Continuing our new series looking at the 1970s filmography of Sir Michael Caine, John Upton takes a look at The Last Valley.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for The Last Valley lie ahead…
Directed by: James Clavell (To Sir, With Love, The Sweet And The Bitter, Where’s Jack?)
Tagline: “From an Age of Conflict…A Film for the Ages!”
Other Featured Geezers:
Omar Sharif as Vogel, Nigel Davenport as Gruber, Florinda Balkan as Erica, Per Oscarsson as Father Sebastian, Arthur O’Connell as Hoffman, Brian Blessed as Korski.
What’s it all about. Alfie?
Set in Southern Germany during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which, as proven by its near total absence in popular culture, is no-one’s favourite war (unless you’re a contestant on Pointless and the round is “Wars”). An inscrutable mercenary soldier (known only as “The Captain” and played by Caine) along with his ragtag band of naughty blighters, and a bereaved former teacher Vogel (Omar Sharif) fleeing violence, both happen upon an idyllic valley town untouched by war.
Vogel convinces The Captain to spare this village his usual looting and pillaging in order to preserve it as a refuge for his men during the winter whilst the outside world faces plague, war and famine. So, an uneasy truce is made between the mercenaries and the villagers, with Vogel appointed judge to settle disputes between the two sides.
However, in spite of The Captain and Vogel’s best efforts, religious disputes keep cropping up including a kerfuffle over the movement of a shrine of the Virgin Mary (which appears to have been designed by Mr Bean).
The village’s catholic priest Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson) is also not happy that the mercenaries are protestants and atheists and wants them gone as soon as possible. Soon The Captain’s men start to get restless and take advantage of the villagers. So, as you probably expected, things don’t run entirely smoothly and the cycle of violence inevitably continues.
Oh, on a side note, Caine hooks up with a witch at one point. Then the villagers later decide to burn her. I honestly did not expect devil worship in a Michael Caine/ Omar Sharif epic historical drama, but that’s the 1970’s for you I suppose.
Caine, who is first billed, appears around 13 minutes in wearing a very silly helmet and doing a very silly German accent (I would like to point out that, in spite of what the picture below suggests, he is not actually the size of a church, which would have made for an interesting albeit quite tonally different film).
I did eventually grow acclimatised to his shaky accent. It may wander back and forth across the ocean (perhaps his character had travelled, there’s nothing to say The Captain didn’t grow up in the East End before hopping over to Hamburg) but to be fair to Caine, the men under his command seem to be following his lead as their accents similarly are all over the place. It’s a very diverse sounding group of Germans.
Accent aside, I was impressed with Caine’s complex and layered performance. This is a very subdued and quietly sinister turn from him. His character “The Captain” (we never even get a proper name) is cold and clinical and I was never quite sure where we stood with him. Is he the villain, anti-hero, or perhaps even hero? His position seems to shift throughout the film.
Caine is believable as a man completely broken by war, he says at one point; “I was born in war, I have no country, no friends, no people”. His humanity has nearly all ebbed away but there’s perhaps still something left deep deep down.
Also, don’t worry Caine fans, his performance is not entirely restrained, we do still get a scene of Caine doing his signature shouty and pointy acting when he rants about there not being a God.
Overall, this is a refreshing change of pace for Caine, he’s not his usual lovable cheeky cockney rascal or a stereotypically likeable lead. He’s a complex and broken shell of a man, yet somehow still sympathetic whilst seeming to have no sympathies for anyone around him.
The fifth Caine film with a score by John Barry (Zulu, The Ipcress File, The Wrong Box, Deadfall).
His second film with Nigel Davenport after 1969’s Play Dirty. Nigel got a lot more to do in that one though. In this he is upstaged by his own moustache (not a dig at Nige, it’s just a really top tache).
His second film trying, and failing, to do a foreign accent (sort of American in Hurry Sundown, sort of German in this)
Third film in which Caine dies (after Deadfall and Play Dirty).
Best Non-Caine Actor
Caine and Sharif are the co-leads of the film and Sharif puts in an equally compelling and understated performance.
His character Vogel is best summed up by this still of him pensively staring in to the middle distance whilst sadly stroking a cat. He is a deeply troubled yet thoughtful scholar with a soft side.
