Reeling Backward: How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Unfairly derided as one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners, John Ford's gorgeous, heartbreaking portrait of a Welsh coal-mining community represents the best sort of cinema.
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“How Green Was My Valley” is one of those films that’s less remembered for its cinematic quality than its reputation. Specifically, that it beat out “Citizen Kane,” “Suspicion,” “Sergeant York” and “The Maltese Falcon” for the Best Picture Oscar, and as a result has been consistently mentioned as one of the most egregious upsets in that category’s history.
(It also bested “Blossoms in the Dust,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “The Little Foxes,” “Hold Back the Dawn” and “One Foot in Heaven,” this being back in the day when the Academy nominated 10 best pics. Somehow, they never get mentioned.)
I like to think the Oscars are not just honors for the best movies of each year but also a snapshot of that time and mood. “How Green Was My Valley” was released just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into what everyone knew would be a very long and grim war.
Based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, it’s set in the late 1800s (fictional) Welsh coal mining valley of Cwm Rhondda and covers several years in the lives of the proud Morgan family, stalwarts in the village, as conditions gradually shift from relative abundance and harmony to poverty and communal decay. It’s a very bittersweet picture, filled with sadness and not a little tragedy, though also with glimmers of hope and love of community.
It’s very much about people struggling to come together and think of the greater good beyond their own individual needs and wants, and that’s a message I think resonated powerfully with audiences and Academy voters as their soldiers headed off to war.
It stars Maureen O’Hara as Angharad, the only daughter of the Morgan clan, and Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Gruffydd, the young(ish) and idealistic local pastor, who fall in love together but never consummate their relationship, leading to despair and ostracism. Roddy McDowell, already a veteran child actor, plays Huw, the youngest Morgan and the narrator/lens through whom the story is told.
Ironically, none of them received Oscar nominations, though the actors playing the elder Morgans, Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood, both did, with Crisp winning the supporting actor award. “Valley” also won for director John Ford, art direction and cinematography (Arthur Miller). Other nominations included Philip Dunne’s screenplay, editing, musical score (Alfred Newman) and sound recording.
(Random trivia: I’ve held Ford’s directing Oscar statuette for “Valley,” one of three I’ve been privileged to do so in my life. The other two were William Goldman’s screenwriting Academy Awards. They really are heavier than you’d think.)
There’s a gorgeous poetry to the dialogue and narration, which acts as a bookend framing device, told roughly 40 years later when Huw is finally leaving the valley, now a sad and barren place covered in coal slag. A gifted boy and the first in the family to be sent to ‘national school’ a few valleys over, Huw was offered the chance to become a scholar but stubbornly followed in the film’s grimy tradition working at the mining colliery.
There’s a magical scene where Huw’s father, Gwilym (Crisp), offers the boy the choice of accepting a scholarship and he insists on following in the footsteps of his father and five older brothers in becoming a miner. For just a moment, there’s a light of profound satisfaction in the elder Morgan’s eye; but then realism intrudes as he realizes this decision will condemn Huw to the same life of perpetual dirt and danger deep under the ground.
Several of the Morgans die in mining accidents over the course of the story, and those that don’t leave home for better opportunities in America as the mine owners keep cutting wages and firing workers who agitate for a union. The Morgan dinner table, once overflowing with family members and laden with giant barrons of beef, gradually becomes a lonely and pitiable reminder of what once was.
Along with the mellifluous dialogue, there is much song-making in the native Welsh. (I’m roughly half-Welsh, though shamefully innocent of the mother tongue.) Combined with the gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding the valley and the ocean of flowers at its base, “Valley” makes for an exceedingly beautiful experience in sight and sound.
“For singing is in my people as sight is in the eye,” narrates the adult Huw.
There is an episodic flow to the story, with different characters and events coming to the fore and then receding into the background. It begins with the marriage of Huw’s eldest brother, Ivor (Patrick Knowles) to Bronwen (Anna Lee), with whom the boy falls ravishingly in love. This coincides with the arrival of Gruffydd, and Angharad’s immediate attraction to him, dropping increasingly brazen hints as time goes on.
The middle section is taken up with a prolonged strike by the miners that lasts all through the winter. Gwilym is targeted for opposing the strike, even drawing a threatening mob at the Morgan home. Mrs. Morgan delivers an impassioned speech defending her husband at an outdoor rally, but then she and Huw nearly freeze to death when they fall into a slushy pond.
Huw spends the next few months abed, ensconced in a little cot in the picture window at the front of the house, where he can observe all the comings and goings of the adults. He eventually recovers and is sent to the national school, where he encounters bullies who beat him and a tyrannical teacher who dismisses him as a grubby miner’s son. This leads to a reprisal from Dai Bando (Rhys Williams), the local boxing afficionado, who delivers a comeuppance in the form of a free lesson.
The Morgans are visited by the wealthy mine owner, Mr. Evans (Lionel Pape), who offers his own son as a suitor for Angharad’s hand. This prompts her to openly profess her love to Gruffydd, who admits that he returns it. But he refuses to condemn her to the life of a poor pastor’s wife when she could live in security.
She moves away for some time, and Huw goes to work in the mines along with many other boys his age. He actually offers to move in with Bronwen, giving her his wages to replace those of his dead brother — and she accepts. Angharad eventually returns without her husband, living a lonely life in her mansion as the serving ladies gossip about her unceasing affection for the pastor.
This eventually leads to him being forced out by the zealous deacons. Pidgeon gets to deliver an absolutely stemwinder of a speech, in which he accuses most of the congregation of being motivated by fear and hate rather than love for each other, and admitting that he has failed them as their shepherd.
“You have forgotten the love of Jesus. You disregard His sacrifice. Death, fear, flames, horror and black clothes. Hold your meeting then, but know if you do this in the name of God and in the house of God, you blaspheme against Him and His Word!”
John Ford wanted to shoot in Wales or at least England, but it was not possible due to the incessant German attack upon the United Kingdom. So they built an entire 80-acre village in the Santa Monica Mountains, with the colliery looming at the top of the hill.
Early on it is a comforting sight as all the men trot up and down to and from work, representing opportunity and hard work rewarded. Toward the end it has become a virtual foreboding prison, a source of death and suffering as the owners stifle wages and increase production to night shifts. Gwilym’s death during one of these marks the film’s end, a bleak marker denoting that Huw, though still a child, has become the head of the household.
Watching it for the first time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” with a similar young boy growing up in an Ireland devoid of opportunity. McCourt made it out through a love of words and education, but Huw rejects that path to uphold a family tradition that is eventually shown to be unworthy of that devotion.
Is “How Green Was My Valley” really so undeserving a Best Picture? I don’t think so. I personally think “Citizen Kane” is vastly overrated as a GOAT film; it’s technically brilliant but has all the emotional impact of a moldy kumquat.
Whereas “Valley,” if occasionally wandering into maudlin territory, in many ways represents the best sort of cinema. It’s an authentic and genuinely moving portrait of human suffering and the grace that grows in bearing it.