Very few films have been set during the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618-1648. I can only think of two, and this is one of them. But it is not really about that war, although it features a short battle scene. It is about what people will do survive, in a land ravaged by not only war, but the Black Death too. A time when wandering bands of fierce mercenaries were paid to fight for one religion or another, and would change sides for a better offer. It is also about the hypocrisy of religion, and how old beliefs and customs came to be associated with witchcraft, during an era dominated by opposing faiths.
Vogel, a wandering teacher, (Omar Sharif) is fleeing the pestilence and combat consuming the country. By chance, he discovers a fertile valley, and a village inhabited by prosperous and suspicious villagers with little knowledge of life outside their idyllic existence. Meanwhile, a mixed bag of mercenaries and deserters, led by a man known only as ‘The Captain’, (Michael Caine) is heading in the same direction, stopping on the way to kill, rape, and steal anything they can find. Vogel is taken in by the reluctant villagers, for fear he would tell on them if he was sent away.
When The Captain and his men finally stumble across the village, it seems the fate of everyone is sealed. But the clever Vogel steps in, persuading the village headman (Nigel Davenport) and The Captain to reach an agreement. The soldiers will protect the village from outsiders for the winter, and in return, they will supply women to service the sexual needs of the men, and provide adequate food and shelter for them all. An uneasy truce is declared, but tensions remain high, especially as summer approaches, and some of the soldiers feel they should return to the army.
This film shows its age now, but not in a bad way. Despite its ‘epic’ status, and big-name cast, it feels more like a Hammer film at times, especially during the parts concerning witchcraft. The supporting cast is on form too, with hunky Michael Gothard impressive as a baddie, and the scene-chewing Brain Blessed relishing an all-too short role. You also get the British actor Jack Shepherd, and the Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis as Pirelli. Throw in some more international stalwarts, and there is something for everyone, in a film destined to be shown all over the world. Female desire is dealt with by the inclusion of Florinda Bolkan, and Madeline Hinde. Direction and writing is in good hands too, with the experienced James Clavell.
One word of warning, and it’s not a spoiler. Michael Caine adopts a strange German accent throughout the film. Not his best choice, in my opinion.
That said, this is hugely enjoyable, and very different.
The trailer is almost as good as the film!