Though he’s best remembered as the author of sweeping historical novels including 1975’s Shogun, James Clavell also enjoyed a significant career in film, co-writing The Great Escape (1963) and directing To Sir, with Love (1966), in addition to working on several other projects. Notwithstanding his subsequent screenwriting contributions to TV adaptations of his books, however, Clavell’s last film work was writing, producing, and directing the intense epic The Last Valley. Big on every level, from the scale of its visuals to the scope of its themes, the picture has many admirers among fans of historical dramas, partly because it dramatizes an obscure chapter in world events and partly because it treats its subject matter with intelligence and respect.
Set in the early 17th century, the movie involves minor players in the Thirty Years War, a conflict revolving around religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants. Based on a novel by J.B. Pick, Clavell’s screenplay takes place in a secluded, sparsely populated German valley. When the story begins, a mysterious man named Vogel (Omar Sharif) flees through plague-infested Europe until stumbling onto the valley, which has escaped the ravages of illness and war. Unfortunately, a roving armada of mercenaries, led by a character known only as the Captain (Michael Caine), finds the valley at the same time.
The Captain’s soldiers claim the valley as their private empire, demanding food and women in exchange for not slaughtering the locals. As the convoluted narrative unfolds, the Captain plays his subjects against each other to tighten his stranglehold, with Vogel emerging as the voice of compassion when a local aristocrat (Nigel Davenport) and a local priest (Per Oscarsson) rail against the Captain’s oppression—and the officer’s cavalier attitude toward religion. God is a major topic of discussion throughout the movie, which gets heavily philosophical during many long interludes of extended dialogue; although Clavell spices up the picture by with bloody vignettes at quasi-regular intervals, The Last Valley is primarily an intellectual exercise.
Unfortunately, vague characterizations diminish the story’s potential impact. Vogel is a cipher, and the Captain so clearly represents Big Ideas that he never emerges as an individual. A clash in acting styles is problematic, as well: Caine tries to employ his usual virile naturalism, but he’s held back by the metaphorical quality of his role and by his shoddy German accent, while Sharif preens through a competent but superficial performance. Still, the pluses outweigh the minuses. Clavell presents many handsome 70mm vistas, and John Barry’s muscular score amplifies the story’s emotions. Furthermore, while The Last Valley sometimes seems like a dry history lesson, the film’s merciless final act underscores the insanity of shedding blood in God’s name.
The Last Valley: GROOVY