How Green Was My Valley
Tuesday July, 1 2014 at 10:15 PM
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John Ford famously described himself as a maker of Westerns. He was, of course, but his films were in an even more primal way about family. Unlike Howard Hawks, with his studies of men at work, Ford concentrated with tough-minded sentimentality on more interpersonal family-style dynamics, starting with the extended family of Stagecoach (1939). He broadened his canvas with the shipmates of Eugene O'Neill's The Long Voyage Home (1940), the Dustbowl-fleeing, Depression-battling Joads in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and, quintessentially, the turn-of-the-last-century Welsh coal-mining family in How Green Was My Valley (1941). (Ford's West Point tribute, The Long Gray Line (1955), seems a How Green Was My Valley Lite, and in uniform.)
There are those who can't forgive How Green Was My Valley for taking the Best Picture Oscar® away from Citizen Kane (1941). But to dismiss it as sentimental nostalgia or ignore its accomplished craftsmanship, as some detractors have, seems willful blindness. Constantly and inescapably, it's played against social, political and economic forces ever ready to rip to shreds the fabric of its close-knit family. "Was" is the key word in the title of the film drawn by screenwriter Philip Dunne from Richard Llewellyn's autobiographical novel. The valley he loved is no longer green, a narrator declares bluntly at the outset. It is covered with black slag, waste from the coal mines.
The contrast sets the tone of the film, maintaining throughout a tension between the bedrock of family warmth and the harsh forces just outside the cottage door. It lays a heavy hand upon them all, trumping love, no matter how heartfelt, with dispersal and death. It's narrated by an older version of the 10-year-old boy at its center, Huw, finally leaving forever his village tacked on a hillside. The colliery looms over it, belching smoke, daily disgorging an army in blackface, covered in coal dust, which they scrub off each day in their small cottages, only to turn themselves into blank canvases for the next day's deposit. That's when things are going well. Sometimes they do not go well, as when the miners strike after the fact of more bodies than jobs cuts their wages, or when unsafe mine conditions end in shrieking whistles and alarms stab the village with dreaded bad news.
The film's center is the Morgan cottage, where six sons and a daughter are presided over with stern, loving, ever-ebbing authority by Donald Crisp's patriarch, and Sara Allgood's bustling matriarch. Crisp is a figure of almost touching dignity, a sort of tribal elder. His dispensing of fatherly love and unlettered wisdom that does not include an openness to such currents of modernism as unions won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® (Ford got a Best Director Oscar® to match the film's Best Picture statue). Allgood should have snagged one, too. She matches him every step of the way, and outsteps him when she tells the miners off for talking against her husband because he opposed a strike. In a scene that must have resonated with American workers, also in the throes of their own labor organizing, the eldest sons (John Loder, Richard Fraser) angrily rise from the dinner table and move out of the house because their father won't go along with their or the film's -- pro-union agenda.
Roddy McDowall, fresh from England, plays the youngest son, Huw, with the precocious assurance of a professional actor, bringing to the role what it needs most ardor, and blazing innocence in Huw's hungry eyes as they soak up every bit of his grimy, yet snug, world. Because the place is alive to him, it's alive to us. Without him, it would otherwise seem more studio-bound than it is. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck paid $300,000 for the film rights to Llewellyn's novel, wanted to turn it into his Gone With the Wind (1939), tapped William Wyler to direct, eyed Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power for the leads. But World War II intervened, filming in Wales became untenable, and so the filming was switched to the Fox ranch, near Malibu. The only authentically Welsh things in it are Rhys Williams' Dai Bando, the old boxer who brings a bit of pugilistic payback to the school where Huw is sadistically caned, and the full-throated Welsh choral singing that punctuates the film, filling it with idiomatic vigor and spirit.
Far from being a Hallmark card to a bygone era, the film convinces that while the boy's love for his corner of the world is genuine, it's a narrow, stifling place to which the only rational response was escape. The village chapel, despite the locals' veneration and respect for it, is depicted as anything but a fountainhead of consolation, much less God's embrace. Walter Pidgeon's idealistic minister, Gruffyd, and Maureen O'Hara, as the sole Morgan daughter, Angharad, make clear the system's shortfall on the social as well as the economic level. His kindness extends to helping Huw through a long convalescence and opening the boy's world to books. He also sympathizes with the pro-union sentiments, and doesn't hesitate to voice them.
But he can't bring himself to ask Angharad to marry him and in doing so embrace a lifetime of poverty. And so she enters into a loveless marriage with the mine owner's son as Gruffyd symbolically stands in the church's cemetery, watching them drive away in a coach. Pidgeon does what Henry Fonda's Tom Joad did in The Grapes of Wrath gives manly, idealistic voice to a respect for human dignity. But it falls to O'Hara to denounce the church deacons as vindictive bullies when they publicly shame and expel an unwed mother. Although playing the role of a woman in a time when women's roles consisted of home, hearth, and silence, O'Hara projects a wealth of temperament. She came by it naturally. Her memoirs include accounts of more than one skirmish with Ford, who could be a bully. When she pointed out that a basket in a scene was the wrong kind, he closed down the set and in effect banished her. But when she returned, she noted, the basket had been replaced. If Arthur Shields's revved-up hypocrite deacon in the church scene looks like Barry Fitzgerald, by the way, it's because they were brothers. Fitzgerald can be seen, too, as a pub regular.
How Green Was My Valley, made just before and released shortly after Pearl Harbor, was widely regarded as pro-British propaganda. It was, one supposes. But that's not primarily what it is. Yes, it gives aid and comfort to the WASP ethos. But far from seeming dated, it contextualizes uncannily with contemporary themes and issues immigration and emigration, the environment, religious oppression, keeping the poor intimidated by keeping them fearful. Long before the word "pollution" was common coinage, it recognized and decried the fouling of the environment. Ford's at the time liberal and progressive leanings, expressed in his film's pro-union thrust, resonate more urgently than in most of the years between its release and now. How Green Was My Valley isn't powerful just because it locates and ignites an emotive quality, or because it keeps sentimentality at bay by its constant acknowledgment of the brutal realities of a life dominated by a mine that eats the men who go down into it for a pittance. How Green Was My Valley is today what it couldn't have been in its own time prescient.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, Richard Llewellyn (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Art Direction: Richard Day, Nathan Juran
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Mr. Gruffydd), Maureen O'Hara (Angharad Morgan), Anna Lee (Bronwyn), Donald Crisp (Gwilym Morgan), Roddy McDowall (Huw Morgan), John Loder (Ianto Morgan).
by Jay Carr
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