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The Last Valley

by Glenn Erickson Jun 09, 2020

This thinking man’s epic got left behind with the demise of Road Show movies, which is a shame. A beautifully made, uncompromised story of warring 17th century Germany, it plays like a fine epic, with great performances. Audiences didn’t want to see Michael Caine playing this kind of character in a costume drama that wasn’t glorious escapism. Everybody’s good — it’s a great picture for Omar Sharif and the underappreciated Florinda Bolkan. The (originally) 70mm cinematography looked incredibly good in 1971.


The Last Valley
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (in release) / 125 min. / Street Date June 23, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Michael Caine, Omar Sharif, Florinda Bolkan, Nigel Davenport, Per Oscarsson, Madeline Hinde, Michael Gothard, Brian Blessed, Miguel Alejandro, Christian Roberts, Yorgo Voyagis, Ian Hogg, Vladek Sheybal.
Cinematography: Norman Warwick, John Wilcox
Film Editor: John Bloom
Original Music: John Barry
Visual Effects: Wally Veevers
From the novel by J.B. Pick
Produced by Martin Baum, James Clavell
Written and Directed by James Clavell

I guess maybe they just didn’t want to see Michael Caine in a beard, doing a German accent. Or was it simply that nobody was still going to this kind of movie in 1971?

In the post- Easy Rider years the film biz repelled a large segment of older viewers that had no use for nudity, profanity and the general grunge factor of many releases. General audience genre pictures took a big hit. A slew of Road Show contenders filmed in oversized formats died, and not just musicals like Star! and Hello, Dolly!  One of the bigger tragedies of the early ’70s was James Clavell’s intelligent, uncompromising and very entertaining serious historical costume drama The Last Valley. The show was filmed in Todd A-O 65mm but some sources say it screened in 70mm for a very short time, in only a couple of theaters. * footnote   Big stars Michael Caine and Omar Sharif didn’t pull in the crowds, but it’s not hard to see why the show didn’t fly. It’s intelligent, complicated, and moody. It shows warring Europe in the 17th century as a killing field that makes Vietnam look like a walk in the park. The gore, the cruelty, the ignorance and religious bigotry are all there, and no bigger-than-life heroes are present to overcome them. In other words, audiences expecting romantic thrills and glorious transcendence are instead given grim realism. The story isn’t malign or misanthropic, as it treats its characters fairly. But even the virtuous peasants are small-minded and intolerant, and the dashing warrior hero is a ruthless pragmatist. Chivalry and codes of honor?  Forget about them.

 

With just a bit more blood and cruelty (please, no) The Last Valley could have been written by Cormac McCarthy. The film’s lasting claim to fame appears to be its sweeping symphonic music score, composed by John Barry. It’s a favorite of classic film score fans.

Sometime around 1640, the Thirty Years’ War is killing much of Europe, with whole cities being slaughtered in the name of religious righteousness. A teacher named Vogel (Omar Sharif) flees for his life in the German mountains: bands of hungry mercenaries roam from village to village, raping, pillaging and murdering all. Vogel stumbles into a gloriously untouched high-valley village that has just brought in a good harvest. In a few weeks the winter snows will isolate this haven from the outside world, guaranteeing a peaceful winter. But then comes the mercenary band of The Captain (Michael Caine), who has broken off from the general army. They’ve already changed sides in the religious war due to non-payment. The mercenary lieutenants Korski and Hansen (Brian Blessed & Michael Gothard) are not happy when the Captain takes the advice of the peacemaker Vogel — instead of destroying the valley village, they’ll take shelter there through the winter. Vogel brokers a deal between The Captain and the village leader Gruber (Nigel Davenport): the mercenaries will protect the village in exchange for rooms, lodging and women. The latter demand is accepted as a lesser evil. The hypocrite Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson) blesses the women that are chosen (for indulgences paid by their fathers).

 

It’s not an easy peace. The Captain decides that Gruber’s woman, Erica (Florinda Bolkan of Una breve vacanza) will stay with him for the winter. The two men draw dice for Erica. Knowing that The Captain will not accept losing, and because she fancies him, Erica cheats in his favor. Young Inge (Madeleine Hinde of Incense for the Damned) is spared becoming a soldier’s whore, but she also resists taking farmer Andreas (Christian Roberts) in marriage — she’s attracted to the gentle, reasonable Vogel. When winter comes, the tension mounts. Gruber waits for an opportunity to ambush and kill the unwanted soldiers. Denied the woman he wants, Hansen turns traitor and brings a new band of desperate mercenaries to seize the village. Father Sebastian won’t ease up on his agitations — there are Protestants among the soldiers. All dread what will happen when the Spring thaw enables the soldiers to rejoin the Prince they’ve aligned with. Both Inge and Erica want to stay with the men they’ve chosen, but that just seems impossible. Erica’s survival has another level of jeopardy: she secretly worships Satan, and the crazed Father Sebastian would like nothing more than to burn a witch.

