Sunday, July 12, 2020

THE LAST VALLEY On Blu-ray From Kino

THE LAST VALLEY is a somewhat obscure historical drama released in 1971. The movie was produced, written, and directed by James Clavell. It has been recently released on home video by Kino Studio Classics.

The story is set during the Thirty Years' War, a time of religious persecution and cruelty. A motley group of mercenaries, led by a no-nonsense German Captain (Michael Caine) comes upon a remote village nestled in a picturesque valley in Central Europe. A man of learning, who has been trying to stay one step ahead of the wars for years (Omar Sharif) convinces the Captain that he and his men should take shelter in the village and protect it, instead of despoiling it. The Captain comes to an uneasy understanding with the locals, including the town leader (Nigel Davenport). But the mercenaries and the villagers can't help but follow their own agendas, while the Captain realizes he can't truly escape the war.

THE LAST VALLEY is another film that I don't ever remember being shown on TV. It wasn't successful at the box office, and it's easy to see why. The Thirty Years' War was not exactly a popular subject among English-speaking audiences (and it still isn't). The movie, despite being rated PG, does not shy away from the brutality and militant religious attitudes of the period. (The opening scene shows a small settlement attacked by Caine's men, and the people who live there are either killed or raped, simply because they just happen to be in the way.) There are no "good' or "bad" characters--each person deals with the situation of the Captain's group staying in the valley in their own way, putting survival over morality.

Michael Caine is a revelation here. This isn't the Caine of ALFIE or GET CARTER. Here he speaks with a clipped German accent, avoiding his usual dialogue patterns. His Captain doesn't have to shout or scream to get his point across. The man is a professional killer, but he's also rather cunning, and he's able to take advantage of whatever situation he may come across. The Captain is not a likable person, but he's not supposed to be. Caine makes it believable that this man could survive such a violent time and still be able to control a bunch of bloodthirsty soldiers. I think this is one of the best performances Michael Caine ever gave.

Most of the supporting cast is made up of European actors. Omar Sharif does very well in his role--he plays a man who is constantly straddling the fence at all times, but avoids making the character seem weak or fawning. Nigel Davenport is excellent as the village leader, a man who in his own way is just as cunning and brutal as the Captain.

The outdoor locations for THE LAST VALLEY were filmed in Austria, and they are spectacular. James Clavell and cinematographers Norman Warwick & John Wilcox take great advantage of the terrain. The action sequences are few, but they all have a Kurosawa-type of grittiness to them. (The Captain and his men do participate in a major battle near the end, but it's quite short--it could have been the basis of an entire movie itself.)

The transfer of THE LAST VALLEY that Kino has used for this Blu-ray is not good. There's visible damage spots on it, the frame jerks a bit at times, and the day-for-night scenes are very murky. I had never seen THE LAST VALLEY before, so I certainly can't compare it to any other version that might be out there. But it is disappointing that this Blu-ray does not look better, especially with all the visual splendor presented in the film. The sound quality, on the other hand, is very bold, and it does justice to John Barry's magnificent music score. (I was so impressed with Barry's work on the film that I went on Ebay and ordered the movie's soundtrack album.)

The only extra for this Blu-ray, other than some trailers for other Kino product, is a brand-new audio commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The trio analyze various aspects of the production, but they have a tendency to wander away from it when they discuss the careers of the people who worked on it.

THE LAST VALLEY is not a rousing epic filled with exciting battles. It's a thinking man's historical tale, dealing with a time and a society that most will not be familiar with. There's no sense of closure, or of right triumphing over wrong. What one does get from this movie is how each person's religious and political beliefs are only as deep as their immediate situation (organized Christian religion does not come off well here). This film is worthy viewing, especially when one considers what's going on today, with "cancel culture" and "Agree with me 100% or else" politics. THE LAST VALLEY also contains one of Michael Caine's best (and unusual) performances.

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