THEY LEFT DEATH AND DESTRUCTION IN THEIR PATH UNTILL THEY CAME TO.
Released in 1971 and directed by James Clavell, THE LAST VALLEY is in many people’s opinion an underatted cinematic masterpiece. The movie boasted a quite impressive cast, with Michael Caine, Omar Sharif and Nigel Davenport being the main players or at least the more well-known actors participating. Although there were plenty of supporting roles taken by just as talented actors such as Brian Blessed, Florinda Bolkan, Arthur O’Connel, Madeleine Hind and Per Oscarsson. Director Clavell, also acted as producer for the movie as well as writing the screenplay which he based upon the writings of author J.B. Pick from his novel THE LAST VALLEY which was published in 1959. The stunning cinematography which was also a star of the film was the work of, Norman Warwick and John Wilcox and their technique at times added a mysterious and mystical air to the proceedings, and was the last time that the Todd-AO 70MM widescreen process was used until it was brought out of mothballs for the movie Baraka in 1991.
The movie also contained a wonderfully dramatic and romantic soundtrack composed and conducted by John Barry that added many, emotions, colours, textures and also a gothic style to the motion picture. The music is undoubtedly one of Barry’s finest works, scored for full orchestra and also choir, it is a powerful and at times a relentless and highly emotional musical journey, which matches the action and also purveys the desperation and the fierce tension that is evident between various characters and groups of people within the film. THE LAST VALLEY was set in Germany, during the thirty years war, which took place between 1618 and 1648 and was fought over differences in religious beliefs. It tells the story of a Mercenary the Captain played by Michael Caine and a teacher Vogel portrayed by Omar Sharif who are very different personalities but are both running away from the ravages of a war that they both believe nobody can win. They find themselves in an untouched valley which has miraculously escaped the ravages of the war and remains fertile and beautiful.
The Captain is the leader of a band of mercenaries who fight for whoever has the most money and pays the most and are a mix of Atheists, protestants and Catholics. Which in itself is a volatile combination. Vogel convinces the Captain to winter in the valley and hide away from the war and plague in the outside world. His words to the Captain are, “Live, while the army dies”. Advice which the Captain takes. The Captain forces the villagers and their head man Gruber (Nigel Davenport) to give in to is wishes and appoints Vogel judge to settle any disputes between the soldiers and the villagers.
Everything seems to be working until one of the soldiers attempts to rape a local woman and flees the valley with two other soldiers to find another band of mercenaries, their aim being to attack the village and pillage it. They are fought off as the villagers and soldiers join forces to defend the valley. Soon after this the Captain hears of a decisive battle that will be fought in the Rhineland and decides that he and his men must leave the valley, but he leaves behind a few of his men and also instructs Vogel he too must stay and if he leaves or tries to then the village will be raised to the ground and the inhabitants killed. While the Captain is away fighting a woman from the village Erica (Florinda Bolkan) who he has been living with is burnt at the stake for practising witchcraft by the fanatical Priest (Per Oscarsson). The Captain returns with a handful of men but is mortally wounded and dies in the forest outside of the valley, telling Vogel “You were right” as he takes his last breath. Vogel then leaves the valley and runs off into a fog shrouded forest, knowing that the Valley will be safe now.
The original soundtrack from THE LAST VALLEY was originally issued on the ABC label on long playing record, with a bootleg CD following this some years later on the German Tsunami label, there have also been re recordings by the City of Prague Philharmonic under the direction of Nic Raine a long time associate of John Barry, which I have to say was a very faithful rendition of Barry’s score but did I have to say falter slightly in the choral department.
The soundtrack was then released by Intrada and more recently has had another re-release onto compact disc by the Spanish label Quartet. However, I still think that the bootleg release by Tickertape has the better-quality sound, and as it is a direct transfer of the tracks from the original LP recording for me stands head and shoulders above any other edition. On first hearing the score, many collectors remarked that Barry had basically repeated the style and the sound that he had fashioned for THE LION IN WINTER which was released three years prior to THE LAST VALLEY, but this is certainly not the case, the Latin choruses in THE LION IN WINTER are truly amazing and also hav to them an imposing and commanding aura, but, THE LAST VALLEY is in my opinion for what its worth more of a developed and accomplished score especially in the choral writing.