After ten minutes of muddy rape, slaughter and stacks of corpses, the desperate Vogel walks into a valley more idyllic than anything in The Sound of Music. The balance of The Last Valley plays out in staggeringly beautiful Tyrolean scenery. The ruthless Captain decides not to commit his usual war crimes — the valley is a comfortable hideaway from the endless, awful war — and it can be defended. Standing on high ground, one has a clear view of the road leading to the forest on the other side of the valley — any visitor can be seen coming for miles.

 

The opening with the slaughter and the corpses plays more like The Walking Dead than Doctor Zhivago. Clavell’s show is too civilized to present mud ‘n’ rags depravity for its own sake, although I think my parents would never have sat through the first ten minutes of mercenary violence. It is necessary to establish the utter fragility of the peace that Vogel brokers. This may be the 17th century, but these are not simple people. Gruber is just as crafty as The Captain. He allows his woman to be ‘borrowed’ for the winter for completely diplomatic reasons: his first goal is the survival of his village. Most of the bloodthirsty mercenaries are so happy to spend weeks in bed instead of fighting and starving, and behave rather well. Come the thaw, they are practically family, and will likely be leaving a few children behind, too.

The fanatic Father Sebastian is willing to start a bloodbath over abstract ‘principles.’ A little shrine to the Virgin Mary guards the entrance trail to the valley. The Captain wants it moved, so as to make it more difficult for enemies to find the way in. When the shrine is shifted a few yards, Vogel must pretend to have seen a holy vision, to defuse a potential violent standoff.

 

The film’s detail work is excellent throughout. We finally learn what that spike atop a Prussian helmet is for (it’s not pretty). ↑ Little Julio (Miguel Alejandro) is the adopted son of one of the mercenaries. The savage little kid slowly learns to play with the village children, a sidebar issue developed without the addition of annoying symbolism. The movie doesn’t glamorize the ugly reality of war. The Captain eventually takes a break to help his take a city on a river (Rheinfelden), a scene that becomes a truly epic night battle. Veteran effects man Wally Veevers seems to have concocted the excellent wide master shots showing the attack on a fortified gate, all lit by the firelight of the burning city. It’s only a couple of minutes of impressionistic images, but it serves very well.

James Clavell sees to it that no individual has control of their destiny. The rigid and unforgiving church is no help at all; when practical matters of defense arise, Father Sebastian simply claims that Mother Mary of the Shrine will protect them. Rigid social barriers prevent the peasants and mercenaries from banding together to preserve the valley. Women’s rights are non-existent. Farmer Hoffman (Arthur O’Connell, excellent) is all too willing to lend his daughter to anything that will give him security. All know that Erica isn’t a conformist, but she has the protection of Gruber, and now The Captain. Inge dreams of a different life with Vogel, who knows all too well how impossible that is — outside the valley is a violent horror as pervasive as in John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death.

 

But the village isn’t safe for Vogel either. He wisely steers clear of domestic disputes in the Hoffman household and plays a waiting game. Vogel intuits that if Gruber is able to rid himself of the soldiers, he’ll kill Vogel as well. The Captain appears to value and trust Vogel, but that’s no guarantee of loyalty: the commanding soldier admits that he doesn’t let personal feelings stand in the way of violent expediency. Father Sebastian is a cruel SOB, plain and simple. When The Captain leaves Vogel in charge for a while, he urges him to kill the Priest.

Clavell’s excellent dialogue avoids the usual epic speechifying. The one position statement we hear is an outburst by The Captain, saying there is no God and everything they’re fighting and dying for means nothing. But Clavell doesn’t let the situation collapse into total nihilism (or obscene excess, as in Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood). Every individual is true to their social position in this horrible time and place. A terrible injustice happens in the village when The Captain is away. Vogel doesn’t even try to push his humanist point of view. He more realistically helps shorten the suffering sustained by the lynch-mob victim.

