For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy
We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.
It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.
And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.
After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.
And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.
Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.
And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.
In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).
It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.
And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.