This is kind of a strange lead-in, but my friend and I were discussing one of my favourite movies. ‘The Last Valley’ came out in 1971 and stars Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, certainly two of the best actors…ever.
I highly doubt very many readers have seen it. It’s hard to find or at least was until the internet came along. It’s one of the very few English speaking movies concerning The Thirty Years War and its view of the war is pretty cynical. Generally I’m a fan of pretty dark movies and this one certainly is no exception. It’s not for everyone, but some of you (if you’re able to find it) will feel like you’ve found a buried gem.
If you like the movies of the period….the David Lean films, Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai…all those epic-feeling movies….but this one with a John Barry soundtrack…then you’ll appreciate it.
In the movie we see displays of religious fanaticism, a lot of brutality and the whole sceptical nature of the war…men who in their fighting demonstrate with their lives and actions that they don’t really believe in what they’re fighting for to begin with. Some of the characters openly express religious doubt.
Hollywood certainly doles out bad history and a lot of anachronism… often in the form of reading modern values into the past. ‘Braveheart’ comes to mind…historically one of the most egregious misrepresentations of history I ever recall seeing.
Anyway, some readers might find my response to be of interest, helpful, or something worth pondering. So I decided to slightly edit and share it.
My friend recently emailed me and asked…
What about the anti-religious secularism of the two chief protagonists, even assertive atheism on the part of the Captain? Is that historically realistic, or just the director showing us the 17th century through his modern eyes? I know that sort of thing was around at the time, but so open and blatant, reducing the entire Catholic-Protestant squabble to mere religious fanaticism?
To which I replied:
I do think there's some accuracy to that. While no doubt there were many true believers...and probably more so at the beginning of the war....certainly by the end of the war, there was a rampant and growing scepticism at work in Europe. When you read about Tilly, Wallenstein and so many others....they were hardly in it for the religious causes.
Marxist historians of course want to emphasize and hence reduce the causes to economic, political and sociological motivations. That too is a reductionism. People were fighting as is the case in most wars, for many different reasons. But just because some people were fighting for this or that 'faith'....there were just as many (if not more) who were tied up and motivated by the other reasons. Or as is most often the case, a combination of some or all of these factors.
Most historians will acknowledge that the Wars of Religion from 1520's-1648 and of course up until 1688 in England led to a growing scepticism and burnout both socially and politically. Rulers didn't want to get into it anymore, especially over religion. War is only profitable for the politicians who win and the companies who profit from the war machine. Leaders largely no longer wanted to get into compelling their populations to believing a certain way. And the people, they had no stomach for it anymore. The Thirty Years War was especially bad.
The Church stagnated during the 1700's. It seemed as if religion, especially fanatical religion led to trouble. Dead Orthodoxy set in, and the active sectors were not political per se, but more in the realm of Pietism.
It's no accident that the Enlightenment thinkers began to appear in earnest in the wake of all this. From Descartes to Voltaire and certainly the political philosophers like Locke and Hobbes must all be understood in light of these events.
It's ironic that the Reformation inadvertently created a social climate that produced all this. It rent Christendom (not a bad thing) but then also opened the door to modern secularism. This is big point of critique when you read Slavophiles and Russians. They critique the Western Middle Ages, Scholasticism, the Renaissance Reaction to it...leading to Reformation...and then the Enlightenment, the modern world and all the evils (from their point of view) that the West has unleashed upon the world. The West has made an idol of Reason, and with it comes pride and arrogance and these forces have wreaked havoc upon the world.
So I don't think it was anachronistic and I don't know that I'd agree that the movie (I'll have to watch it again) reduced all of it to religious fanaticism, though it certainly contained those elements. I think it was the fact the war had lost any meaning. Some were fanatics of course, but largely people were just...fighting, almost as an end in and of itself.
The whole thing degenerated and this is particularly poignant when you see (not in the movie of course) France entering the fray on the side of the Protestants. Richelieu and the Bourbons were not fighting for Catholicism they were fighting for France over and against their political rivals the Habsburgs. Religion had nothing to do with it, because they were on the wrong side. Their political interests trumped their religious convictions and obligations. The Habsburgs had Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. France was encircled and terrified England (especially under the Puritans) would get involved.
But of course England had their own troubles and under the Scottish Stewarts, England was not terribly keen to get involved. The accession of the Stewarts had also changed the calculus. The Tudors had been enemies of France but the Stewarts being Scottish were keen on the Auld Alliance...the old relationship between France and Scotland based on the common enemy of England. The Puritans were clear, they wanted the old Anglo-French conflict to continue, something the Stewarts would not pursue.
All that changed with the accession of William and Mary. The 2nd Hundred Years War with France (1688-1815) had begun.
But then (and I'm making a point in all this)....in the 1750's you had that huge diplomatic shift. Because of the Hanover's and their ties to the English throne and Prussia, this shifted England's natural alliance with the Habsburgs that came about post 1688.
Habsburg Spain was out of the picture by the late 1600's. And since France was once again the enemy, Britain had a natural ally with the Habsburgs.
But then Prussia rose up and destroyed the balance of power. Frederick (misnamed the great) took Silesia from Maria Teresa and the Anglo-Habsburg alliance was thrown into disarray.
There was a huge realignment (again we're in the 1750's).... The Habsburgs pulled off the unthinkable....peace with France. [i]
The re-alignment led to an outbreak of hostilities leading to what is rightly called the first worldwide war...the Seven Years War in Europe, with fighting going on in India and of course in America it was known as the French and Indian War.
How many soldiers said....why am I fighting? Is this all just a game? Is it any wonder why people began to question the entire nature of the political order? And of course to question that is to question the entire philosophical foundation it's built on.
How many people had ancestors die in the wars of religion to find their grandson's switching sides in the Thirty Years War? Years later, how many even knew why they were fighting in the Seven Years War? The Habsburgs are friends....then they're enemies....then friends? It must have seemed like something of a sick joke.
I think of the same thing when I look at the Crimean War. England and France aid Turkey to fight Russia? How many soldiers sat out there saying...what in the world are we doing? Why am I giving my life for a geo-political chess game?
I think the lesson (well, there are many) but one is certainly....the Church involved in war and politics is self-defeating. This is for many reasons, but one historical example is that in the end it produces scepticism and eventually a certain level of general hostility to the Church in general. People lose their trust in the authorities and the ideas which grant the authority.
· And though I didn’t include it in my original email response, I would also consider modern wars like Vietnam and the role they have played with regard to respect for government, scepticism, trust for authority…and the effects of politics on this question. For example, have Christians in some cases embraced these wars because of moral certitude or in some cases are they more motivated by political agenda and loyalty to certain ideology or cause?
[i] This was later ‘crowned’ in 1770 when Maria Teresa sent her daughter Marie Antoinette to marry Louis XVI of the house of Bourbon. A huge solidification of the diplomatic coup d'état.
Of course it didn't last long did it? Heads rolled and the alliance so long desired became moot.