 

Each actor gets to play to his or her strengths, with a well-defined character. Michael Caine is magnificent as the pragmatic killer-Captain pleased to spend some time away from battle with the lovely Erica. The German accent he uses is simple and unaffected. The Captain has aides he can trust, like Graf (Ian Hogg of Polanski’s Macbeth) and brutes he can barely control like Korski (Brian Blessed of Flash Gordon). The turncoat Hansen gives Michael Gothard some good scenes as an unrestrained savage, to go with the actor’s turns in movies as diverse as Scream and Scream Again, The Devils, The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), The Three Musketeers, Lifeforce and again opposite Michael Caine in the TV miniseries Jack the Ripper.

Omar Sharif convinces completely as a good man in a desperate situation, who refuses to let go of his sense of morality. His wisdom makes him useful to The Captain, but everybody else considers Vogel’s learning and knowledge to be dangerous, or heretical. The love lives of both The Captain and Vogel ring true because James Clavell places their idealism in an appropriate perspective — in this savage time, among these ignorant peasants and mercenaries, nobody’s personal feelings carry much weight. The most believable ‘romantic’ scenes show Florinda Bolkan and Madeline Hinde’s resisting the fact that their passions don’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans in their crazy world.

 

The Last Valley is a little like Frankin J. Schaffner’s The War Lord, minus the theatrical characterizations and action-movie construction. Director James Clavell needs suffer no matte paintings or backlot sets — the beautiful valley location is more magnificent than any special effect. Cameramen John Wilcox and Norman Warwick each worked on some big movies but mostly filmed medium-budget genre films. Perhaps Clavell really is responsible for the smooth narrative flow and handsome camera angles. When the movie did poorly, it spelled the end of his feature directing career.

I saw The Last Valley in a beautiful print on a giant screen, although I doubt that it was 70mm. We were very impressed, but a little confused, probably because the movie didn’t deliver on audience expectations. Although Michael Caine’s acting is terrific, he’s not Alfie-type charmer his female fans love, but more of a brute like his gangster character Jack Carter. The poster promised romance and big battles; the movie delivers some of each but not in an escapist context — no anachronistic funny dialogue, no racy sex scenes. The situation overall is more grim and ruthless than the average Spaghetti Western, and nothing works out for the convenience of our heroes. If you like serious, absorbing historical stories I strongly recommend this movie.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Last Valley is not the pristine remaster I was hoping for. When ABC films went out of business, who knows how their film elements were stored, of if the 65mm original negative was retained at all. Although given a good scan, the source is obviously a surviving positive print — the dirt on an early scene of the sky is dark. The title sequence looks soft, with a light leak on the right.

The body of the print is in excellent shape and far sharper, but we never feel like we’re watching top quality HD — the blacks clog a little too much and the sharpness just isn’t there. The image stability and proper frame rate does make it better-looking than a DVD — and the dull MGM DVD I have from 2004 is a flat-letterboxed eyesore. I had to look the title up in reference books to confirm that it was indeed filmed in Todd A-O — some sources say it was never exhibited large-format.

By the way, Kino’s transfer looks much better than the random group of colorless images I was able to scrape up off the Internet to illustrate this review.

 

The one extra is a commentary by Steve Mitchell, Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, recorded via Skype during the Shelter In Place order that we’re still following despite the partial ‘opening up’ announcements. The three men dispense a great deal of information. They concentrate on some aspects more than others, like the impressive John Barry music score. They’re happy to see Michael Gothard and Brian Blessed, who looks very buff and less heavy than he became just a few years later. The commentators are harder on some aspects of the film than I am. They think that the presence of American Arthur O’Connell in acting support is for some reason embarrassing. The actor gives a perfectly fine performance; I guess they can’t separate O’Connell from his role in The Poseidon Adventure.

They review the career of James Clavell, whose filmography jumps from one classy achievement to the next: The Great Escape, To Sir, With Love. Clavell’s slick screenplay for the big hit The Fly, a stealth production by the Union-banned Robert Lippert, seems to have led to his first writing-directing assignment on Lippert’s Five Gates to Hell.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Last Valley
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good –
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: audio commentary by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 6, 2020
(6284vall)


* Footnote  06.08.20:

I knew that faithful correspondent “B” could talk to the question, ‘Was The Last Valley ever shown in 70mm?’  I asked, and got such a great response that I almost made it into a separate article. It certainly has enough links:

Dear Glenn:

