I was at the store and spied this unknown 1971 flick amongst the DVDs; it looked like my kind of movie, especially with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, so I naturally wondered why I had never heard of it. I made a mental note to check out some reviews on the internet. The across-the-board high ratings piqued my interest, so I decided to pick it up the next time I saw it.
The first thing that made a favorable impression was the outstanding opening credits sequence. Many reviewers mention John Barry's magnificent score as a highlight and they're right. This credits sequence innovatingly depicts the theme of the Thirty Years War -- members of essentially the same religion at each other's throats.
THE STORY: During the horrible Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648) a band of mercenaries led by the merciless Michael Caine ("The Captain") and a drifter attempting to flee the horrors of the war discover a hidden vale -- the last valley untouched by the war. The drifter talks The Captain into wintering in the peaceful valley rather than pillaging it and raping/killing the villagers. (This setup itself is a hint that this is no ordinary war flick).
WHAT WORKS: Parts of the film have a dreamy, surreal atmosphere, particularly the beginning and ending; this is reminiscent of the incomparable "Apocalypse Now." Michael Caine is outstanding as The Captain, a character so hardened by the horrors of war that he no longer even has a name, he's just "The Captain." Caine would perform a similar role in the underrated "The Eagle Has Landed" in 1977, a stunning performance. The Captain's answer to everything was to simply kill, but now, in the valley, he has found peace and the warmth of love. Omar Sharif also perfectly depicts the disillusioned drifter, Vogel, his reaction to the horrors of war has always been to run, but in the valley he also finds peace and love, and even -- maybe -- a family? The depth and ultra-seriousness of the story, including the dialogue of the characters touching on issues of war, loss, God, religion, ignorance, superstitions, love, hope, loyalty, duty, redemption, etc. truly separate this pic from an ordinary war-adventure yarn.
It's also very interesting to observe how people lived in a regular hamlet 400 years ago in backwoods Europe. It was not unusual for people back then in such circumstances to live their entire lives within 10 miles or so from where they were born. Such people would likely be under-educated, superstitious, innocent, ignorant and narrow-minded all at the same time, and the film realistically portrays this.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK: There are parts of the film that aren't pulled off very well. Some of the dramatic stagings and dialogue come off awkward here and there. These aspects perhaps needed more fine-tuning and this explains why critics originally panned the movie and why it fell into obscurity for thirty years (a fitting curse for being the only movie to ever address the Thirty Years War, eh?).
Some have criticized the film for being anti-church or even anti-God. Actually the film's about the pursuit of God, truth, love and happiness in the face of the ultimate horror -- war. And not just any war, a war that lasted three decades wherein innocent civilians -- men, women, children & family members -- were needlessly slaughtered. The repugnance and terror of war caused The Captain to become a ruthless atheist, as he declares in one potent scene, and "tore the heart out of" Vogel, as revealed in another. But the last valley untouched by the neverending conflict has given them both hope again.
Originally The Captain was going to slay Vogel as soon as he met him, but after wintering in the valley he sets Vogel up as the leader while he leaves to attend to the business of war. He obviously had a change of heart concerning Vogel. In any event, he returns to the vale, wounded, his only sanctuary from the evils of battle and plague. His dying words to Vogel are: "Vogel, if you find God tell him we created..." He was no longer an atheist in the strictest sense; he now even hoped their was a Creator and WANTED Vogel to find truth, love & happiness. But it was too late for him. Or maybe not?
FINAL ANALYSIS: Despite the obvious flaws the film gets a huge 'A' for effort in my book. "The Last Valley" is a special picture. It successfully creates a small world of people some 400 years ago in a secluded vale in the paradisical wilderness of the Alps. A world you can get lost in for 2 hours. The originality of the story and its inherent profundities, not to mention the fine cast, performances and surreal aspects, lift the film above a simple adventure yarn. It's unorthodox, enlightening, thought-provoking and ultimately moving. If you enjoy films like "Apocalypse Now" and "Runaway Train," films that boldly attempt to go far deeper than the run-of-the-mill action/adventure flick, then be sure to check out "The Last Valley." You won't be disappointed. In addition, it's a film you'll continue to glean from in future viewings. But, since this is a dialogue-driven picture, be sure to use the subtitles so you can understand the heavily accented dialogue. You'll get much more out of it.