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How Green Was My Valley (1941)
- Favorite Movies 1940s (#18)
How Green Was My Valley is a 1941 drama film directed by John Ford. The film, based on the 1939 Richard Llewellyn novel, was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and written by Philip Dunne. The film stars Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee, Donald Crisp, and Roddy McDowall. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five and beating out for Best Picture such classics as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion and Sergeant York. The film tells the story of the Morgans, a close, hard-working Welsh family at the turn of the twentieth century in the South Wales coalfield at the heart of the South Wales Valleys. It chronicles a socio-economic way of life passing and the family unit disintegrating. In 1990, How Green Was My Valley was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In the Rhondda Valley in Wales, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) is the youngest child of Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and Beth Morgan (Sara Allgood).
I tried but I can't. Seeing Valley 60 years after its premiere only tells me that it hasn't aged well and maybe wasn't even supposed to. After all, America's paeans to ordinary people and their dreams hit their peak in 1941, hot on the heels of WPA murals and Dorothea Lange's photographs. And while we might be living in an age of renewed sincerity (the memoir, David Grey), Valley still strikes me some kind of virgin artifact, a relic cast in mythology before it was even born.
A lot of that is thanks to the screenplay. Valley's protagonist Huw Morgan (played as a child by Roddy McDowall) narrates the story in flashback, as an old man leaving his Welsh valley town for the last time. As a boy, Huw lives with his large hardworking family in this small coal mining town. His father (Donald Crisp, who won an Oscar for the role) presides over the broad with a hardy mix of piety and discipline and works in the mines with his older sons. Mom tends the home front with Huw's beautiful older sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) who is secretly in love with the town preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). Over a few years, that love will be tested when the mine owner's son courts, Huw will get into fights at school, and the family will decide whether to join the striking coal miners. Yeah it's all warmed-over melodrama but the flashback narrative structure tells us we're in the land of fables here, not soot-covered realism like George Orwell's coal miner's chronicle The Road to Wigan Pier. And truth be told, I like a good soaper more than the average bear.
But good God man, not like this. Ford and his screenwriter Philip Dunne lay each of these stories out like ideas and then shrug at them. Some of them play out to a logical conclusion (Huw learns to box, which solves his problem with bullies) and some are maddeningly incomplete. (The love affair between Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd ends with him making an awkward speech to the congregation and splitting town. The strike and its economic fallout are never dealt with.) If Valley intended these to be select moments in the sweeping story of a changing community, I wouldn't complain. If fact, that's probably what Ford did intend, but that doesn't work either.
The simple touching prologue of Huw leaving the valley, now mostly empty and scarred with smokestacks, leads us to believe that the story of the Morgans stands in for the erosion of the family and the small town under the battering winds of progress. And yet little in the rest of Valley bears that out. Yes, two of the older Morgan boys leave town for better jobs in America. Yes, an influx of cheap labor and a mining accident leaves the family's future in doubt. Jobs change, kids grow up, parents get older, as it has been since the beginning of time. But in and of themselves, these plot points are incidents. They only become symbolic tragedies if allowed to develop that way over time. And for a movie claiming to contain such epic themes, How Green Was My Valley has very little conception of the passage of time.
We see Huw first as a child and in the end, a willful boy working in the mines with his father. My guess is about five years have passed. Yet the movie is narrated by Huw as an old man, wistful that 'I can close my eyes on my Valley as it is today -- and it is gone -- and I see it as it was when I was a boy.' Perhaps what happened in the intervening four decades has something to do with the slow death of his childhood home because we get only the merest inkling of it in the film. And yet the prologue and an intrusive voice over keep insisting that this tiny fraction of Huw's life is all we need to encapsulate the town's decay. It's simply not enough.
My guess is that seeing How Green Was My Valley so long after the fact clouds my perspective with a common movie lover's disease called Misplaced Importance Syndrome (MIS). Sometimes a movie intends for certain strands of its narrative to seize the spotlight, pushed there by marketing and the era of its release. Seen from the distance of time, those same strands hang limp and dull. Maybe it's me but I never understood why Gone With the Wind wasted all that time on Scarlet's crush on Ashley Wilkes when it's clearly just there to set up to her love affair with Rhett Butler. Or why the town in Town Without Pity seems a nonentity, its significance inflated by the movie's title and theme song. How Green Was My Valley belongs in this bunch, a title filled with memory and nostalgia that its screenplay doesn't support. Saying that 60 years after this film has seeped into our cinematic consciousness probably makes my heart seem black as coal dust. But it was ingested from standing too close to this film and expecting to breathe the fresh air of its convictions.