Around the turn of the twentieth century, a young boy, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), lives in Wales with his parents (Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood), his five brothers and his sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). Like the vast majority of the men in their village, his father and brothers work in the coal mines, and Huw seems destined for the same fate, although a new preacher from the University of Cardiff, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), helps open up his world through books. It’s a difficult life, but not one without its joys and pleasures, as a grown-up Huw reflects decades later.
How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford and released in 1941, was based on a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn. I haven’t read the book yet (though I’ve added it to my list), but the editions I found online are roughly 450 to 500 pages long — quite a lot of material to pack into two hours. Occasionally, the film reflects this. Some scenes, themes and characters seem underdeveloped, dropped too quickly or ignored for long periods of time, or they arise without sufficient explanation. If I had read the book first, I’m sure I would have been better able to fill in the blanks; on the other hand, I might have been annoyed by the omissions.
As the film is narrated by Huw many years after the events in question, its sentimentality is hardly surprising. Admittedly, it can border on the cloying, and Huw’s narration sometimes contains rather hackneyed lines like “If my father was the head of our house, my mother was its heart.” Still, it’s not a fairy tale in which everything works out in the end — far from it. Loss permeates Huw’s memories. Loved ones die or move away. Families are divided by disagreements. People make difficult choices that can’t be reversed, throwing away love and other opportunities for the sake of practicality. Workers lose their jobs, sometimes for being too highly skilled, and have to leave the country to survive. Even the valley itself gradually loses some of its beauty as a result of the black smoke to which it’s constantly subjected. The people, meanwhile, are a mixed bag, embodying everything from love, generosity and self-sacrifice to cruelty, hypocrisy and injustice. For all the sentimentality in its tone, How Green Was My Valley is a hard, sad story, one that acknowledges that life is far from perfect, even when viewed through nostalgic eyes.
The performances are fine all around, although it took me a while to get used to the stilted speech patterns, most prominent in Huw’s brothers; I assume they were used to indicate that the characters were speaking Welsh rather than English. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a beautiful film. The miners are constantly singing, so there are some lovely musical moments, but what really struck me was Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. Alas, the caps below are from YouTube (I watched the movie on my DVR after recording it from TCM), though they should get the general idea across:
To many people, How Green Was My Valley is best known as the film that beat out Citizen Kane to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I’ve only seen Citizen Kane once, and that was several years ago, so I won’t weigh in on that debate. (For what it’s worth, my personal favorite among the Best Picture nominees that year is The Little Foxes, but I have yet to see five of the ten.) Like all movies, though, How Green Was My Valley should be judged on its own merits. It has its flaws, but I’m glad that I watched it, and I look forward to rewatching and reevaluating it at some point in the future — maybe after I’ve read the book.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.