How Green Was My Valley (1941)
“Rich is their humor! Deep are their passions! Reckless are their lives! Mighty is their story!”
Director: John Ford
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Anna Lee
Synopsis: At the turn of the century in a Welsh mining village, the Morgans (he stern, she gentle) raise coal-mining sons and hope their youngest will find a better life.
John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is remembered today as much for the fact that it was the film that saw off precocious wonder-child Orson Welles’ debut piece Citizen Kane to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1942 as for the quality of its content. That win over a film widely regarded as one of the best ever made probably means that it’s received something of an unfair press in the years since; How Green Was My Valley certainly isn’t the worst film to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar, but it’s also far short of the best film never to win the award either.
Twelve-year-old Roddy McMillan plays Huw Morgan, the youngest child of a large mining family in a Welsh mining town at the end of the 19th Century. Huw has five older brothers and a sister. All the brothers work in the mine, as does their stern but loving father (Donald Crisp, who picked up a Best Supporting Actor for his performance) and most of the village’s men folk. Life is hard, but there is a strong sense of community and mutual trust. However, life grows considerably harder when the men go on strike after their wages are cut. Morgan, whose favouring of the mine owner’s position over the views of his son’s resulted in a family rift finds himself the target of abuse as the strike goes on, and his wife (Sara Allgood) and Huw fall into the river after she has a confrontation with the ringleaders. Both are bed-bound for a considerable time, and eventually the dispute is resolved.
Life continues, with each significant incident captured on screen. Two brothers emigrate to America when the mine starts laying off workers; Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara, who looks luminescent even in black-and-white) falls in love with the minister Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) but marries the son of the owner of the mine and moves with him to Capetown. Another brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles) dies in a mining accident. Each incident seems to drive the family a little further apart, a point illustrated by Huw charting on a map the various locations of his siblings around the world which provides a stark counterpoint to an earlier scene in which the large family are gathered around the dinner table for Sunday lunch. This dispersion of the family unit is concurrent with the deterioration of Huw’s beloved valley as the verdant land is overrun with slag from the ever-growing mine.
How Green Was My Valley is a superb, if overly sentimental, example of the Hollywood Dream Machine operating at the absolute peak of its ability. Polished professionalism shines from every frame, and Philip Dunne’s affectionate screenplay is filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia for a bygone time that can never be regained. As a theme, it’s virtually guaranteed to strike a chord with most audiences – after all, who amongst us doesn’t look back at earlier times without a sense of nostalgia every now and then? Underpinning it all, though, is the notion of loss and regret. People die, the community spirit slowly dissolves, mistrust creeps in, and the miners no longer sing lustily as they wend their weary way home. Life is never as good as it used to be – no matter how harsh it was.
In terms of entertainment value, How Green Was My Valley delivers in spades despite an undeniably episodic structure which means that characters float in and out of the plot as their stories take centre-stage or are shunted temporarily to the side for someone else to step forward. All the time, McDowell – in a largely passive role – observes with a solemnity at odds with his angelic features. His is one of a host of first class performances, all of which are marred only by the actors’ inadvisable attempts to master a Welsh accent. Only Maureen O’Hara is miscast – she looks way too glamorous to convince as the sole daughter in a turn of the century working class family.
(Reviewed 12th July 2012)