The Last Valley
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Udo Heimansberg,
introducing "The Last Valley" in Karlsruhe, 2008. Image by Thomas
James Clavell (whose real name was Charles
Edmund DuMaresq de Clavelle) was born in Sydney on 10th of October 1924
and died in 1994. It was in 1954, after his time in the army, that he
began to write screenplays. These included such classics as “The Fly“
(1958) with Vincent Price, “The Great Escape” (1962) with Steve McQueen,
and “King Rat” (1964) with George Segal. His first work as director was
the immensely successful “To Sir With Love“ (1967). Besides directing, he
also produced this film and wrote its screenplay. He continued to
combine all these roles on two more films “Where's Jack“(1969) with
Tommy Steele, and, in 1970, “The Last Valley“. However, after the
box-office failure of both these latter films he turned to devote
himself exclusively to writing: His novels “Shogun“, “Tai-Pan“ and “Noble House“ placed him among the world’s most celebrated authors of
best-sellers. His novels were successfully filmed- but now he contented
himself with providing the books on which the films were based!
“The Last Valley“ was first shown in German cinemas in 1971. Although it
had been filmed in 70mm, only 35mm copies (Technicolor print copies!)
were used to present it. Ticket sales were abysmal – a fate suffered
also, at this time, by many other films of this type. In Germany, the
blockbusters of the day were “Easy Rider“, “Woodstock“, “The Graduate“,
“M*A*S*H“, and “Catch 22“ along with the works of such New German Cinema
directors as Fassbinder, Schloendorff, and the Schamoni brothers. The
French Nouvelle Vague and the New British Cinema of the 60’s had also by
now acquired an audience in Germany. In this climate, the more
intellectual among the film critics tended to display a positively
allergic reaction to films made in the “monumental” style – a category
which included “Ryan’s Daughter”, “Waterloo”, “Cromwell” and, very
decidedly, “The Last Valley”.
Neither, however, was this genre of film finding much resonance any
longer among the general, non-intellectual cinema-going public. The only
successful Cinerama film of the day was Kubrick’s
“2001: A Space Odyssey”
– and even this success had looked uncertain at the start. The last two
films filmed in Cinerama, however – “Krakatoa” and “Custer of the West”
– were unequivocal disasters both commercially and artistically, and
their failure served to bury along with them the film format that had
been used to make them.
”The Last Valley“ was to remain for many years
the last film made in Todd-AO, which fell into a kind of “coma” as a
film process after the failure of Clavell’s film. Whereas, however, the
decidedly trashy nature of “Krakatoa” and “Custer” had certainly made a
key contribution to the demise of the film process used to make them,
nothing of the sort could fairly be said of “The Last Valley”.
in 70mm reading:
More about Tonhallen
Todd-AO Festival, Schauburg,
Taking a Mini View in a Maxi Way
It has been written of the novelist James Clavell that:
“The real protagonists of his novels are not the human figures who act
in them but rather the time and place in which they act. “(Wikipedia)
This certainly holds true also of “The Last Valley“. The time is the
Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), a war of religion and a complicated
manoeuvring for military and political advantage among the European
powers of the day. A dark time of denunciations, witch-hunts and
epidemic disease. The film begins in 1641, in the 23rd year of the war.
The place is an idyllic valley somewhere in Germany, protected from the
war by its inaccessibility.
A group of mercenary soldiers nonetheless succeeds in making its way
into the valley, as does a teacher, Vogel, who had in fact been fleeing
from these very soldiers. Vogel thus becomes an intermediary between the
valley’s inhabitants – a village community presided over by a man called
Gruber and an all-powerful priest – and the captain of a band of
mercenaries which is itself no more than an unstable alliance of
convenience between adherents to different religious faiths. All resolve
to share the secluded valley in peace, so as to survive the winter and
the war raging outside. But from the very start, conflict is inevitable.
The theme of the film is the two sides of human nature: the longing for
peace and the compulsion to violence. Religious fanaticism, a topic
still terribly relevant today, dominates even this idyllic valley and
the groups unwillingly thrown together in it.
|John Barry, who composed the magnificent music for this film, set parts
of a contemporary poem by Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1674), which portrays
something of the horrors of this time:
Tränen des Vaterlandes, Anno 1636:
Wir sind doch nunmehr ganz, ja mehr denn ganz verheeret!
Der frechen Völker Schar, die rasende Posaun
Das vom Blut fette Schwert, die donnernde Karthaun
Hat aller Schweiß, und Fleiß, und Vorrat aufgezehret.
Die Türme stehn in Glut, die Kirch' ist umgekehret.
Das Rathaus liegt im Graus , die Starken sind zerhaun,
Die Jungfern sind geschänd't, und wo wir hin nur schaun
Ist Feuer, Pest, und Tod, der Herz und Geist durchfähret.
Hier durch die Schanz und Stadt rinnt allzeit frisches Blut.
Dreimal sind schon sechs Jahr, als unser Ströme Flut
Von Leichen fast verstopft, sich langsam fort gedrungen .
