Skip to main content

God and the Serpent have joined hands, and we are all kicked out of Eden.

The Last Valley
(1971)

(SPOILERS) The received wisdom on this more obscure Michael Caine film is pretty much “unusual setting but dull”. I didn’t find The Last Valley so. Dull that is. But then, I didn’t think the highlight was Caine’s studious German accent (per biographer Christopher Bray in A Class Act), which sounds to me exactly what you’d expect of Sir Michael attempting a German accent.

Not that Caine isn’t very good in the role of pragmatic mercenary the Captain (he demurs from giving any other name). Indeed, he rather steals the show from co-star Omar Sharif. And Pauline Kael was probably onto something when she observed of his choice of accent “it gives Caine a style in which to play the role… and I suspect the role wouldn’t work at all without it”. Sharif’s a teacher with an eye to preserving life – principally his own – during the Thirty Years War, no easy task until he stumbles across a pristine valley untouched by famine, plague, strife and slaughter. Hotly pursued by the Captain and his men, he brokers a fragile peace for the winter between the Captain and calculating village patriarch Gruber (Nigel Davenport), although navigating the demands of Catholic priest Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson) proves more taxing.

In part, the choice of setting that makes The Last Valley a fascinating anomaly. James Clavell evidently thought so too. Now best known for Shogun, he had furnished screenplays for The Fly, The Great Escape and To Sir, with Love, as well as helming the latter, at the time he directed and adapted JB Pick’s 1959 novel of the same name, which would turn out to be his last feature. The 1618-48 conflict isn’t exactly routine inspiration for books and films (The Wiki entry on the war only comes up with Queen Christina besides The Last Valley). Clavell’s film opts out of devoting swathes of exposition to bringing us up to speed on the sprawling conflict (I’m not even sure we’re given a date – the novel is set in 1637-8, and I’ve seen it suggested this 1643-4); mostly, it’s enough to know the basic, of Catholic against Protestant states, of mercenaries marching the land, and of no respite for anyone.

One might also view that as a missed opportunity, given the progressions and regional reaches of the conflict (from straightforward Protestant vs Catholic to France-Habsburg rivalry), but it would be easy for the film to have become enmired in unwieldy and stodgy history lessons (as it is, Cavell tends to overt commentary in spite of attempts to ground the picture in the mores of the period).

The beats of the positions held in The Last Valley are very familiar, in terms of cynicism of stated, or state, motives, the suffering of the people in that regard, the manipulations and control of the religious apparatus, and the methods for holding sway. Kael commented that it wasn’t clear if Clavell was suggesting the valley as a commentary on Vietnam (incursions by a foreign power) or Switzerland (a haven from strife), but with the benefit of fifty years hindsight, the material very much fits into a general lament for the state of humanity (“You are on borrowed time now, judge. So is the village. It’s all doomed”). Anything suggesting an idyllic state must, by its nature, be a mirage: “This valley is so peaceful. It would be so easy to become possessed by it”. At the conclusion, it appears that Vogel has saved the village, and if the Captain suggests he was right, in a larger sense, the take away is that the Captain’s doom saying was.

Clavell attempts to cover repercussions of the War, including references to cannibalism and witch-hunting persecutions, although he curiously makes Erika (Florinda Bolkan) an actual witch, prone to voodoo and offering a pact with Satan (“Protect him and I will worship you forever”), meaning the irrational hysteria part is somewhat dampened.

Vogel’s both idealistic and shrewd – neither a soldier nor a peasant, he persuades the Captain that he can be very helpful – but under Sharif, the character never really develops a spine or sufficient substance to make him feel motivated; it’s no coincidence that he starts and ends the picture on the run and alone, however much it may seem like a moral choice. Indeed, he ends up seeming a weak man without the courage of his philosophy when he stands by and lets the Captain’s woman (Gruber’s former woman) Erika be tortured (he does deign to stab her rather than witness her burnt at the stake, however).

His attempt to save the Captain from an ambush seems more out of acknowledgement of the former’s alpha-dom than doing what is right (there’s only ever a cool respect between the two of them). The Captain’s reasoned nihilism carries with it a certain code of honour, despite his capacity for violence and ruthlessness (dictating that the villagers provide women for his men, he suggests the priest sells them his holy indulgence, total remission for past and future sins, which Gruber could pay for) but it’s difficult to empathise with Vogel when the compare and contrast is that he runs. His urging of Inge (Madeleine Hinde) to stay in the village (he earlier saved her from rape) may seem noble, but in a sense, his departure is as unmotivated as the Captain’s decision to take part in the military campaign that does for him; it’s what he does, his fate. The Captain riding back to the village to die, mortally wounded, never struck me as the most plausible (it is also part of the novel, though).

We invite the Captain’s excoriation of the priest’s motives, but the adverse aspect is its underlining what a very modern character he is, able to perceive the world in a manner none of the proles or priests can; he is, effectively a man of pragmatism, almost of science, one who doesn’t believe in God, or witchcraft, and his cynicism is seen to be justified in the face of a thoroughly invidious church rep (who has informed the villagers of their prostituted womenfolk that “Their suffering will save the village just as Christ’s suffering saved the world”). The Captain attests “There is no hell, because there is no God. Don’t you understand? It’s a legend!” At one point, the Captain and Vogel discuss witchcraft, and the latter relates how his six-year-old sister was legally tried and burned for the crime; Vogel proceeds in an attempt to find the purpose of tens of thousands murdered in the name of God. The Captain replies “You are so naïve. You want to look under the plate they put the food on. Nothing is hidden”.

Gray, in an attempt to inflate Caine as the only worthwhile part of the picture, suggested it was “shot like a big-budget Hammer horror” (which would be to suggest any rural period flick was) and that “the camera enjoys the depiction of violence rather too much for the movie’s anti-war message to be taken wholly seriously”. The latter point is fairly baffling, since the violence in The Last Valley, implied or depicted, is only ever queasy and disturbing, rather than rousing. Likewise, I saw little in the way of “mwah-ha-ha-ing caricaturists” surrounding Caine. Not Sharif and Davenport and not Oscarsson (who is inevitably an extremist, but that’s in the writing rather than a moustache-twirling performance; he’s more possessed with zeal than anything).

You could argue that many of the parts lack sufficient meat on their bones, certainly, but that’s probably true of any given picture. Michael Gothard (who would appear in The Valley (Obscure by Clouds) the following year) is the thoroughly hissable Hansen, out to take power from the Captain, but if he lacks texture, he’s memorable. Brian Blessed gets a knife to the gut from the Captain early on, as the main threat to his authority. Ian Hogg and John Hallam are also notable as mercenary types, and there are roles for Frazer Hines, Vladek Sheybal and George Innes.

Kael suggested The Last Valleyisn’t a work of art, but it’s not really a bad movie either”, and I think that’s fair. And I share her concern that the swooning John Barry score maybe isn’t the most appropriate – it lends the film a romanticism that isn’t quite right. But… I differ with her in that I think it is a great piece of music. I also think the film becomes a more interesting one with hindsight. It might have ended up undifferentiated with any number of historical war pieces of the era – in tandem with Caine’s workhorse ethic – but it feels more distinctive (and purposeful) now. Caine opined “I knew the day it finished it was not going to work” but to call it a failure would be overly harsh. He made enough of those during the subsequent two decades; by comparison, The Last Valley is nothing less than intriguing, valiant and respectable.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…