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January 05, 2006

"The Last" of Michael Caine

The Last Valley
James Clavell - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

Last Orders
Fred Schepisi - 2001
Columbia Region 1 DVD

A few days ago, GreenCine Daily noted that the British Film Institute was presenting a retrospective of films starring Michael Caine. I already had a couple of films in my Netflix queue representing two different points in his career. The films are also contrasts in extremes, the historical epic and the intimate character study.

I didn't bother to see The Last Valley theatrically for a couple of reasons. Like a lot of film students at that time, my film choices were frequently based directors that Andrew Sarris considered worthy. His description of James Clavell as a director was hardly flattering - "sub-Fuller, or super-Kramer". Additionally, the film seemed very old fashioned at a time when the "new" Hollywood represented by Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes and Bob Rafelson were in release. Although The Last Valley is flawed by questionable casting, the issues raised and actions depicted are especially interesting given our current political and religious climate.

While The Last Valley takes place in Germany during the Thirty Years War, the casting probably reflects international financing. In addition to Egyptian Omar Sharif, and Swede Per Oscarrson, there is Florinda Balkan a Brazilian star of Italian movies. Caine slips in and out of a Cockney-German accent as The Captain, the leader of a band of soldiers of varied Christian beliefs. What makes The Last Valley in some ways more vital now than it may have been at the time of release is that Clavell has plainly questioned Christianity in its various manifestations based on the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the factions that divide Protestants. In 1970, when the film was made and released, it was more certainly seen by the makers and the intended audience as an expression of pacifism, if not a parable about Viet-Nam. At a time when international conflicts and concepts of culture are defined and informed by absolutism in faith, The Last Valley seems strikingly fearless in being critical of the relationship of Church and State, irregardless of which church and which state. In one of their several philosophical discussions, Sharif, the pacifist looking to survive by avoiding conflict, learns that he may have lost his family to soldiers lead by Caine. Caine further explains that he also lost his family, and that the war has been a series of revenge based actions in an unending cycle, based initially on different expressions of Christian faith, but now on behalf of church leaders and royalty seeking land and influence. While some of the dialogue including Caine's expressions of non-belief may be too modern for a film that takes place in the early 17th Century, Clavell's view of the Thirty Years War is somewhat as symbolic as it was portrayed in the play Mother Courage. The Last Valley also provides are radical contrast to Ridely Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. The two films reflect the times and production conditions under which they were made. But The Last Valley, Clavell's last film that he directed before becoming a full-time novelist, is also the more personal film. Clavell as an artist, like his characters, prefered to answer to no one but himself.

The main joys of Last Orders are seeing three screen icons from the Sixties: Caine, David Hemmings, and Tom Courtenay together. Caine's Mona Lisa co-star, Bob Hoskins, and Helen Mirren are relative newbies in comparison while Ray Winstone is the baby of this group. The film is about three friends meeting to dispose of the ashes of the fourth friend, Jack. The narrative is interspersed with scenes showing the friends lives from 1939 through 1989 in relation to Jack based on emotional, rather than chronological, cues. While Caine has evolved into a comforting presence in this stage of his career, he also does more actual acting in Last Call, than in something like Batman Begins. Sometimes you watch a film for no other reason than to see a group of actors enjoy their craft and sharing the screen with each other.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 5, 2006 04:01 PM