Doch schweig ich noch von dem, was ärger als der Tod,
Was grimmer denn die Pest, und Glut und Hungersnot,
Dass auch der Seelen Schatz so vielen abgezwungen.
(Tears of the Fatherland, Anno 1636.
Ruined is the land, yes, worse than ruined!
Our sweat and all that it has made and earned
Is made as naught by sword and cannon,
By impudence of swarming foreign feet.
Our towers are burning, all our churches toppled,
Our strongest slaughtered in the village square.
Our maidens ruined , no sight of joy or comfort,
Only fire, plague and death where’er we turn.
The city streets run daily with fresh blood
Three times in six years has the weight of corpses
Choked all the streams and rivers
Three times have they arduously flowed on.
But of the worst I speak not,
Of what is worse than plague or fire or hunger:
That, ‘gainst their lives, so many have been forced
To yield the treasure of their souls’ salvation.)
poster display for "The Last Valley". Image by Thomas Hauerslev
Many factors make “The Last Valley” an extraordinary cinematic
Firstly, the camerawork of Norman Warwick and John Wilcox. Absolutely
wonderful use is made of the Todd-AO process. A marvellous contrast is
brought out between the interior shots in the narrow little houses and
the tiny village church and the exterior takes, with their breathtaking
panoramic views of the Tirol’s Gschnitztal. In these latter enormous
vistas, the protagonists, whose concerns had seemed just a moment
before, in the constricted spaces of their homes and institutions, to be
so overridingly important, seem to shrink to mere details in the
magnificence of Nature. There are also marvellous shots of the
impenetrable surrounding forests, the fields of early-morning mist, the
enchanting winter landscapes, which all remain unforgettable. The film,
indeed, features none of the “effect shots” typically associated with
Todd-AO – no aerial photography or “shooting the rapids” sequences. Clavell always keeps the magnitude of his chosen film format
subordinated to the needs of the story he is telling.
Secondly, John Barry’s film music. Barry counted at the time as one of
the adventurous “Young Turks” of his profession. He had shot to fame
through his music for the James Bond movies but was also in demand as a
composer among the directors of the New British Cinema. With “The Lion
In Winter“ (1968) he had given definitive proof of his ability as a
composer of symphonic film music. ”The Last Valley“ counts among the most
beautiful and evocative film-scores of his career. Rich in thematic
material, full of deeply moving choral sequences (actually sung,
moreover, in German!), this score of Barry’s succeeds in bringing out
musically the very core and essence of the story told. His
monothematically pulsating war themes stand in direct contrast to the
romanticism of the music he provides for the scenes of peace. As for
Clavell, so for Barry the decisive principle is the objective one: time
and place, war and peace. The score features no subjective leitmotifs
for the individual protagonists, no “love theme”.
today. Image supplied by Herbert Born
The actors: Michael Caine counts “The Last Valley” as one of his
favourites among his films. His role forms a wonderful counterpart to
that of Omar Sharif. On the one side, the cold intellectual pragmatist
who, like an animal, bends every effort to mere survival, trusts no one
and allows no one to draw too close; on the other, the romantic
intellectual, the intermediary, the opportunist. At a certain point it
becomes clear how similar the two are to one another. They are destroyed
by the time into which they were born and in which they became what they
are, but they are also transformed by the place they arrive in: the last
Per Oscarsson plays the fanatical priest. Is his performance “over the
top”? Assuredly it is – but a glance at the religious fanatics of the
present day suffices to convince us that “over the top” need not
necessarily mean unrealistic. A magnificent performance also from the
marvellous Florinda Bolkan, as a woman forced to pay a high price for
her independence in a male-dominated society – a highly representative
female role, in this respect, in the context of the late 1960’s. The
mercenaries too are all convincingly played, Michael Gothard’s
performance, in particular, being an incomparable portrayal of
viciousness. His character rather recalls that portrayed by Klaus Kinski
in “Aguirre, Wrath of God” – although Herzog’s film, in fact, was made
some two years later.
The locations: the film features very few scenes shot in the studio. The
village in which it plays was one built in the Gschnitztal, in the
Tirol, between Trins and Gschnitz. Modern houses were hidden by means of
camouflage nets borrowed from the German military and the roles of
extras were taken on by real inhabitants of the village. The film’s
world première was then held in Innsbruck, close to the scenes of its
filming. The valley remains still today a place a place of breathtaking
natural beauty, although it is by now the site of so much new building
that it would be impossible to make there the sort of film that was made
there in 1970! Many tourists, however, from all parts of the world are
still inspired by “The Last Valley” to visit the Gschnitztal, and the
valley’s natives are still happy to relate their anecdotes about the
exciting events of the filming!
To sum up, then: “The Last Valley” is a film that has all the
ingredients of a “monumental” style of cinema which does not, for all
that, sacrifice intelligence to monumentality – and which, despite all
these virtues, still proved a failure. There are, I believe, only two
possible attitudes to this film: either you love it or you hate it - a
dilemma curiously correspondent to the dilemma of choice in which the
film itself places its protagonists.
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