Monday, July 18, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Last Valley (1970)

                “The Last Valley” is a movie set in the Thirty Years’ War.  It was written and directed by James Clavell and is based on the novel by J. B. Pick.  It was shot in Austria.  Although you would think the public was pining for a movie about the Thirty Years’ War, the movie was a flop.  It turns out that people did not care about a complex religious war in Germany in the 17th Century.  Go figure.

                A former teacher named Vogel (Omar Sharif) escapes from a hellish landscape of raping, looting, and murder to find refuge in an isolated village in a picturesque valley that is untouched by the war.  This paradise is about to be sullied with the arrival of a mercenary band led by “the Captain” (Michael Caine).  Vogel suggests they agree to a détente with the villagers.  When one of the men questions this wimpy attitude, the Captain stabs him – end of discussion.  The villagers know the alternative to sharing their village and themselves (if they are women) is worse than any alternatives so they make the best of the situation.  Talk about dysfunction.  Throw in the religious fanaticism and you get a gooey mess.  The movie is not content to explore the obvious Catholicism versus Protestantism angle of the war.  We get a fanatical priest and a witch!  Someone (or two) are headed for a burning at the stake. 

                All this fellowship must come to an end, however.  One of the mercenaries has a dispute with the Captain and returns to the valley with another crew.  There is a mediocre battle that features uncanny accuracy from muskets.  The village sides with their thugs over these unknown thugs.  When spring approaches, it’s time for the boys to get back to work.  There is a siege going on that promises looting and killing.  This live and let live stuff has gotten old.

                I have not read the book so I cannot compare it to the screenplay.  I would hope it makes more sense than the film.  Maybe that was intended because God knows the war made little sense.  You will not learn much about the war from the movie.  You do get the accurate impression that the war was a conflict between Protestants and Catholics.  You also learn that neither religion was in the right.  The ignorant peasants are full of religious ignorance and superstition.  The mercenary nature of the warfare is also highlighted.  And the nasty nature.  At least they are using authentic weaponry.  

                This is a pretty bleak movie.  None of the characters is likeable.  I think the Captain is supposed to grow on you and he does, like a fungus.  In fact, there are several schizophrenic characters.  It does not help that the acting is poor.  Caine and Sharif are solid, but the rest of the cast is weak.  They make up for this with being incredibly well-groomed for the 17th Century.

                In conclusion, this could have been a good movie on a war that deserves at least one decent film.  Unfortunately, the movie tries to do too much and throws in too many diverse characters.  The symbolism of the idyllic valley that is eventually poisoned by the reality of human nature is a bit trite.  Hammering the theme that all religion is bad is also trite.  It also tries too hard to be anti-war.  You don’t have to try hard if you are dealing with possibly the worst war in history.


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