valley

Cast: Michael Caine (The Captain), Omar Sharif (Vogel), Florinda Bolkan (Erica), Nigel Davenport (Gruber), Per Oscarsson (Father Sebastian), Arthur O’Connell (Hoffman), Madeline Hinde (Inge), Yorgo Voyagis (Pirelli), Miguel Alejandro (Julio), Christian Roberts (Andreas), Brian Blessed (Korski), Ian Hogg (Graf), Michael Gothard (Hansen), George Innes (Vornez).

Crew: James Clavell (director, producer and writer), John Barry (music), John Wilcox (cinematography), John Bloom (editor), Peter Mullins (art direction).

Synopsis: In the early 17th Century Europe is riven by the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. A wandering teacher, Vogel, stumbles into a prosperous village untouched by the conflict. But a gang of marauding mercenaries also find the hamlet in its secluded valley. Vogel persuades their leader, the Captain, not to pillage the village. Instead the soldiers take up residence for the winter, protecting the valley and its inhabitants from other intruders. The Captain kills any dissenters among his own men to maintain order. Vogel acts as mediator between the villagers and the mercenaries, ensuring his own survival. A soldier called Hansen tries to rape one of the villagers, Inge, but she is rescued by Vogel. Hansen rides out of the valley and brings back two dozen men, determined to seize control of the hidden oasis. But the intruders are ruthlessly despatched by the Captain, with help from his men and the villagers. When spring comes the mercenaries ride out to war again and most die in battle. The Captain makes it back to the valley before dying. Vogel leaves the valley, returning to the world of war and plague beyond the hills…

J B Pick’s novel The Last Valley was first published in 1959. Ten years later James Clavell began adapting the historical epic for the big screen, as producer, director and screenwriter. Clavell was best known for writing blockbuster novels like King Rat, but he had also directed several films, including To Sir, with Love (1966). Caine got top billing for his role ahead of Omar Sharif, and a reported fee of $750,000. Caine studied German dialect records in preparation for playing the Captain.

The bulk of the $6 million movie was made at an Austrian location called Trins in Tirol, near Innsbruck. Filming took place over 14 weeks in 1969, with studio work at Shepperton near London. A battle sequence outside a castle was shot beside a lake near Windsor. The cast included George Innes, who had appeared with Caine in The Italian Job (1969). Interviewed exclusively for this book, Innes said The Last Valley was a massive endeavour: ‘They built an entire village, using local people. It was quite amazing. It was a huge movie, but the problem was they had to cut it down. Clavell said, “They’re going to make me cut this, they just won’t show a film of this length.” That’s what really did it in. The Last Valley is a movie of great scope but it lost a lot in the cutting.’

It lost a little more when presented to the BBFC in November 1970, with cuts required before the film was granted an AA certificate. Reviews for the picture were decidedly mixed. Some critics praised its intelligence and Caine’s performance, while others found the feature too talky and Caine’s accent disconcerting. Despite that, Caine was voted best actor of 1970 by Films and Filming magazine. The film failed at the British box office and did no better in America, rated GP (a forerunner of PG). It was released on VHS in 1986, reclassified as a 15 in Britain. The movie was issued on budget-price DVD in the UK during 2001, and is available on both formats in America.

Caine considers The Last Valley his most unjustly neglected film, as he told GQ magazine in 1997: ‘It went completely nowhere. It’s my elder daughter’s favourite film – not only of mine, but of all time. I thought that was a wonderful film, with an unbelievable score by John Barry.’

Reviews: ‘Elegantly shot, confidently acted, with a superb central performance, this historical spectacular is also modern and intimate.’ – MFB
‘A disappointing 17th Century period melodrama … too literal in historical detail to suggest artfully the allegories intended and, paradoxically, too allegorical to make clear the actual realities of the Thirty Years War.’ – Variety

Verdict: The Last Valley is a film with a lot on its mind. Conflicts of religion, morality and philosophy are all debated in a small scale setting, hinting at the greater war raging beyond the valley. The attention to historical detail and characterisation is compelling, but the film less so. The many subtexts threaten to overwhelm the text, with Clavell’s movie making its points too strongly for the good of the story. You don’t get the chance to make your own discoveries about what is driving the characters - instead they announce their motivations to all and sundry. Despite this, The Last Valley looks sumptuous and features a lush score by John Barry. Caine gives a fine, restrained performance as the Captain, his clipped Germanic accent utterly convincing from start to finish. If only Clavell’s direction had been just as accomplished…


Anonymous said...

I own the DVD and never tire of re-visiting it for a viewing now and again. It is fascinating to see the early struggles civilization had with reconciling philosophical, religious, military and bureaucractic views and how this film shows their interdependence within a social order.
It is a quite a study in behavioural aspects of fanaticism on many levels and the fragile committment to living in harmony with such divergent perspectives.

The performances are classically believable and professionally top notch.
Shame it was released in 1970 when a lot of us were exploring absolute elsewhere ;-). I only discovered it in the early 80s through a friend.


Anonymous said...

I am no critic, but this is one film I never forgot, it exuded the brutality of war against the hidden short lived peace of a hidden valley.

rdinTempe said...

I first saw this film when it was first released in 1971. It was immediately one of my favorite films with the great performances by Michael Caine, Omar Sharif, and Nigel Davenport.
This film was not widely accepted because it was a thinking film. It didn't play in Peoria, as some would say.
The John Barry score and the settings in the Alps give this film a great setting for the storyline.
It was one of the first films that I bought for a VHS. I couldn't wait for the DVD.
I still watch it frequently.
If you like files like "A Men for All Seasons", "Becket", and "Cromwell", you will enjoy this film.