A review of the under-known and under-appreciated 1971 film “The Last Valley”

Over my many years of cinema-going, I’ve viewed a whole range of movies with titles beginning “The Last ..” including “The Last Emperor” (1987) and “The Last Samurai” (2003). “The Last Valley’ may not be the best-known film with this kind of title, but it made an impression on me when I first saw it at the cinema in 1971 and still resonated with me when I viewed it again on DVD some 46 years later.

It is partly the unusual historical context: the story is set during the repeated bloody clashes of Catholic and Protestant armies largely in German-speaking continental Europe in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and reference to a particular battle in a line of dialogue places the period more precisely in late 1643 and early 1644. It is partly the important subjects that it addresses: the narrative is a sharp critique of the role of religion and superstition in fostering hatred and war and the leading character eventually shouts at the local priest: “There is no Hell. Don’t you understand? Because there is no God. There never was. Don’t you understand? There is no God! It’s a legend!”.

This British film was written, produced and directed by James Cavell before he became famous for his blockbuster novels. The 17th century village in question was recreated in the valley of Trins in the beautiful Tyrol region of Austria. The Catholic villagers who live there may look rather too clean and well-clothed for the period but the mainly Protestant soldiers who occupy the valley certainly look the part. The music is from John Barry who had made his name with the early James Bond movies.

At the heart of the story is the changing fortunes of the characters as they are subject to competing sources of power: civil authority in the shape of the head villager Gruber (Nigel Davenport), religious dogma provided by the village priest Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson), military authority imposed by a character known only as The Captain (Michael Caine), and the voice of reason and tolerance offered by the academic refugee Vogel (Omar Sharif). In the course of the story, each will have his moment of triumph but each will suffer grievously in this under-known and under-appreciated film.


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