Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley.

A frightened teacher-on-the-run named Vogel (Sharif) stumbles into one isolated village begging for foot, and barely escapes as a band of mercenaries razes the village, killing everyone. He then stumbles into another valley, but so do the mercenaries led by “the Captain” (Caine). To save his own life, Vogel convinces the Captain that sparing the village and wintering there makes more sense than slaughtering everyone and moving on when famine, a harsh winter and the plague are killing everyone across Germany.

Before the mercenaries, this town had survived because of its relative isolation and because, when a lookout spotted danger, the villagers took their cattle and hid in the mountains until danger had passed. Now danger comes to this idyllic village, which, over the course of the film, is revealed to be not nearly as idyllic as it first seemed. And a negotiated agreement between the Catholic town fathers and the mercenaries creates the same sort of cessation of hostilities as among the mercenary band that was composed of both Catholics and Protestants.

Caine and Sharif are terrific as a pragmatic but ruthless officer and the voice of reason that tries to influence him, but the leader of this valley (Nigel Davenport as Gruber) and the village religious leader (Per Oscarsson as Father Sebastian) also factor into the film’s politics and underlying messages. And Florinda Bolkan and Madeleine Hinde make the most of their screen time as prominent women in the village.

The Last Valley places enough emphasis on character and ideas that it more than balances the violence shown—violence which, apart from a handful of scenes (see below), is still tame by today’s standards. Is it family friendly? Much more so than most war movies, but less so than many adventure movies. Clavell relies more on implication than actually depicting violence and brutality. Families with teens might find this a topical film to watch right now, as the chief concerns—plague and civil unrest—remain chief concerns 400 years later. Throw in the hypocrisy of powerful men who claim to know God’s will and the question of whether it’s possible for a small community to escape the world’s evils, and The Last Valley remains highly relevant.

Entire family: No (age 13 and older)
Run time: 125 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS stereo
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Rated PG (old system) for violence and implied rape

Language: 2/10—mild, given the atrocities of war

Sex: 4/10—nothing shown, but frequent implied or attempted rapes and women being “taken,” along with one woman who freely gives herself to a man and is shown draped in bed, implied to be naked, as well as a “law” that prescribes castration for future rapes

Violence: 6/10—one man is shown impaled (but not the impaling itself), another individual is burned, people are knifed at close range, and there are battle scenes

Adult situations: 5/10—drinking and looting

Takeaway: Like this isolated valley, The Last Valley is a pleasant film to discover, an epic that doesn’t celebrate history but instead explores human nature; and with a sharp new master, this Kino Lorber release is an enjoyable one to watch