This is Germany in the early sixteenth century and the Thirty Years War is raging, with Protestants set against Catholics and the whole conflict being so muddled that sides are changed constantly and nobody has the upper hand. In the midst of this is scholar Vogel (Omar Sharif), panicking and trying to escape from the rampaging hordes to stay alive; he visits a village to try and buy food, but abruptly an army arrives to pillage, murder and destroy the place. Vogel barely gets away with his life and flees into the forest where he stumbles upon piles of plague ridden bodies and has to push his hand into a fire where he has inadvertently touched them. On this learned man wanders until he realises he is in a valley, a valley rich in food at that. Could he have found his refuge?
James Clavell these days is better known for his doorstep sized historical novels such as Shogun, but he was a filmmaker too, and The Last Valley is perhaps the film most like his books that he directed, being a historical epic. It was also, a TV movie a decade later apart, the last film he directed, and rather ignored in its day for being an impenetrable wallow in the troubles of 1600s, but although storytelling isn't its strongest suit, the work has great merit. One of the first things you'll notice, aside from Norman Warwick and John Wilcox's handsome cinematography, is that the otherwise quietly impressive Michael Caine is labouring with a "Vot ees yor nem?"-style German accent, which may cause you to wonder why as few of the other British actors here are doing the same. Listening to the film is like hearing a hodge-podge of nationalities, which adds to the general confusion.
Caine turns up pretty quickly to knock Sharif (skillfully displaying a wisdom of despair) to the ground almost the minute he has found his safe haven. He's playing the Captain, who leads a rough band of warriors out to eat all the food, kill all the peasants, and rape all the women they can, and this village in the valley looks like easy pickings. However, Vogel knows that the Captain and his men are suffering just as much as he is (well, alright, maybe not quite as much but they're certainly hungry) and poses a solution. This valley has prospered having been hidden in the mountains, so how about the Captain and company take over here, stop fighting and live as well as can be expected, which as this place is a paradise compared to everywhere else in a miles-long radius, can be good living. After killing off those of his men who oppose this idea, including Brian Blessed who is despatched with the spike on Caine's pointy helmet, they all settle down to lord it over the grumbling villagers.
Naturally, there's something wrong in paradise, and what causes most conflict is the same as what is inspiring the carnage outside: religion. Yes, The Last Valley is a historical epic for the atheists among you, as nobody in this film can live in harmony due to the petty squabbles over faith that steadily grow into violent affrays. The biggest bone of contention is when the Captain decides to move the village's shrine so as sensibly not to advertise the fact that they're there to any unwlecome viistors - this nearly leads to a full scale riot led by the quarrelsome priest, Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson). Meanwhile the Captain and his men have taken their pick of the village's young women, with Erica (Florinda Bolkan), the wife of the village's leader, Gruber (Nigel Davenport), won by the Captain. Erica is secretly a witch, and her beliefs are shown to be as superstitious as the pious priest; Vogel, as the voice of reason, struggles against these creeds and finds an ally in the Captain who says that God is "a legend". If you can follow it, this film is intelligent, provocative and fashions a convincing atmosphere of the era. Music by John Barry.