How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Release Date: October 28th, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Ford Actors: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Anna Lee, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall, Sara Allgood, Barry Fitzgerald, Patric Knowles, John Loder, Morton Lowry
eaving his valley with just a shawl and a few belongings, the narrator still retains some 50 years of memories, which keep his friends and family alive and well; as long as he can vividly recollect past events, they will persevere. As a young boy, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) remembers the words of wisdom from his father; the singing of his sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara); the jesting of his five older brothers; and the ceaseless bustling of his mother. It was also a time when the black slag had yet to mar the beauty of the countryside; everyone was a coal miner – and proud of it – though the work would take its toll on the bodies of the men, as well as the nature and greenery that surrounded them.
One of Huw’s most significant remembrances is of Bronwyn (Anna Lee), a young woman from a nearby village, who marries his brother Ivor (Patric Knowles). And then there’s the reduction of wages, due to an increase in workers willing to take less pay, which stirs talk of unionizing and strikes. Preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) is also a potent figure, commanding attention just by entering a room. After conditions continue to sour, with a lengthy strike generating distrust and poverty, a stormy night and icy water catch Mrs. Morgan (Sara Allgood) and Huw off guard, confining the former to her upstairs bedroom for a few months, and causing the latter to be pronounced unlikely ever to walk again. But with the town’s well wishes, his family’s support, and a shelf of classic novels to occupy his mind, Huw is hopeful for a full recovery.
The Morgan family endures further hardships and a few blessings, though each scenario unfolds with a certain lack of gusto. The ups and downs rarely deviate from a flat presentation; even when characters are in great peril, there’s modest fervor. Just as the storyteller is a small child for the majority of the film, the narrative is simple and innocent, generally brushing aside the darker dramas playing out in the background. Singing and prayer seem to be the answers for (and segues to) a great many things.
Strangely, a sizable portion of the plot occurs without Huw’s direct involvement, which makes his narration somewhat flawed, since this tale is his, and he’s not privy to all the details – despite the fact that they’re acted out for the audience anyway. Marginally sad unions arise, family members disperse to seek employ, Huw is bullied at school (by the teacher as well as his peers), satisfying comeuppance ensues, and commentary on the makings of men strikes a chord. But the little injustices contain the same nonchalance as the severer tragedies even during the second half, where characters age yet the actors look no different, and where the two most interesting roles – Pidgeon and O’Hara – virtually disappear.
Toward the conclusion, gossip becomes the primary antagonist and religious doctrines the principle conflict, overshadowing even the catastrophe of a cave-in at the mine. And the final notes of the picture are spiritual rather than emotionally poignant, which starve the hopes for sentimentality as a redemption over propriety. Most puzzling of all, however, is the fact that “How Green Was My Valley” won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1941, stealing it away from the immeasurably superior “Citizen Kane.”
– Mike Massie