“I am what I am. A killer beast. I was born in war” The Captain
For The Last Valley Michael Caine ticks off another major conflict in his ever growing list of war films with a dark tale set during the Thirty Years War.
Caine shares top billing with Omar Sharif who plays Vogel a man desperately fleeing the violence that the conflict brings. In the opening scenes we see Vogel witness and escape the brutal ransacking of a village by a group of German mercenaries. As he flees he stumbles across a beautiful valley, the last to be left untouched by the horror of the religious conflict.
Those early scenes do an effective job of indicating what a bleak and dark world we are entering. There is an early massacre with the suggestion of rape and pillaging from the mercenaries and Sharif has an almost green pallor as he makes his way past bodies piled up having died from the plague and others hanging from gallows. It’s a grim environment to begin the film and the contrast between it and the moment Vogel discovers the unspoilt valley is almost jarring. There is a distinct change in the colour palette and in the soundtrack to demonstrate that we are entering a much more pleasant world.
Of course it doesn’t take long for that tranquility to be disturbed as the valley is discovered by the mercenary army led by Michael Caine’s Captain. Vogel manages to bargain for his life by pushing himself forward as a negotiator with the valley’s inhabitants and an uneasy peace is struck, but with religious tension never far from the surface.
There were moments in the early stages of The Last Valley when I was concerned it was going to be a little farcical. The initial scenes as the village is ransacked have a very similar landscape and design to Monty Python and The Holy Grail and coupled with some incredibly over the top acting from a very minor character as he screams about Satan causing me to worry about what direction the film would take. Fortunately those moments aren’t indicative of what is left to come and what follows is an interesting and intriguing film.
Key to that is the depth of the character of the Captain and Caine’s terrific portrayal of him. He sets himself up early as a quiet, but ruthless threat as he dispatches any dissenting members of his army. He has a calm brutality about him and it’s obvious that he enjoys his life as a killer. As the film unfolds we learn that there is much more depth to him than might be expected. Late in the action there is a suggestion of a lost family and in a quieter moment he expresses regret for the horror of the war that saw him rip apart the village of Vogel’s family. Even more intriguing is the Captain’s relationship with religion. He is surrounded by extremism and religious conflict and yet he himself has no faith. As a consequence he initially seems more tolerant to different beliefs as his mercenary group includes men of many faiths, but eventually leads to him becoming more and more skeptical and frustrated with what he sees around him. That leads to the best moment in the whole film as he launches into a scathing attack on the valley’s priest. It’s also Caine’s finest moment in what is an altogether outstanding performance and arguably one of the best of his career up to this point. He excels both in the quiet moments and as he becomes increasingly angry and frustrated. Unlike much of the cast Caine makes an effort at doing a German accent and while his accent work is never his strongest quality and it takes a moment to get used to him saying “willage” instead of “village” his controlled and engaging performance is always of a quality that makes that a minor quibble at its absolute worst.
Caine gets some solid support from the rest of the cast. Sharif gives a similarly quiet and controlled performance and though he has slightly less to work with than Caine they make for a high quality lead pairing. The other standout is Per Oscarsson who plays the priest and skilfully avoids allowing the character to drift too far into caricature. The Priest is a horrific character whose believes are extreme and unbending and who thinks nothing of using torture and violence against those who don’t share his views. In lesser hands it could easily turn into a one-note uninteresting villain, but Oscarsson manages to give him more depth and he shares the film’s best scene with Caine. Nigel Davenport who we last saw in this blog starring in Play Dirty gives a typically good performance and there is an all too brief role for Brian Blessed before he becomes the Captain’s first victim. Not all the cast are quite as successful and Arthur O’Connell in particular feels like a piece of casting that doesn’t quite work, but crucially Sharif and Caine are spot on throughout and hold everything together.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect with The Last Valley. What I got was a dark, but interesting film with a magnificent lead performance from Caine that once again shows his ever developing skill and depth as an actor. It isn’t a light watch and it is far from perfect, but there is plenty to be impressed by in a film I will definitely revisit in the future.