Now is probably the only time that a film as strange as The Last Valley could ever have been made in Hollywood. It seems that any glorified technician is able to gain a camera and a crew if he can convince some producer-hipster that he has a personality and a moral. How provocative must the Thirty Years War have sounded to allegory-minded capitalists trying to pull their finances out of a contemporary historical version and into a filmed one! What is most enjoyable about The Last Valley is the way it upsets one's expectations and tries to transcend its genre. What is most ironic is its obvious linkage with various past movie eras.
First, it is most possible that producer-director-writer James Clavell was able to get the six million-plus cash backing for the film only because of his last work: the dreadfully successful To Sir, with Love. If not for his track record, he would not have been able to make a full-blown medieval epic whose hero is a rationalist mercenary who urges idealists to kill if they want to preserve any happiness and falls in love with a Satan-worshipper. And Clavell went straight to major financing: ABC pictures and its affiliated Cinemara releasing company. It reminds one of the runaway productions made by "hot" directors in the fifties and sixties: most were, if trashy, weirdly fascinating, dealing with all sorts of subjects, ranging from elephant-preservation to sun-worshipping, the only two requisites being violence and exotic setting. Set in a hidden valley during the Thirty Years War, The Last Valley meets both terms.
Second, Clavell clearly has not been affected by any of the hysteria over recognition of film as a visual art which has forced some old pros and inchoate apprentices to strive hysterically for a "look": more specifically, a "now" look. From his work, I assume that Clavell would think even the serious theories to be so much drivel. I don't know if I'd call him a "good storyteller" as Pauline Kael did, but that is precisely what he intends to be, and at times he is successful. He is crude in the sense that a Michael Curtiz or Roaul Walsh was crude, aiming for direct actions which are emotionally arousing but possess a sort of integrity: they don't score moral points. At one moment, a Teutonic Savanarola is thrown onto a witch's pyre of his own fashion, but there is no audience gratification-this though the priest, aside from the town merchant, is the film's leading villain. The motivations are too involved, and the action itself is one which goes beyond personal conflict; it is treated as such. Like a good old Warner Brothers hack, Clavell lets the atmosphere seep in as his story rides, doesn't try to obfuscate the dialogue, and relies squarely on his camera only in climactic moments. Since the film is an epic, there are many of them: gruesome treks, battle scenes and fatal individual combats. There is little of the David Lean-William Wyler pretension strangling itself in technicolor and wallowing in bathos.
Third, Clavell's all-precious story itself hearkens back to movie times previous even to those implied by the details of its production. The dirty Western has been with us for a long time, especially since The Wild Bunch made it artistically valid; Clavell's new film is an attempt to make a dirty swashbuckler. Clavell fails, but not totally without honor; he fails, in fact, because of his integrity. There was always a kind of folk realism to the Western. Audiences related to the films historically: this was their image of their past, a totally moral one, and the Western was as popular during good times as during bad. The swashbuckler, which was regarded as epic only when stricken with elephantiasis, was always a totally escapist form: it transported the audience to a never-never land where evil baron Basil Rathbone could say to rebel Errol Flynn, "You speak treason!"; to which Flynn could add: "Fluently." What creative rapport could Hollywood establish with twelfth-century England or Italian buccaneers? All they could do was film the material as excitingly as they could, and spice it up with Campish or currently idiomatic dialogue.
Clavell's intentions are above that order: his story does have real possibilities as a vehicle for communicating the hypnotic attraction of humanist gemiitlichkeit amidst deteriorating world situations. Cross The Seventh Seal with Lost Horizon and you have a good idea of the conception's attractiveness. But it is in his attempt not to play with the material that Clavell manages to kill his situation's bite.
THE OPENING scenes are effective. Omar Sharif, as one of the wandering scholar-saints that people Hollywood history, witnesses the destruction of a harmless farm village by a group of barbaric soldiers never identified by political affiliation; their only purpose is to pillage, and the peasants are murdered and raped as a matter of course. Sharif literally has to claw his way past slain corpses and Black Plague victims; the blight is so baldly presented that Sharif's ultimate arrival at the one unblemished valley in the Balkans proves enchanting: it's one of those great, outlandish movie ideas which only a philistine could conceive of, and only a moron botch. The Last Valley is the first film in a long time to present effective bucolia, even if John Barry's music, today's answer to Max Steiner's, rumbles ever-ominously in the background.
And, when Michael Caine's hordes first stumble onto the same agricultural treasure-lode, there is no indication that the film will seriously falter. Sharif persuades Caine that wintering in the valley village might prove more beneficial to the soldiers than sacking it. Caine promptly murders two dissenters. The remaining twenty are none too perturbed; after all, Caine's unnamed Captain is a rather tough, cool cookie, and as one soldier remarks, strongman Korsky "was a turd."
However, the film gets inextricably bogged down when the mercenaries mix with the peasants. Clavell's characters are dull when they're not in action; the soldiers are grossly sensual and self-serving, and, as is equally realistic, the peasants are stolid, superstitious folk. But Clavell remains outside them: the only characters he feels comfortable with are those of Caine and Sharif, the former having the remaining good lines. (All-suffering Sharif complains bitterly that one of his favorite country maidens is one of a group picked to whore for the soldiers in exchange for protection. Says Caine: "Three months ago life was impossible. Do you expect it now to be easy?")
CLAVELL does not have the artistry for stylization, and he cannot invent a full folk idiom. His dialogue remains strictly functional, hardly, in any dramatic sense, dialogue at all. He is tough-minded, and is very matter-of-fact about Satanism, religious fanaticism, and brutal deaths; but there is so much dynamic material that we are not sure of how we should respond to anything.
There are several fine moments: a peasant father rubbing spit in his eye and kissing his crucifix when he suspects Sharif of Satanic evil, or a ritual killing of the hothead who breaks away from Caine and attempts to destroy the village. He charges at the Captain, brandishing a battleaxe; his target calmly raises a pistol, and fires at his groin. A child strikes the felled warrior two glancing blows with a mace; the villagers look on. The rebel dies in agony.
These scenes, surprising in their candor and spareness, merely show up the longueurs of the rest of the film. The Last Valley wanders into confusion. Caine leaves Sharif in charge of the town, and Sharif, too "humane" to kill the priest and the merchant, falls prey to their machinations. A cogent ambivalence is presented but finally discarded: Caine has advocated the burg's destruction during the spring thaw, feeling that its inhabitants were under the thumbs of their traditional leaders, and that it would merely become a refuge for future foes. Sharif-perhaps enchanted by the mere physical beauty-opposes him. Caine is finally ambushed, which would have proved him correct, and pointed to the need for constant political redefinition-had he not been fatally wounded previously, it seems, in the battle he left the village to fight in. For some reason, Caine tells Sharif that he was perhaps right; and then dies.
By this time, the film itself has died, and it's a pity. We need men able to create visionary works which are not directly applicable to current times, but which play out our ethical fantasies for us; or indeed help to direct them. Clavell lacks a high degree of intelligence or artistry, but his recognition of that need in itself deserves applause.
Perhaps, also, we should remember that good, honest hackwork is hard to come by, though I don't expect those brought up on Antonioni to understand this. As written and performed, there is more humanity and intelligence in Caine's and Sharif's characters than those who fall into the snob-trap are apt to admit. I take Clavell's work on these two characters as a good sign for commercial moviemaking. And to hell with the characters in the Gary audience who laughed when Caine's Captain died. May they greet death as gracefully. The sooner, the better.