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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Last Valley
The Last Valley
MGM // PG // May 25, 2004
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 18, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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A vastly underrated historical fable made at the tail end of the road show era, The Last Valley (1971) was a victim of bad timing when it was new and unjust neglect in the years since. MGM is distributing this new DVD on behalf of Disney, using the same poor transfer The Mouse provided Anchor Bay with for that label's DVD of the film in 1999. Part of a batch of titles produced by ABC's ill-fated movie division (others include Hell in the Pacific and Junior Bonner), these Anchor Bay DVDs sat unwanted in remainder bins for much of last year. That Disney should go to the trouble of sub-licensing them without allowing MGM access to better elements seems downright perverse.

This is particularly sad in the case of The Last Valley. Not only is this film worthy of a full-blown special edition DVD, it is so good and so timeless that it deserves a theatrical reissue in its original 70mm format, along the lines of Spartacus or Doctor Zhivago, with savvy promotion rightly billing it as an undiscovered classic.

Directed by James Clavell (who adapted it from J.B. Pick's novel), the film is set in the early 17th century, about a dozen years into the Thirty Years War. Amidst the vast devastation and starvation wanders Vogel (Omar Sharif), a former teacher who lost his entire family in the sacking of Magdeburg. He accidentally stumbles upon a remote, alpine village miraculously untouched by the war. However, the village is also discovered by a group of cutthroat soldiers led by an officer known only as The Captain (Michael Caine).

The Captain is prepared to burn the Catholic village to the ground and kill all its inhabitants, but Vogel has an idea: spare the village and winter there. The village is all but inaccessible during the harsh winter months, there's plenty of food and no sign of the plague sweeping across Europe. The Captain agrees and assumes control, making Vogel a judge and liaison between the soldiers and villagers. Despite seemingly insurmountable religious conflict and the domination of the peasantry by the soldiers, all enjoy a kind of respite from the madness of the outside world. But what to do when spring comes 'round again?

Intended as a splashy Cinerama roadshow, The Last Valley suffered the misfortune of being released just as that format of distribution (long-term, limited runs, reserved seats, etc.) was on its last legs. It's hard to imagine the same family audience that flocked to The Sound of Music getting dressed up and driving downtown to see a film replete with witch-burnings, castration, genocide, and half-dead plague victims. (Indeed, in those early, wacky days of the MPAA, The Last Valley somehow got away with a GP/PG rating. Today it easily would get an R.) The picture is frank in depicting the horrors of war; particularly harrowing is the film's opening, with Vogel frantically fleeing a raided village where the populace and its livestock are brutally slaughtered. Terrified, Vogel rushes through a forest eventually stumbling upon piles of bodies, some not yet dead, victims of The Plague.

Conversely, younger, anti-establishment audiences embroiled in Kent State and Vietnam -- an audience that might have been receptive to the film's condemnation of war and religious hypocrisy -- were turned off by its marketing as a big-budget history lesson.

Though it is impressively, fleetingly epic near the climax (with some superb model work by Wally Veevers), The Last Valley is mostly a small-scale, intimate drama, with settings as grungy and unglamorous as that in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The core of the film is the relationship between Vogel and The Captain. Sharif's ex-school teacher, the soft-spoken intellect amidst the chaos of war, is mostly an extension of his role as Doctor Zhivago, but Caine is something else entirely.

His pragmatic officer is one of the best roles of a long and sometimes distinguished career. He unhesitatingly kills without remorse when it is practical for him to do so. (He matter-of-factly instructs those he is about to kill to "make peace with your god," before slitting their throats.) He is neither mad nor driven by emotion, yet rules the village without mercy: rape is punishable by castration, looting by blindness. He has been hardened by years of war, brutal yet simultaneously very real, very human. The film revolves around Sharif and Caine's tenuous relationship, but it's Caine's subtle performance that stays with you.

What might have been an overly symbolic and pat anti-war film works because of the enormous intelligence and subtlety accorded its central characters. In merely trying to stay alive, Vogel shrewdly plays to The Captain's intelligence. The Captain, living among mostly barbarous, uneducated soldiers, clearly appreciates Vogel's company, wisdom and kindness, yet keeps him at an arm's length (as he does almost everyone) because he may eventually have to kill him, along with everyone else.

The international cast includes Brazillian actress Florinda Bolkan as Caine's devil-worshipping lover, Swede Per Oscarsson as a fanatical Catholic priest, and American Arthur O'Connell as one of the leading villagers. A very young Brian Blessed makes a formidable presence as one of Caine's crueler soldiers. With his punk haircut and studded black leather vest, Blessed looks like he stepped off the set of The Road Warrior. Several supporting actors, including George Innes and Vladek Sheybal, would later turn up in Clavell's Shogun.

John Barry wrote the film's beautiful score. It's one of his finest works and should have won an Oscar, but went unnoticed when the picture flopped.

Video & Audio

Shot in 65mm Todd-AO, The Last Valley should look and sound great, but this obviously old 4:3 letterboxed transfer is substandard. What was passable if disappointing when Anchor Bay released it in 1999 is simply inexcusable in 2004. Zoomed in on 16:9 sets, The Last Valley is swimming with edge enhancement and digital graininess. Only the original large negative photography, and the subsequent clarity of even this 35mm source element, save it from being completely unwatchable. The same holds true for the Dolby Digital mono presentation, a far cry from its original six-track magnetic stereo release. MGM has added optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There are no Extra Features, not even a trailer.

Parting Thoughts

Amidst all the Hello, Dolly!s and Man of La Manchas were a small handful of smaller-scale, almost intimate epics that deserve to be rediscovered. The Last Valley is one of the best, a moving, unusually intelligent film of the same caliber as the later films of David Lean. Given half a chance, it may someday find the audience it richly deserves.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.

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