He is the first character that we are introduced to and his entrance is a series of almost farcical strokes of bad luck. He happens upon a nice-looking village which immediately is then pillaged by a group of mercenaries who attack the villagers and menace the chickens. So, Vogel does a runner in to the woods but ends up tripping and rolling down a hill straight into a plague pit. In disgust he gets up, trips again and accidentally sticks his hand straight in to a fire. It’s like a grim 17th century episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
The rest of the cast, made up of striking looking character actors, is mostly solid apart from the occasional one that gets a bit too shouty and melodramatic (there’s always one!).
I was very happy to see amongst them a young, and surprisingly dashing, Brian Blessed. Unfortunately, he is dispatched early on by a sneaky stabbing from Caine’s pointy murder helmet and suffers the indignity of perishing in a pile of manure. Poor Brian.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts
The Last Valley is admittedly somewhat of a hard sell, which may explain why it was a commercial flop and ended Clavell’s directing career. A sombre and pensive exploration of religious conflict set during an obscure Central European war from the 1600s isn’t exactly instant box office smash material.
Clavell doesn’t help himself by foregrounding the philosophical gubbins and effectively throwing away the, potentially more crowd pleasing, romance sub plots. The Captain’s dalliance with the town’s resident devil worshipper (again I’d like to flag that this witch sub plot was unexpected to say the least) seems to be part of his redemptive arc where he learns to emotionally connect with others but it’s incredibly underdeveloped. Also, the potential budding romance between Vogel and one of the villagers basically comes out of nowhere.
Sharif’s Doctor Zhivago was a massive hit and managed to get audiences interested in a story about the Russian Civil War, and class struggles, by strongly focusing on the romance, something relatable that they could latch on to. This film doesn’t bother and really makes the audience do a lot of hard work in order to relate to it which perhaps explains why it didn’t pick up an audience.
This film is based on a book by J.B. Pick and the director James Clavell is best known, and most celebrated, as an author of such epic novels as Shogun and for writing screenplays such as for The Great Escape. This film does feel like it would work much better as a novel. The back and forth give and take relationship between the mercenaries and the villagers, and the philosophical and religious debates, would work much better expanded and fully fleshed out on the page. Everything is a bit too rushed and under-explored on screen.
Being unfamiliar with the war, as most viewers will be, the very brief explanatory title card that opens the film is not much help and so I was often left a bit confused as to what exactly was going on and what people’s motives and goals were.
Even though the script may not be suitably cinematic the visuals and score most definitely are. This film looks gorgeous, it was mostly shot on location in Austria and the widescreen cinematography puts this setting to fantastic use. I did a disservice to the film by watching it on a laptop as I could imagine being totally immersed watching this on a big screen.
There are a few well done and engaging action sequences too; explosions, fire, people being impaled on spikes-all that jazz. I didn’t really know why people were killing each other but they were at least doing it in an entertaining manner.
John Barry really does himself proud with his beautiful score (which honestly is deserving of a better movie). It’s sweepingly romantic and suitably epic with occasional hints of some of his best James Bond themes. If you don’t watch the film, you definitely should check out his score.
The opening titles are pretty great too; a brief animated representation of the Thirty Years’ War accompanied by Barry’s Banging Beats ™. You could argue that the film actually peaks here within the first three minutes.
Best Cameo From a 17th Century Boyband:
The only time an English language film had previously depicted the Thirty Years War was 1933’s Queen Christina. There hasn’t been another Hollywood attempt since.
The writer of historical adventures, George MacDonald Fraser, said of the The Last Valley; “The plot left me bewildered-in fact the whole bloody business is probably an excellent microcosm of the Thirty Years’ War, with no clear picture of what is happening, and half the cast ending up dead to no purpose. To that extent, it must be rated a successful film”.
And my absolute favourite bit of completely useless trivia that I found on IMDB is that the actor who played “Gnarled Peasant” (Edward Underdown) was dubbed (possibly by someone who sounded more legitimately gnarled, although that is just conjecture on my part). Do with that fact what you will.
I can’t say that this is a true hidden gem, it’s definitely not a must watch and is a hard film to love, but it is certainly an interesting failure with a fair amount of genuinely great components (the score, location and performances) and it covers a period of history not really touched on cinematically elsewhere. Importantly, for Caine fans, it is refreshing to see a different type of more nuanced performance from him. So, overall, it’s a tentative recommendation from me.
Rating: 3/5 Bespoke Murder Helmets
Where You Can Watch This: It’s not currently streaming but is available to purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.
Up Next: It’s one of Caine’s finest performances in the iconic British gangster classic Get Carter.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.