The Best Movie You've Never Seen?

3 posts in this topic

You’ve all heard of James Clavell, sure. You know him for novels like TAI-PAN and SHOGUN. You’ve probably seen THE GREAT ESCAPE, for which he wrote the screenplay, and TO SIR WITH LOVE, which he produced and directed as well as scripted.

But how many of you have heard of, let alone seen, THE LAST VALLEY? Clavell produced, directed and wrote that one too (from a novel by J.B. Pick). It stars Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, and has a brilliant score by John Barry. But the film had the misfortune of being a project of an ill-fated movie production venture of ABC TV, which foundered soon after the picture was made in 1971.

THE LAST VALLEY is one of the greatest historical dramas of all time. Set during the Thirty Years War, which began as a struggle between Catholics and Protestants but soon degenerated into an excuse for wanton murder and pillage, it has a peculiar resonance for our own time, when ideological and religious conflicts have degenerated into the same kind of madness in much of the world.

Sharif plays Vogel, an intellectual fleeing the carnage, plague and other horrors of the war – which are shown graphically in the opening scenes. By chance, he comes across an idyllic valley that has somehow escaped destruction. But a mercenary band led by a man known only as the Captain (Caine) soon finds it too, and Vogel knows what’s in store for the villagers when they come out of hiding: murder, rape and robbery.

In a desperate gesture, Vogel appeals to the Captain to spare the village, to winter there – "Live while your army starves." One of the other mercenaries, who is listening in, doesn’t like that at all, but Vogel ignores him:

VOGEL: I don’t know which side you’re on, Captain, but I’ll wager half your men don’t care.

CAPTAIN: What of those who do care, eh?

VOGEL (half-whispering): Get rid of them.

(The Captain takes his spiked helmet and stabs the other mercenary in the heart; he flops down dead in a pigsty)

CAPTAIN (wiping off the blood): Good ideas are rare these days, very rare. (notices Vogel appears ill). You look pale. Have you fever?

VOGEL. No. It’s just that—

CAPTAIN: Didn’t you say, ‘Get rid of them?’ (laughs) You philosophers are such hypocrites!

The man of words versus the man of action, and that is just the start of a strained relationship as Vogel, acting as an intermediary between the Captain and the villagers, tries to make the best he can of an almost hopeless situation – which means, among other things, setting the number of village girls who will have to become soldiers’ women, with forgiveness in advance from the local priest.

That priest – he’s a nasty piece of work. And there’s the village leader, Gruber (Nigel Davenport), who loses his woman Erica (Florinda Bolkon) to the Captain in a card game – or is that how it happens? Watch carefully! Clavell isn’t oversentimental; the villagers, like most people in the 17th Century, are an ignorant and superstitious lot – and yet Vogel knows they don’t deserve what would have befallen them except for his intervention.

And so he does what has to be done. In one scene, he pretends to be a Catholic and to have had a vision in order to persuade the villagers to assent to moving a shrine that might give away the location of the village – "That’s one thing I’m not ashamed of," he later tells a man who has seen through his ruse.

THE LAST VALLEY has riveting scenes of action, as when one of the mercenaries who has tried to rape a girl (who isn’t on the list) and then fled, returns with other brigands to attack the village. There is a touch of doomed romance – Vogel and Inge, the girl he saves from rape but knows he could never save if she went with him into the outside world. But the center of the story is the duel of wits and words between Vogel and the Captain over the fate of the valley.

I won’t give away any more. But THE LAST VALLEY is at once exciting, heart-rending and, finally, inspiring

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I remember reading the novelization, then seeing the movie in high school (a practice I followed weekly for years). The story is exciting and well-told and the acting was good. It never made a big splash at the box office, but worth seeing again.


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites