Can a movie be too intelligent? I hesitate in asking the question, because there are plenty ready to insist that it is better for a film to wrap an appeal to the lowest common denominator in a thick empathic blanket than it is to attempt a reasoned, informed approach to its subject. The Last Valley, an early ’70s historical epic, nonetheless raises the question, because in tackling a difficult subject, it suggests that being too aware of larger issues risks losing the viewer.
Set during the Thirty Years War, Valley looks at what happens when a village safely removed from the rape, pillage and plague surrounding it is accidentally discovered by a scholar, Vogel (Omar Sharif) fleeing those horrors and a group of mercenaries led by “the Captain” (Michael Caine). Vogel persuades the Captain and the village patriarch, Gruber (Nigel Davenport) that instead of letting the soldiers resort to their usual carnage, it would be best for everyone to allow them to winter peacefully in the valley. The question then becomes how all will adjust to the situation and what will happen once Spring arrives.
The era’s historical complexities are expressed through the mixed motives of deeply flawed characters. No one offers an easy object of identification and the supposed reason for the war, the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, is dismissed as a hypocritical farce. Even Vogel comes off as weak, ineffectual and far too passive to serve as any kind of hero. That sophisticated perspective enables writer-director James Clavell to demonstrate the period’s tangled mess of conflicting ideologies and fanaticisms, but at the price of a clear narrative line. Moreover, the Realism of the situation and depiction (every violent action is shown in gory detail) conflicts with the conceit of a village living in fairy-tale, Shangri-la-like isolation.
The sense of contrivance to result from that contrast is unfortunate, for there is much good in the film. Michael Caine is particularly impressive as the Captain, even if his hard-boiled cynicism and broad historical consciousness feel suspiciously modern and dramatically convenient. The Captain, however, like every character, is caught in the film’s ambiguous purpose. For it is never clear whether The Last Valley is meant as an examination of one of the most destructive conflicts in European history or if, rather, those events are merely a backdrop to philosophical and theological debate. (Some of the more high flown dialog feels a little like The Seventh Seal.) It is that confusion which raises the question of whether a film can be too smart for its own good.
Looked at differently, however, the absence of easy conclusions about a horrendous moment in history may be the highest compliment that could be made for The Last Valley. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of emotional payoff works against its plea for tolerance by accidentally demonstrating just how much we crave the pleasure of irrational satisfaction, the self-indulgent, deceptively soothing comfort of unwarranted rectitude.