Director: John Ford
Although I attempt to opine on each film based on its own merits, it is difficult not to reflect on the previous Best Picture winners as a basis for formulating my views. Because we have seen so many exceptional Best Picture offerings, unfortunately, I found How Green Was My Valley somewhat disappointing. The film did have some beautiful black & white scenes of Wales set in the late 1800’s (although not filmed on location due to an on-going World War). It also provided dialogue that was moving and well acted. However, I think my expectations were too high. I knew this film had received 10 Oscar nominations and had won the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography Black & White, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Donald Crisp) and Best Art Direction Black & White – Interior. We also tend not to focus on (or even mention) films that were Oscar runner-ups but how could I not mention that this film beat out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Sergeant York. I have seen all of these films and enjoyed them more than this film. I even had recently read in Parade magazine that Clint Eastwood considered How Green Was My Valley as one the three movies that most influenced his directorial style. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
I was very impressed with Walter Pidgeon (Mr. Gruffydd) in his role the town’s minister and surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination. Maureen O’Hara (Angharad) looks beautiful and is very expressive. Of course, 11 year old Roddy McDowall (Huw) is instantly recognizable and I had to chuckle thinking that he never could have imagined that 27 years later he would gain fame as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes. I did feel McDowell was very good, especially given his age. I mention the names of the characters but given their Welsh origins, the characters’ names are unrecognizable and unpronounceable (at least by me).
The film does show a realistic depiction of the difficult life of Welsh coal miners and their families, the rise of unionism, and the sometimes hypocritical nature of religion and religious leaders and followers. The film also provides a glimpse into the necessity and growth of American immigration. My recommendation – How Green Is My Valley is a good film but not a great film.
How Green Was My Valley was the 1941 winner for Best Picture, and the third best movie of the year. It would be hard for me to pose a valid argument for this film beating out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, but I will rationalize the decision with two paranoid thoughts. 1). William Randolph Hearst used his influence in the media to squash the possibility of success for Citizen Kane. Apparently he was offended at the thinly-veiled and harshly critical biopic based on his life as a newspaper magnate. 2). The Academy was not ready to legitimize the genre of film noir by recognizing the mastery of the subject matter that The Maltese Falcon demonstrated. 1941 is a terrific example of the Academy bowing to social and political pressure, and picking a well-made albeit safe choice for Best Picture. How Green Was My Valley is honestly a solid film that arguably could have won Best Picture in either the proceeding or subsequent year, but its 1941 win was as improbable as VCU making it all the way to the finals of the 2011 March Madness tournament. John Ford of Stage Coach, The Grapes of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln fame directed this film about Welsh coal-miners. It also helped me realize that my life-long calling of being a coal miner might perhaps be far too dangerous to pursue. Actually, in the last few years there have been quite a few news stories about accidents in mines in locations across the globe from West Virginia to Chile, but despite the vast technological improvements it seems as if the mining of fossil fuels far below the Earth’s surface is still a dangerous occupation.
How Green Was My Valley was released in late October of 1941, less than two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The film does have some uplifting moments, but concludes with a certain sadness that matched the audience’s ennui as the nation stood on the brink of the Second World War. The film was originally slotted to be shot in Technicolor and in Wales but war prevented that dream from being realized, and the Welsh mining village was instead built on a studio lot. This film was surprisingly political, and showed a clear favoritism towards the idea of unionization. Not that I am against that concept in any capacity, but I’m sure some would have called the film socialist propaganda.
The film details the story of the Morgan family as they are forced to deal with the implications of modernization on their Welsh homestead. While there is not a distinct main character, the film is shown through the eyes of Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell), as the young boy watches the social fabric of his family and the town begin to unravel. First there is the act of lowering the wages of mine workers, which causes the townspeople to strike for fair wages. The elder Morgan, Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), does not support the decision to strike and is therefore victimized by the dissenters even though he does not break the strike lines. After the strike has concluded, workers returned to the mines only to find out that the highest paid workers have lost their jobs. This leads to two of the Morgan boys to travel toAmericato find work. The film begins to become much darker in the second half of the film, as the danger of mining work becomes more apparent.
Overall, I did enjoy this film despite being depressed by the conclusion of the film. Apparently, no one in Hollywood seemed to mind depriving film viewers of a happy ending, but I can definitely say I would not have predicted this particular story arc. The cinematography of the film was beautiful, but it was hard for me not to wonder what the film would have looked like in Technicolor. Technicolor would have let us know exactly how green Huw Morgan’s valley was… (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun). The fact that the village was built on a set, makes the grandeur of the shots even more impressive. I also really enjoyed the singing of the miners, which provided an element that helped make the story feel more genuine. I will admit that half of the reason I haven’t included many character names in this review is the fact that Welsh is a very difficult language to understand, and there are points in the film where I have no idea what the characters are even saying. Subtitles would have provided a nice compliment to the Welsh utilized in the film, and would definitely have made the audience feel more like insiders than outsiders. How Green Was My Valley is not as timeless as its contemporaries Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, but if you would like to see a romance/drama set in a turn of the century Welsh mining town, then this film is right up your alley.