Judge David Johnson liked it significantly more than the first.
Freddy vs. Jason. Alien vs. Predator. Protestant vs. Catholic.
Set against the backdrop of the horror of The Thirty Years War that ripped apart Europe in the 17th century, The Last Valley brings screen heavyweights Omar Sharif and Michael Caine together in this powerful story of the effects that war and religious fanaticism can have on people.
Facts of the Case
What a pain in the butt it would have been to live in Germany in the 1600s. The expository text at the beginning of the movie gives the audience a history of The Thirty Years War, ultra-brief but effective enough in communicating that this was one royally f%$&*-ed up time in human history.
You have the Catholics and the Protestants, and they despise each other. Adding fuel to this burning tension is the basic dick-titude of a lot of the powerful princes, bishops, and religious leaders. Motivated more by greed, vengeance, and political aims and less by actual faith, the church head honchos and some other power players get this crappy war rolling. And roll it does, all over Europe, as hordes of mercenaries, soldiers, and wackos begin razing Germany to the ground. Villages are sacked, women are raped, everyone dies, and things burn down. All in the name of power masked as God's will.
But this is merely the setting. The meat of the movie centers on the relationship between two men: The Captain (Caine) and Vogel (Sharif). The Captain is a ruthless, brilliant leader of a ragtag band of vicious mercenaries—some Catholics, some Protestants, all soldiers fighting for an ambiguous cause (mostly though they fight for themselves).
Vogel is a former teacher on the run from the unending violence. His sojourn takes him to a picturesque, undisturbed village, lying in the middle of a breathtaking valley. The village has yet to be marauded, but that may change. The Captain shows up with his motley crew and immediately secures the area, putting the villagers under his boot. Vogel pleads with The Captain to spare the village, and, in fact, protect it as a haven for rest as the bitter winter sets in. The Captain agrees, and thus, a tenuous friendship develops between the two men.
But peace is tissue-thin. The threat of war is constantly lurking. Some of The Captain's men hide deception in their hearts. Gruber (Nigel Davenport) is the leader of the village and secretly lays plans to kill the invaders with whom he's built a shaky trust. And the presence of a shifty village priest, who uses fear and the threat of damnation to control the masses, adds complexity to the political instability of the village (the priest approves indulgences for women willing to "go" with the soldiers; The Captain himself finds himself a lady friend who acts as an emotional anchor for him).
The rock-solid Vogel is thrust into the middle of these factions, charged with keeping the peace, even in the face of attacks from other bands of soldiers, rebellion within The Captain's ranks, fanatical religious persecution, and general paranoia.
With warring personalities colliding with the bloodshed of the conflict, the question looms: will the village remain untouched, or is it forever scarred by the brutality of the era?
James Clavell, the auteur who brought us Shogun, crafts an epic wartime tale that is wildly intriguing on many levels. For one, the history. I am not terribly familiar with The Thirty Days War, and while The Last Valley is by no means a History Channel special, it does shed light on this enigmatic, awful period.
Second, the scenery. The location shooting is simply awesome, with the wide shots of the valley the most notable.
Third, the themes. Clavell tackles a variety of heavy-hitting themes, all of which are compelling: the submission to ideological tyranny, the limitless potential of crap people can become when they fall prey to their impulses, the struggle for reason in an unreasonable time, and of course the ravages of war (an utterly pointless war at that).
Lastly, the characters, specifically The Captain and Vogel. These two and their interactions with each other drive the movie. The Captain's cold, always-in-control, blinded to compassion motivations versus Vogel's educated sensibility collide often through the film, and produce some excellent, well-written bits of dialogues. In fact, the movie is filled with great verbal exchanges, and Vogel and The Captain continually assert their own personalities and agendas, all the while cultivating a profound friendship.
The film boasts strong female roles as well, particularly noteworthy, as it is set in a time where women were treated more as cattle than humans (e.g. The Captain and Gruber shooting dice for the rights to a woman.) Though the women are always teetering on the brink of being accused as witches or sexually assaulted by soldiers, they still project strength and loyalty.
The film runs a shade over two hours, and though the action is sparse (aside from a couple of nice little battles) and there's not a huge amount of BIM-BAM-ZOOM for your buck, the film is riveting. For me, it boiled down to the dynamite performances.
There's good stuff in this movie. Lots of good stuff.
Unfortunately, the technical achievements of the film fall far below the standard set for the feature. The widescreen transfer is duly appreciated, but the video quality is verrrrry iffy. Often, the picture suffers from over-pixelation, and shakes in random places. Worse, is the audio. It's a mono track that is way too muted. For example, if you watch it through the video input on your television and switch to cable, the volume difference will rupture your eardrums.
The lack of extras is disappointing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is rated PG, which is just ridiculous. This isn't a family movie: stabbings, burnings, near-rapes, etc. Just be warned.
A great piece of filmmaking, The Last Valley deserves a home somewhere in your DVD library.
Not guilty. Go back to your valley.
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