The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Last Valley

A longtime member of my 'Saved DVDs' option at Netflix, 1971's The Last Valley was finally made available this week, and I was delivered a pleasant surprise as the opening credits rolled, besides the strong casting. The film is directed by James Clavell, someone I think of as an author more than a director. The director of only six films in his career, Clavell is at the head of a different but still impressive historical epic.

It is the middle of the Thirty Years War in the early 1600s and a war that started off about religion in Germany has expanded to other European powers. Walking across a famine-ridden country, a former teacher, Vogel (Omar Sharif) stumbles across a beautiful valley up in the hills seemingly immune from the touches of war. The villagers living in the valley are away for the time, but behind Vogel comes a small company of mercenaries led by the Captain (Michael Caine). Vogel convinces them to winter in the village/valley, the mercenaries forming the uneasiest of alliances with the village leader, Gruber (Nigel Davenport), and the people. Vogel finds himself working as a mediator, both sides not happy with the other as this little valley is thrust into the war for the first time.

In the era of historical epics, this is a late entry to the genre. Clavell wrote, produced and directed this historical epic that I can only describe as...different, in a good way. It doesn't really have a similar movie you can even remotely compare it to. It deals with religion and faith, the lunacy of war, the lunacy of religion, corruption, blind faith, and generally boasts a cynicism that would have been prevalent at the time in the minds of the audience. Without getting pretentious, 'Valley' tries to ask what is the point of fighting? What's the point of a religion that forces its believers to fight and die simply because someone tells them to do so? In all its darkness and cynicism, I liked this movie because of those different features. It doesn't settle for the status quo and impressing with scale. This movie has that impressive scale with a worthwhile message to boot.

If you're going to do a historical epic, do it right in the casting department. Two of the best names around for an epic -- Caine and Sharif -- don't disappoint in their performances. Caine especially delivers an underrated, moving performance as the Captain, a long-time mercenary who's grown weary of the futility of battle, war, and organized religion. He continues to fight, meeting confrontations head on rather than taking the easy way out and running away. His counter is Sharif as Vogel, an intellectual, a former teacher who wants to talk things out, negotiate rather than fight it out. The duo plays well off each other as their situation becomes harder to handle. Neither truly knows what, but both men are looking for something while trying to put their past behind them. At what cost will it come though?

The ensemble cast that backs the duo up does not boast much name recognition, but the characters from Clavell's script come to life with the cast, a wide variety of eclectic characters. Florinda Bolkan plays Erica, a woman in the village who moves in with the Captain, her personal/religious beliefs ready to cause a stir among these God-fearing folks. Davenport as Gruber is perfect, a simmering pot of violence and manipulation just waiting to strike. Per Oscarsson plays Father Sebastian, the village's Christian priest, a religious fanatic who must have things his way. Arthur O'Connell seems like an odd choice to play Hoffman, one of the elder villagers, with his daughter, Inge (Madeleine Hinde), drawing the eye of the mercenaries and Vogel.  I especially liked the dynamic among Captain's mercenaries, including the treacherous Hansen (Michael Gothard) and brutal right-hand man Graf (Ian Hogg) among a handful of other characters who would have benefited from more screen-time/development.

The story with a message and a solid cast is aided by two things; location shooting in Austria and the musical score from John Barry. It ends up sounding like an action- gothic horror score with hints of James Bond music. Oddly/bizarrely enough, it works really well. Go figure. Listen to 3 different parts HERE. 'Valley' shot on location in Austria for this mountain valley, and the end result is stunning. Watching the story unfold, it's easy to see why everyone involved is willing to work and fight for their homes, an idyllic green valley with sweeping fields and tree-covered hillsides. Clavell uses a wide camera lens to show the beauty of the Trins, Tol location and doesn't disappoint. Digging a little deeper, I question if there was symbolism going on here. Sharif's Vogel finds the village through a fog-covered forest surrounded by burned out, plague-infested villages. Is this village in the midst, seemingly untouched, some sort of heaven? Maybe not, but it's a cool thought to keep in mind as you watch this gothic historical epic.

My one complaint is that the sweeping story tends to drift a little too much at 125 minutes. It's never slow, but with so many characters and situations, the at-times episodic storytelling drags the pace down. 'Valley' seems to know where it's going though, and the ending -- in all its ambiguous doom and gloom -- works especially well. Its message is simple. War is stupid. Religion is stupid. Fighting for religion blindly? Inexcusable. Think for yourself and decide what's right, not what someone else tells you. Watch the whole movie HERE with Part 1 of 10.

The Last Valley <---trailer (1971): ***/****

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