I have heard for years that ABC struck a few 70mm prints of The Last Valley for its domestic run — and I have repeated that notion in the past when discussing the movie — but I’ve never seen evidence of this. The picture had its world premiere in NY on January 28, 1971, opening at the vast Rivoli in Times Square and the little Juliet 2 on the upper east side.* The Rivoli, of course, was the place where Todd-AO was initially shown and exhibited a lot of the movies produced in the process. Oklahoma! ran almost a year there, Cleopatra ran 64 weeks, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Sound of Music each ran almost two years). I’ve always assumed that if The Last Valley was screened in 70mm anywhere in the country, it was at the Rivoli. But nothing in the NY Times opening ads (or in Canby’s review) makes reference to a 70mm print.

That said, Michael Coate does assert that both the NY Rivoli and LA Egyptian runs of the movie were indeed in 70mm. Coate is almost never wrong… and I have wound up embarrassed when I’ve informally challenged him on stuff.

(Here is Michael Coate’s article at  In 70mm.com.)

Coate may have uncovered trade articles making reference to plans to exhibit the movie in wide-gauge at those houses. For what it’s worth, around the time of The Last Valley’s release, Warners did strike a few 70mm prints of its reissue of My Fair Lady for key city general release.]

I have no information regarding this, but it’s really evident from examining the movie that Valley was conceived of (and certainly budgeted) as a roadshow, but it was produced and completed just a bit too late to contemplate this. [It is, however, a little bit short for a reserved seat item at 126 minutes.]

As I have elsewhere postulated, the failure of Patton to gain much traction (or run very long) as a reserved seat attraction in early ’70 (though it would become a big hit in general release) was a touchstone here, as was the very slow biz generated by Hello, Dolly!, a Christmas ’69 roadshow. There were twelve or thirteen roadshow releases in America in 1968, six or seven in ’69… and just three in ’70. None of the 1970 roadshows really worked as reserved seat shows, with Patton and the flop Tora! Tora! Tora! taking in the majority of its grosses in general release, though ABC’s sort-of-economically produced Song of Norway did just about break even, which would probably never have happened without its extensive roadshow promotion. A number of 1970 movies that were clearly intended for hardticket distribution instead went out as exclusives or in general release: Airport, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Ryan’s Daughter, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Darling Lili, Little Big Man, Scrooge, Cromwell and probably The Adventurers and Too Late the Hero. The incredible success of Airport in exclusive runs (it was the top-grossing movie during 1970, though Love Story, released at Christmas ’70, would later become the year’s biggest hit) and Patton’s popularity in general release helped spark a re-thinking of the whole roadshow business model. Maybe big films could do just as well — or better — without this complicated and expensive reserved seat process.

There would be only two roadshows in 1971: Fiddler on the Roof, which amazed everyone and became the biggest reserved seater since the mid-’60s (and, for a while, UA’s all time top-grosser) and the moribund Nicholas and Alexandra. [Cinerama Releasing did start to roadshow ’71’s The Trojan Women but there were only two or perhaps three theatres that actually ran the movie on a hardticket basis.] In 1972, only Young Winston and Man of La Mancha went out as reserved seat attractions; and both were ignominious flops, probably justifying Columbia’s decision to send out 1776 in exclusive runs instead of roadshowing it. That was about it for the roadshow era — except that in 1973, United Artists very successfully marketed Last Tango in Paris as a reserved seat show in select arthouses throughout the country.

In some cases, probably. I don’t think Universal really realized how popular or widely read Hailey’s novel had been — all U had to do was to open the (dull but competently made) Airport, and the folks left their houses to go see it. Little Big Man, on the other hand, might have been better served as a roadshow attraction with proper promotion; CBS needed to sell this one, to explain why audiences would want to see it. It isn’t in Little Big Man’s league, but the unusual The Last Valley also badly needed this kind of ballyhoo — what is it, what’s the movie about, why is it great — in order to succeed at all. The movie wasn’t marketed. It isn’t for all tastes, but it could have found an audience with some handling. Instead, the rather costly picture opened and swiftly vanished. I dunno whether Valley would ever have succeeded theatrically — it’s very different, and hard to sum up in a few words — but it seemed pointless to just toss it out there and let it sink. ABC had roadshown Song of Norway, but that did at least have a marketing hook — the campaign and trailer basically evoked “it’s The Sound of Music all over again.”

Sorry to be so verbose. Your piece on Thousand Eyes was first-rate. Best, Always. — B.

 

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.