Why The Last Valley was so controversial

By Richard K. Munro

The other day I got the sad news that CHRISTIAN ROBERTS who had appeared in TO SIR WITH LOVE (with Sidney Poitier) and THE LAST VALLEY (with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif) passed away in December 2022. Andrew Roberts, his nephew, wrote a very moving obituary in the Telegraph. TO SIR WITH LOVE is a very well-known film but THE LAST VALLEY which an excellent and unusual film has been very little seen especially in the USA. Why would that be?

The opening prologue sums up that era of internecine warfare forcefully and concisely: “The Thirty Years War began in 1618. It started as a religious war – Catholics against Protestants. But in their relentless pursuit of power, princes of both faiths changed sides as it suited them and in the name of religion butchered Europe.”

But THE LAST VALLEY was controversial in its time and still remains largely unknown to the general public. Why?

Because The Last Valley was considered by many to be blasphemous and atheistic.

The Last Valley was boycotted by evangelical churches and Roman Catholic Church. I remember there were ads put out against it in major newspapers and religious newspapers. It was not shown on TV for years.   I don’t think it was ever released on VHS.  

Finally, it came out in DVD and we saw it again.   Still, I think it was a great and moving film. The Last Valley had to courage to deal with an actual human quandary. How the poor and the weak can survive an invasion of well-armed and ruthless mercenaries. Michael Caine’s captain could have been a Nazi officer or a Russian officer of today in Ukraine.

The Last Valley was one of the most popular movies at the British box office in 1971.  However, it was an expensive flop overall. It earned rentals of $380,000 in North America and $900,000 in other countries, recording an overall loss of $7,185,000.

Rentals in the USA and Canada were less than $500,000!!!! 

So I would say the boycotts were effective you could see it in New York and San Francisco and LA (briefly) but that was about it.

My father and I went to see it in NYC -heck it was a Michael Caine movie! He and I were the only ones in the theater! It closed almost right away.  

Many people attacked James Clavell’s script because he was a well-known atheist.    

Personally, I thought it was a very honest film and thoughtful film it did not take the side of the Protestants or the Catholics really but had a lot of complexity.  THE LAST VALLEY is also endowed by the ethereal music of the John Barry soundtrack. Barry seemed to capture the mood of the era.

The nihilism and atheism of the captain (Caine) were totally believable. after all the violence he had seen and all the treacherous and corruption of Christian leaders both Catholic and Protestant.

The film was an equal opportunity offender in that way.

The main characters in THE LAST VALLEY were traumatized by the violence and killing they had seen and committed. Such a brutal experience could shake the values of the most serious Christian or Jew.

Traumatic experiences can affect different individuals in different ways.

NIGHT one of the great Holocaust books showed hows the experiences and suffering of Elie Wiesel deeply scarred him and turned him into an atheist.  On the other hand, Viktor Frankl in MAN’S QUEST FOR MEANING another excellent Holocaust book- became more religious.  

In the Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn became more religious by his experience.  C. S. Lewis to me the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century became deeply religious because of his great war experiences. Others became disillusioned and joined the “Lost Generation.” 

I gain my philosophy of life from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as well as Lincoln, Churchill, and CS Lewis.  I am influenced by Judeo-Christian teachings naturally but do not consider myself a man of ONE BOOK or

Homo unius libri  (Thomas Aquinas). Aquinas is reputed to have said “hominem unius libri timeo” I fear the man of a single book. I think the Bible is great but recall that the New Testament is just one great book of Greek Literature out of many.    Though many do not recognize it the New Testament paraphrases Greek literature and philosophy.

My father and I often discussed religious and philosophical themes and he used to say I VOTE YES but heaven and eternal life IS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.   HE WISHED THERE WAS A JUST JUDGE AND THAT HITLER AND STALIN WERE BURNING IN HELL.   But in truth, he felt they were just as dead and senseless as Julius Caesar. They were beyond pain and punishment. Still, I hope there is a God and I hope he punishes the wicked.

So I suppose my father tended toward the skeptical even more than me.  THE LAST VALLEY was most controversial when it comes to explaining the process of granting indulgences by Roman Catholic priests. In that era their authority was almost complete. Per Oscarsson, a prestigious Swedish veteran of stage and screen in his homeland gave a splendid and singular performance as Father Sebastion (the fanatical priest).

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Omar Sharif plays the role of an educated stranger to the valley and is entirely credible. Vogel delicately uses his brains, not his brawn. Vogel must find a way to keep the soldiers from massacring the villagers while maintaining peace with the headman., yet at the same time maintaining an uneasy peace with the headman. This was one of Sharif’s great performances. In a supporting role, we have Arthur O’Connell always a very convincing actor.

I thought the script of the LAST VALLEY was intelligent and brilliant and all the acting was first-class.  Michael Caine’s performance was unforgettable. I can’t think of any other film that dealt with the 30 Years’ War.    I think we all can agree that the wars of religion were a great tragedy perhaps as bad as World War 1.   The only thing worse would have been the complete conquest of Europe by the Ottoman Turks! 

And of course, in a way the 30 Years war continued in Ireland until recent times.  

 Sectarian hatreds and prejudices are extremely harmful.    

None of us is perfect and the honest man agrees religion can be a positive influence or a negative influence.  

 I think people should choose for themselves (as adults what religion if any they want to practice). 

Anglican or Catholic or Jewish any tradition could be good and could have a beneficent effect on children and family life.   

  I perhaps would not show the LAST VALLEY to my grandchildren NOW (aged 1 to 5) but by the time they are in high school or college, they SHOULD SEE IT.

I am not in favor of boycotting books or movies although I would say some books and movies should not be shown to k-6 students.  Some are PG PG 13 etc.  

The Last Valley was rated PG and was suitable for all audiences. 

I showed PART of Schindler’s list to my high school students but never showed the entire movie but I recommended it.   I thought the entire movie was too much.  And of course in our district, one could show clips without parental permission but not R films.  You could show an R film if you had parental permission or gave students a chance to opt-out.   

I thought ALL the students should watch at least SOME of the film. Similarly I think The Last Valley is a film every person interested in history and the history of religious conflict should watch. I am glad I saw it in 1971 and I would see it again. It is in my film library next to TO SIR WITH LOVE, The Lilies of the Field, The Keys of the Kingdom The Mission, the Sound of Music, and Miracle on 34th Street.