James Clavell’s last film as director was this 1970’s epic about the Thirty Years War; Clavell never directed again after this 70mm historical drama went down the tubes in short order eveywhere but the UK. But Clavell’s instinct for fresh, original material served him well, and viewed from 2022, The Last Valley is an unusually literate, serious-minded historical war film that feels like the missing link between equally thoughtful Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons and The Mission.
Adapted from JB Pick’s novel, The Last Valley starts in the 17th century with a man in the wilderness; his name is Vogel (Omar Sharif), and so we’re quickly clued-in that what’s important about him is that he’s a witness, to violence, to genocide, to history. He stumbles away from assailants, through a pile of bodies carrying the plague, and eventually to a previously unknown valley. Also discovering the valley is the Captain (Michael Caine) and his deadly mercenary army. They see the quiet lives of the Catholic denizens of the valley and envy them their security; as mercenaries, they have none. The valley’s Catholic population, however, aren’t exactly enamoured of the soldiers the Captain brings, even if the Captain refuses to burn down their churches. Will the Captain eventually massacre his captives, or can peace break out in a bitter religious feud that’s lasted for generations?
There’s a third dimension here which elevates the narrative; opening titles make a point that despite the well-known ferocity of the religious difference in Southern Germany at the time, the mercenaries do not take sides, they just do what they are told. Their masters exploit the differences between Catholic and Protestant for their own ends, which cannily allows the film itself to avoid taking sides; the original book’s author was a Quaker. We view the Captain, with his clipped accent and quick reflexes with his sword, as a potential monster, but he emerges as a thoughtful and tragic figure by the end, a man who has never known anything but war and sees the world with a healthy cynicism. ‘You dare to speak to me of enemies and just wars? There is no just war. You know it; everyone knows it. The truth is your leaders are bigots, your generals are bandits; you employ any mercenary you can get and the Pope plays politics!’ says the Captain. ‘ The truth is your war is filth, greed and hypocrisy – and the other side is just as rotten! All sides are rotten, except for people like you, religious fanatics who incite murder for the sake of a God they have never known.’
Need more incentive? A wonderful, insistent score by John Barry, a super-rare, super smart sub-plot about the influence of witchcraft, embodied by witches’ witch Florinda Bolkan, a terrific location which we see in as the seasons pass, plus pro support from Brian Blessed and Nigel Davenport. The Last Valley may be a little stodgy and worthy by today’s urgent standards, but if you’re looking for a reminder of how literate films used to be, your time would be well spent here. This print below isn’t perfect, but it’s more than watchable, and Caine’s performance is one of his best; it’s utterly remarkable to think that he just knocked this memorable portrait out somewhere between the rather better-known The Italian Job, Get Carter and Sleuth. And instead of the usual trailer, I’ve included this discussion of the film by the eternally-incisive Brian Trenchard-Smith of the always-engaging Trailers From Hell.