James Clavell’s last film as director was this 1970’s epic about the Thirty Years War; Clavell never directed again after this 70mm historical drama went down the tubes in short order eveywhere but the UK. But Clavell’s instinct for fresh, original material served him well, and viewed from 2022, The Last Valley is an unusually literate, serious-minded historical war film that feels like the missing link between equally thoughtful Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons and The Mission.
Adapted from JB Pick’s novel, The Last Valley starts in the 17th century with a man in the wilderness; his name is Vogel (Omar Sharif), and so we’re quickly clued-in that what’s important about him is that he’s a witness, to violence, to genocide, to history. He stumbles away from assailants, through a pile of bodies carrying the plague, and eventually to a previously unknown valley. Also discovering the valley is the Captain (Michael Caine) and his deadly mercenary army. They see the quiet lives of the Catholic denizens of the valley and envy them their security; as mercenaries, they have none. The valley’s Catholic population, however, aren’t exactly enamoured of the soldiers the Captain brings, even if the Captain refuses to burn down their churches. Will the Captain eventually massacre his captives, or can peace break out in a bitter religious feud that’s lasted for generations?
There’s a third dimension here which elevates the narrative; opening titles make a point that despite the well-known ferocity of the religious difference in Southern Germany at the time, the mercenaries do not take sides, they just do what they are told. Their masters exploit the differences between Catholic and Protestant for their own ends, which cannily allows the film itself to avoid taking sides; the original book’s author was a Quaker. We view the Captain, with his clipped accent and quick reflexes with his sword, as a potential monster, but he emerges as a thoughtful and tragic figure by the end, a man who has never known anything but war and sees the world with a healthy cynicism. ‘You dare to speak to me of enemies and just wars? There is no just war. You know it; everyone knows it. The truth is your leaders are bigots, your generals are bandits; you employ any mercenary you can get and the Pope plays politics!’ says the Captain. ‘ The truth is your war is filth, greed and hypocrisy – and the other side is just as rotten! All sides are rotten, except for people like you, religious fanatics who incite murder for the sake of a God they have never known.’
Need more incentive? A wonderful, insistent score by John Barry, a super-rare, super smart sub-plot about the influence of witchcraft, embodied by witches’ witch Florinda Bolkan, a terrific location which we see in as the seasons pass, plus pro support from Brian Blessed and Nigel Davenport. The Last Valley may be a little stodgy and worthy by today’s urgent standards, but if you’re looking for a reminder of how literate films used to be, your time would be well spent here. This print below isn’t perfect, but it’s more than watchable, and Caine’s performance is one of his best; it’s utterly remarkable to think that he just knocked this memorable portrait out somewhere between the rather better-known The Italian Job, Get Carter and Sleuth. And instead of the usual trailer, I’ve included this discussion of the film by the eternally-incisive Brian Trenchard-Smith of the always-engaging Trailers From Hell.
Enjoyed this at the time. It had a fabulous unusual trailer. Great cast and very interesting story, not what you have expected for a 70mm historical epic but in a way almost a companion piece to Patton which took a different attitude to war than the normal roadshow. Had never seen Balkan before this and afterwards always looked out for her. One of Caine’s best performances. There were plenty efforts to get Tai Pan off the ground but after that Clavell seemed to realise it was easier to be a bestselling novelist.
Michael Caine is the best. FacT!
Even I might like this. In spite of Michael Caine!
I like reading about the Thirty Years War. Should check this out. Plus Caine in his prime. Can’t be too bad.
I literally only saw this film on Wednesday night, online. But it should be up there with the Caine classic IMHO.
What was the thirty years war like at the time? Did you know how long it was going to last, or was it a surprise?
When we enlisted we were told it would be over by Christmas.
Isn’t that what they told you at the 100 years war too?
They did. And that one lasted more than 100 years too.
Did you get your money back when it overran? You can do that if you have the paperwork.
I took the overtime.
You’re like Connor McLeod in Highlander, living for centuries, through conflict after conflict…
I had a showdown with Connor at Hattin back in 1187. We had to call it a draw.
I heard it was a nil nil draw. After extra time.
We went out for sherbet after.
A glass of Glenmorangie?
He drank Lagavulin. Despite his nom de guerre he told me he’s always been more an island than a highland man.
It was hard to be an island man in the village of Glenfinnan. Did he says much about his early years? Pee his kilt on the way to battle?
He didn’t say when he acquired a taste for Islay malts. Might have been after he got to wandering around a bit.
Hé was drinking Absinthe when I ran into him Paris 1936. He borrowed my raincoat. Never got it back.
I saw him wearing a raincoat, sitting on a porch, barefoot and drinking liquid corn out of a Mason jar in the Appalachians back a few years. Might have been yours.
My Appalachians had been closed to the public for reupholstery at that period of his life.
What kind of jars did James Mason make?
Is the correct answer.
Well, if it has Michael Caine in it then it has to be good. The Bookstooge Axiom comes into play yet again!
That axiom has served you well, and it’s true! In fact, this is probably his most underrated film!
I’ve never heard of this movie either, so definitely not a popular choice. Of course, me not knowing about a movie isn’t saying much….
Watched another Caine last night, so plenty of new Caine reviews heading your way soon!
That’s what we want to hear!