In his review last month of John Barry's Mary, Queen of Scots, Gary Dalkin
made note of his two other historical-film scores composed over the span
of three years -- The Lion in Winter and The Last Valley.
Of these, "Lion" is among Barry's best-known scores, and one for which he
deservedly received the Academy Award. Together, these three period scores
form a small but unique part of Barry's film work - a "triptych," if you
will, as film-music writer John Caps referred to it in an insightful article
for Elmer Bernstein's Film Music Collection notebook back in 1976.
As Lion in Winter has been both well-known and readily available
on CD for many years, and since Gary beat me to the punch with his review
of Mary, Queen of Scots, I will focus this review on The Last
Valley, perhaps the least known but among the very best scores of Barry's
The film is as hard to find today as its score, which was released on LP
but can be found at that same length (15 cues) on CD only on a German import.
(Mine came via Screen Archives.) The story is set in Germany during the Thirty
Years War, as Michael Caine leads his soldiers into a small village largely
shielded from the war by its remoteness at the end of a narrow valley.
Barry depicts the valley with a gorgeous theme, in strings and oboes,
representing its near-mythical setting. To this day, it ranks as one of his
very best. Barry's other major theme, heard first as the main title, evokes
the brutality of war with low, growling brass, supported by male voices in
a manner similar to his opening music to The Lion in Winter, except that
this time he has traded the harpsichord punctuation for snare drum and xylophone.
Barry makes no attempt at recreating period music, a point not lost on Gary
nor on others who have criticized the composer for it. I disagree. By not
basing his music on authentic materials, Barry's effect here is more
appropriately timeless, and perhaps all that more telling. As Caps notes
in his Film Music Notebook article, Barry's film-music style through the
middle 1960s had consisted largely of adept variations on an intricate opening
theme. Then in 1967, he cut back dramatically, scoring just one film. When
he resumed film work, it was with a new approach displaying "new color, a
growing attention to melody and construction, and a burst in orchestration
technique." This growth was evident in his Bond scores, but perhaps nowhere
more so than in the three historical film scores that came in 1968 (Lion)
'69 (Valley) and '71 (Mary).
The story of "The Last Valley" centers on the tense, philosophical standoff
between the militarist Caine and a peaceful artist/teacher (Omar Sharif)
within the village society that includes bigots, realists and pragmatists.
Writer-director James Clavell's vision here clearly surpasses his reach,
but it's a praiseworthy effort nonetheless. So rich are Barry's primary themes
for the valley and war that they serve effectively throughout the film without
directly illustrating specific action. The 'Attack at Rheinfelden' cue is
a perfect example. As in 'Lion, Barry adds a voiceless choral effect to a
number of cues, most impressively as a lament in 'Witch Burning.' More impressive
still, however, is his increased use here of the Accademia Monteverdiana
in four a capella pieces which Barry wrote using Latin and German texts.
(The former are original but the latter, it's worth pointing out to the above
critics, are authentic!) Each one -- titled simply 'An Evening Song,' 'A
Children's Song,' 'A Christmas Song,' and 'An Offertory Chant' -- is a unique
gem of voicing and melody, and by themselves are worth the import's added
$4 or $5 in price.
Caps' Film Music Notebook article (for which I am grateful to the Film Music
Society in Hollywood) is not all praise. He notes a tendency Barry had in
most of his scores for building melodies from harmonic tones stemming from
a single bass chord, which could prove monotonous. Yet, in these three historical
film scores, Caps also notes evidence of a maturing musical style. "His real
forte is in the writing of mini-art songs and in orchestrating individually
wrapped moods for specific scenes," Caps said in a prescient observation
that would be an apt description of Barry's "The Beyondness of Things" more
than two decades later.
Referring to all three of the historical scores, Caps concludes: "Heard in
order, (they) offer a fascinating and rewarding portrait of the growth of
an artist ... ."