- Production Company: 20th Century Fox
- Year Released: 1941
- Directed By: John Ford
- Starring: Donald Crisp, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon
- Expect to Pay: $9-15
Ever since I started this project, I have come to realize that people from just a few generations past were willing to tolerate or even appreciate a lot more than we do now. Sentimentality and sweetness weren’t quite the killing blows to a film that they are now. One of the biggest differences between audiences of the 20th century and now though is that seemed not to mind having films that lacked linear plots. Many of the best picture winners so far have tried to present a sweeping panorama of life at a certain point in time rather than having a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. How Green Was My Valley, based on the 1939 novel of the same name, is another such movie. Unlike other films of its ilk, it also contains endearing characters that you want to root for and succeed. And yes, while, it does have a bit of that kitsch that plagues the films of the time, it’s saved from most of it by its stellar casting and direction by John Ford.
The story of How Green Was my Valley is about a young man named Huw reminiscing on his youth in small mining town in Wales in the late nineteenth century. The young man, played by Roddy McDowall, shows his family and how people used to live as coal miners before things went from bad to worse. The family never had much money, but they did have each other, and at the head of the family is the father, masterfully played by Donald Crisp. Through the eyes of this family, we see the town rise, fall due to economic pressures, deal with the evolving social and political climates of the times and see it eventually overtaken by pollution and urban creep.
The family deals with it all in different ways.,Huw goes to school, but instead chooses to work in the mines. His brothers go to America after having difficulties following a prolonged strike and an influx of workers. And Huw’s older sister (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with the local preacher (Walter Pidgeon), but instead marries the mine owner’s son, choosing to follow her head rather than her heart. It is all told with a down-to-earth sentimentality that many other films would have stumbled with. However, the cast saves it from being melodramatic, in no small part, as previously mentioned, to the ability of John Ford.
John Ford, being of Irish descent himself, had an affinity for Gaelic-speaking communities, and as such portrays the lives of these working-class men and women with a care and a love that is seldom seen in most films today. We’d see this kind of attention to detail again when he went to Ireland with John Wayne in The Quiet Man. If I could describe the atmosphere of How Green Was My Valley, it would be nostalgic, but also gritty.
The town itself looks charming enough on the surface, as one might expect with a story told from someone nostalgic for what they thought was a better time. Inside the mine however, it is dark and dismal, with shadows everywhere and black-faced workers at full tilt. It’s almost as if Ford is trying to show us a romanticized version of old industry (what might be deemed as “the way it was”) stacked against the realities of how things actually were. Being from Appalachia, this message struck a powerful chord with me.
Speaking of contrasts, the contrast of light and shadow in this movie is used to full effect, with the night scenes looking menacing during the harsh winter and inviting during the summer.
Wide establishing shots are used throughout, showing panoramic views of the town and its inhabitants over the course of history, which ties directly back into one of the main goals of the film: to show a panoramic view of the history of a region from the perspective on one small boy and his family. The cast is necessary for this. Huw’s family are all wonderfully portrayed. John Ford, despite being one of the hardest men in Hollywood to work with, nonetheless knew how to get the best performances out of each member of his cast, and How Green Was My Valley is no exception. Maureen O’Hara does a great turn as Huw’s younger sister, and while I thought Walter Pidgeon as the preacher fell a little flat, he still delivered his lines with a earnestness and a sincerity that I believed. However, none of them come close to Donald Cris as Huw’s father. He’s both kind, fair, and unflinching in his moral beliefs all at the same time. He portrays a pious, devoted husband and father who is always more than willing to help out, and frankly deserved better than how life treated him in the end. Though I won’t spoil the ending here, suffice it to say that left me with a tear in my eye. It also helped that the score for this film is among some of the best of its time. The Welsh, by their very nature, have a knack for song. If there is one thing they pride themselves on more than their language, it is their singing ability. How Green Was My Valley shows this wonderfully, with many singing songs sprinkled throughout the production.
Overall, this is one of the best films John Ford ever made, and considering just how many excellent titles Ford made, that is saying a great deal. Yet, it did not deserve the Oscar in my opinion. Certainly, it was more than worthy of an Oscar, and in any other year, I would have agreed with the Academy. However, 1941 also saw the release of Citizen Kane, considered by many to be the greatest film of all time. Due to the political nature of the times, it was essentially barred from winning, though in my opinion, it was better than this movie. Yet, though the best movie didn’t win, How Green Was My Valley is a towering achievement with an extremely positive message on the enduring nature of the human spirit.
Next time, we cry some more with Mrs. Miniver. See you then.