Yes, we are treated to rather urgent and forthright chorale flourishes within the films opening titles, which are sung in German and have to them a formidable and foreboding persona. The track opens quietly, with choir and strings combining in a low almost humming sound that is a background to seven note motif that is played on apprehensive sounding strings, choir then builds and swells to introduce the central theme from the score, which is underlined by martial sounding timpani that acts as punctuation to a choral and horn combination, for which the composer was to become well known for in later years. In some prints of the movie, the opening included a striking open sequence with two warriors crossing swords as the main title credits began to roll and Barry’s superb theme began to rise and take command. Then as the music builds it reaches the 1 min 44 sec point and alters into a more urgent and striking choral performance, that is bolstered by pounding percussion and warlike timpani.
Going back to THE LION IN WINTER and the comparisons that were made between it and THE LAST VALLEY, it would be true to say that both Lion and Valley were two scores that stood out amongst the many scores that Barry penned during this period of his career, (from late 1960’s through to the mid 1970;s) and maybe that is why so many draw the comparisons that they do when discussing them because they are so different from his Bond scores for example, but let us not forget, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS and also ROBIN ND MARION, which were scores from historical dramas but even these were different stylistically. It has always confounded me as to why Barry received awards for THE LION IN WINTER but not for THE LAST VALLEY, it was probably because THE LAST VALLEY had a mixed reaction at the box office, with most of this reaction being negative. However, both the movie and the score have stood test of time well and on viewing the movie recently I was still entertained by the performances of the cast and Barry’s beautiful and epic sounding music. I think it is true to say that THE LAST VALLEY score, consists of two central themes, we have the commanding and powerful composition which opens the proceedings of which certain elements are utilised within the more tense and dramatic parts of the storyline such as THE PLAGUE PIT, VILLAGERS FIGHT FOR THE SHRINE, MAIN TITLE THEMES part 2 (which is a more pronounced version of the opening track minus the German chants, these being replaced by grand horns and laced with glockenspiel that drives the piece forward) and NIGHT BATTLE AT RHINEFELDEN.
Plus, the composer arranges and orchestrates this core theme into various guises to suit scenes such as, THE VILLAGERS FIGHT FOR THE SHRINE and THE VILLAGE ATTACK, the latter I must admit sounding just a little 007 in places. Another stand out piece that utilises the same style is WITCHCRAFT/ERICA IS BURNED AT THE STAKE or WITCH BURNING as it was originally titled on the initial release of the soundtrack, Barry conjuring up a other-worldy sound and creating a dark and harrowing atmospheres.
Then we have the softer and less urgent interludes, where Barry produces lilting melodies performed by strings and also choir, the most striking and memorable of these being track 2 on the Intrada release and also on the original LP THE LAST VALLEY, it is the music that plays over the scene where Omar Sharif’s character Vogel first see’s the valley after witnessing the horrors of war and plague. It is text-book John Barry and rivals anything that he wrote in his long and illustrious career, the emotion and poignancy is enveloping and affecting, it basically says everything that Vogel does not because he is unable to speak because of the sight he is seeing. Heart-achingly exquisite and totally touching. Then there are the various songs such as delightful, THE CHILDRENS SONG, THE CHRISTMAS SONG and the hauntingly stunning EVENING SONG. These are performed in the main by accapella choir, and yes are not unlike certain vocal cues from THE LION IN WINTER. Even when we hear AN OFFERTORY CHANT it remains emotive but has to it dark undertones.
The style of heart-breaking theme performed by strings also manifests in THE DEATH OF THE CAPTAIN/END TITLE, the secondary theme underlining the final minutes of THE CAPTAIN (Michael Caine) after he returns to the valley fatally wounded in battle with a handful of his men to be reunited with Erica who unbeknown to him has been executed for being a witch. Vogel has not the heart to tell him Erica is dead and it is at this point that we see that Vogel is truly affected by seeing the Captain dying in front of him, and maybe also realises that he is a friend rather than a feared enemy. Barry’s music grows and swells into a crescendo of thematic glory with strings and female voices developing into a tumultuous and lush piece, which brings the movie to its end.
The intrada release I have to say I can do without, there is no extra music and the sound quality is much to be desired, which brings us back to the bootleg edition, on Tickertape this is long deleted, the Intrada release also focuses upon the actual movie within its liner notes, which is strange as it is a soundtrack release, one would have thought that the music would have been the central subject. Then we have the aforementioned Silva Screen re-recording, which of course has a bright and fresh sound, plus lots of extra cues, I do not normally say this but go for either the Tickertape if you just want what was on the original LP or for sound and extra cues it has to be the Silva Screen version. The quartet records release again lets us down in the sound quality department and again a straight repro of the original LP content. But either way, the music is masterful and it’s a soundtrack everyone should own.