by Sam Juliano
I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory…..Who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can say go back and have what you like of it…So I can close my eyes on my valley as it was…….-Huw Morgan
The legacy of John Ford’s coal-mining saga, How Green Was My Valley, based on Richard Llewelyn’s novel, is mired in a negative statistic in Oscar history. It’s is always maligned as the film that beat out the most influential and celebrated film in the history of American cinema – Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – for the Best Picture prize. And as such, it is a film that seems to always get the short end of the stick from film historians and some classic films buffs. Releasing a year after Ford’s masterful The Grapes of Wrath(1940) the film was looked on by skeptics as a glossy Hollywood tearjerker that disavowed important social and political issues in favor of melodrama. A few modern critics have derided the film’s sentimental story, with one even calling it “a monstrous slurry of tears and coal dust.” Even a close friend and colleague takes strong issue with what he calls “phony Welsh accents” and the film’s preponderance of tears.
By and large, though, these negative opinions have been avalanched in true coal miner fashion by contemporary critics, film historians and audiences who now see How Green Was My Valley as a film about ‘disintegration of family’ and of a culture due in large measure to economic depression, that still evinces its ideological world view that boasts an indominability of the human spirit and a deep nostalgia for the past and of familial bonds and sibling love.
The film is told from the point-of-view of the youngest son of a large coal-mining Welsh family led by a stern traditionalist patriarch and an affectionate but strong-willed mother, the latter of whom favors established work ethic over progressive notions of breaking family traditions to persue an education. Llewellyn’s famous novel, a revered work of literature focuses on the change in the valley as opposed to Ford’s view in the film where Huw never changes, and becomes in essence a kind of specter, viewing events that will permanently alter the mining valley forever, laying waste to a culture no longer tenable. In Huw’s statement at the outset of this review, his gaze looks out his window at the desolute slum his valley is today only to dissolve into his imagination’s images of the lush valley of his childhood, which includes the church, the candy shop where he spends his allowance, and the daily and weekly ‘domestic’ rituals of mining families. The lyrical narration doesn’t hide the literary origins nor the script, which follows Llewellyn’s book closely (some say word-for-word), and this makes for tightening of time and telescoping of events. It is unavoidable that the long novel needed to be compromised or suppressed for this roughly two-hour film, and the sexual affairs of Hew’s brothers. Ford’s own especially vital ‘addition’ to Dunne’s script was the film’s coda, in which “idyllic memory” triumphs over “tragic actuality.” This allows this often downbeat film to wind down on a happy note. However, looking back, to experience the movie only as a celebration of Huw’s dreamy myopia, denial of reality and adhesion to tradition is to experience only Huw’s point of view, not Ford’s view of him. The novel was more concerned about changes in the valley.
The visual style and design of How Green Was My Valley is such that most of the film occurs in flashback. Huw’s adult off-camera voice narrates, scenes are shot from the visual point of view, scenes frame Huw at their compositional focal point.
Getting back to the crucial opening narration, as the adult Huw surveys the desolation his valley has become, he resorts to ‘memory’ and harsh reality is swept up for a dream, a dream he will no doubt experience for all eternity.
How Green Was My Valley is actually a succession of frightening tragedies, failures and oppressions. Of course, the rather puritanical and closed-minded Morgan family stifled discussion and even discussion among family members and close friends was often accomplished in secrecy, like the taboo divorce of Huw’s sister Bronwyn. (Earlier on in the opening monologue, Huw relates the very moment he falls in love with while as a child, “seeing her coming around the corner with basket and bonnet.) The scenes in the film that seem to be the most fondly remembered are the ones involving family loyalty, sicknesses and tragedies. In one such scene – my favorite – the mother (Sara Allgood) comes downstairs after a long recuperation and is reunited with son, still restricted to his own bed, but so overwhelmed by the mother’s sudden appearance, he places his hand over his heart. Assisting mightily here is the beautiful score by Alfred Newman, which culls every extra bit of emotion from these already stirring segments. The mother and son were taken ill after joining the unions in fighting the strangling tactics of the mine owners, who were cutting wagers to allow the cheapest men to come over to the mines, replacing those who knew no other line of work. Their simultaneously recovery after a close call, and their first glimpses of one another would melt the hardest of hearts, but it’s a scene of deep sociological significance within the framework of the inherent strength of working-class families.
Says Tag Gallagher in his volume John Ford, “More sociology would scarcely make How Green Was My Valley better, for it is not at all trying to be a movie about labor or even about coal, but rather about psychosis and the dialectics of individuality within family and social change.”
Arthur Miller’s poetic black and white cinematography makes phony Hollywood sets (Wales is brought to California) gleam, and the picture has a lovely painterly feel, that beautifully evokes time and place, and its often a visual feast.
The best performance in the film was given by Donald Crisp as the unstinting patriarch, who would rather see some of his sons leave the house rather than to be questioned over a miner’s strike that turns violent. I am told Crisp’s accent is right and his charismatic performance conjures up all we can imagine or remember of this moral and hard-working man, who valued discipline above everything else. Sara Allgood his wife is effective as a wife who will stand by her husband through thick and thin, and young Roddy McDowall makes a lasting impression as the impressionable young Huw. Both Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon share more conventional roles, but they have their effective moments.
The false happy ending of course is preceeded by the deeply-moving narration (by Hew), as Donald Crisp’s body is raised from a mine collapse through an elevator. He says “People like my father can never die…they’ll be loved forever” How Green Was My Valley was a film that as a teenager or older, I always looked for on television for endless repeats. Perhaps, as a result of its literary source, its episodic structure and its emotional content, it always was appealing. It’s a masterpiece of American cinema.