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The Last Valley
  • Composed by John Barry
  • Intrada / 2007 / 38m

An historical epic set in Germany during the 17th century Thirty Years War, James Clavell’s The Last Valley sees a group of troops led by Michael Caine spending the winter in an isolated valley with Omar Sharif and a band of peasants.  And who wouldn’t want to spend a winter in an isolated valley with Omar Sharif and a band of peasants?  Naturally enough, things don’t pass off as peacefully as hoped, and rape, pillage and fighting ensue.  The film didn’t attract good reviews nor good box office performance when it was released early in 1971 but in the decades since has come to be seen in a rather better light.

For the score, John Barry composed what might simplistically be called The Lion in Winter II.  There was a great variety to the films he scored during this period of his career, and indeed for the music he composed for them; this pair of historical films inspired him to write a pair of scores that stand alone in his career in terms of style and represent in my opinion the composer at the very height of his powers – strong, distinctive, quite magnificent music.

John Barry

John Barry

The Last Valley is highlighted by two themes of the highest order, memorable even by Barry’s high standards.  The dark, powerful, action-packed main title theme, with its driving German chorus, is effectively a theme for war.  In “The Plague Pit”, he takes that choral theme and arranges it for bass voices only, which combined with the uniquely guttural German words is really quite powerful (that piece eventually takes the action off in a separate direction).  “Main Title Theme – Part 2” is even more powerful, with its extraordinary stinging, stabbing brass crescendos (heard again later in “Vogel Leaves the Valley”) adding even more weight to proceedings.

There’s wonderful action music elsewhere, too – “The Village Attack” a relentlessly driving (slightly James Bond-like) track that’s right up there with Barry’s finest.  “Witch Burning” with its deep humming chorus and chimes like church bells is dark, deliciously so, and quite mesmerising.  At the other end of the scale come a few much lighter songs – “An Evening Song”, “A Children’s Song”, “A Christmas Song” – with a capella choir, arranged beautifully (very similar to some of the songs in The Lion in Winter).  One piece – “An Offertory Chant” – takes the same style, but in a much darker direction; it’s still stunningly beautiful.

Best of all, for me, is the secondary theme, a theme for the valley itself, introduced in the second track, “The Last Valley”.  Long-lined, gut-wrenchingly beautiful, it’s one of the most memorable Barry ever wrote – which is saying something.  The extraordinary “Death of the Captain” which concludes the album is as emotionally-wrought as any piece of film music you’ll ever hear – that incredible theme, strings swelling, beautiful female choir joining – it’s magnificent, heartbreaking, emotionally devastating.  Barry never wrote anything more beautiful.

Intrada’s release of the score is a straightforward reissue of the old LP – there’s no new music, the sound is far from great, the liner notes, oddly, barely mention the music at all – but you can cast all that aside and fall under the spell of one of the truly great soundtrack albums.  Silva Screen released an excellent re-recording of the complete score, which makes a great alternative to this album.  Whichever one you choose – the music is mesmerising, enlightening, exceptionally moving – a masterpiece.  It simply doesn’t get any better.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Paul Cote (Reply) on Saturday 1 June, 2013 at 16:56

    Really glad to see this. This and Lion in Winter are my two favorite Barry albums. The contrast between the raw despair of the main title and the fragile beauty of the valley’s theme is one of the most profoundly moving things Barry ever penned. This is an occasion where the lp arrangement actually works best for me – both because Barry’s sequence has its own ideal narrative ark, and because the original recording has a chilly crispness that’s integral to the music’s power.

  2. Debbie (Reply) on Saturday 1 June, 2013 at 19:02

    Thanks I appreciate knowing what are the finest compositions of the composer .

  3. David Pfohl (Reply) on Friday 17 March, 2017 at 15:08

    Hello James,
    I know from a comment at Filmtracks that you give a slight edge in quality to the Nic Raine rerecording of The Last Valley. Just wondered if you have had a chance to hear (or did you hear anything about) the Nov. 2016 Quartet Records remastering? Did they do a good job?
    Have never written you before, allow me to thank you for many years of enjoyable reading & guiding my soundtrack purchases with a steady hand. And may I say how nice it was to read your website retrospective.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Friday 17 March, 2017 at 20:20

      Thanks David. I didn’t buy the Quartet release – like you I was waiting to hear if it was a significant enough upgrade in sound over the Intrada one. I think the consensus was that it wasn’t. With time I think I’ve reversed my preference and prefer the original album recording now (the raw power of the performance makes up for the poorer sound) but I’m very pleased to have both.