1940s, 2.5/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, John Ford, Review

How Green Was My Valley

How Green Was My Valley (1941) - IMDb

#47 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

I saw this movie once about fifteen years ago and was underwhelmed. Much like revisiting Doctor Zhivago much later in life, I went in prepared to see the heartwarming crowd pleaser that everyone else seems to see in John Ford’s sole Best Picture winning film, and once again I walked away feeling like I may be insane. I just can’t get into the saccharine opening or the muddled middle which prevents me from investing in the ending. It’s filled with John Ford goodness like incredibly strong visuals, good performances, and a wonderful sense of humanity, but I just cannot get emotionally invested in it.

Told from the adult perspective of Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel as an adult and Roddy McDowall as a child), a boy in a Welsh mining town. He’s the youngest child to Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and Beth (Sara Allgood). His five older brothers all work in the coal mine with their father, descending into the dark to do their honorable work, ascending covered in dust that they proudly wash off ritualistically before their full dinner of beef. I’m going to be honest, the way this is all presented makes me gag a bit. It’s the perfect life, and it’s done so over-sweetly. Everything is just perfect, and everyone is just perfectly happy. I don’t find this believable at all. There could be something going on about the innocence of youth coloring memory in a way that’s not actually tied to reality, but that’s not how the rest of the movie plays out. If that were the case, the movie would have later events recasting earlier events as Huw grew up and learned some hard lessons about the world, but those early scenes are never questioned. They’re treated like inescapable reality. That life was perfectly perfect when Huw was a small child.

Things begin to turn sour when economic pressures outside of the mine’s control (a factory in a nearby town shut down, creating a surplus of workers who are willing to work for a lower wage) drives down the wages at the mine. This sets off a series of events that…well, they don’t always seem to follow each other. The five older brothers get them some socialism, calling for unions. Their father kicks them out of the house. There’s a strike that the local preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) sort of supports. He’s also falling in love with Huw’s older sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). Some other villagers attack Huw and Gwilym on a wintry night because of Gwilym’s antipathy towards the strike, an attack that leaves Huw bedridden after he falls into the frozen river. Mr. Gruffydd takes up Huw’s education in response, getting him educated enough to apply for the national school another valley over. The strike ends and everyone goes back to work, and the family is one again without strife. There’s talk about the older brothers singing in front of the queen that seems to go nowhere. The proto-romance between Mr. Gruffydd and Angharad culminates in a single scene where Mr. Gruffydd talks about his reticence for bringing a woman into his hard life, and she runs off and marries the rich bachelor in town before leaving on a long trip. Huw learns to box when the kids at the new school pick on him, and then a pair of adults, including a retired boxer, show up at the school to give his teacher a beating after the teacher whips Huw for fighting. It’s all over the place, made all the more frustrating that we’re seeing scene after scene outside of Huw’s point of view when he’s telling the story from his point of view.

The ending third of the film picks up a lot of the myriad pieces to come to a solid conclusion, I’ll say. I am simply not invested in what’s going on, the explosion at the mine and the never-consummated romance between Gruffydd and Angharad that pretty much dominates the implicit action of the scene just kind of happen and I don’t feel much towards it all. I can see how it would affect most people, but the artificiality of the opening third and the mess of the second third just keep me from actually caring about any of this. There’s a technical polish to it all that I appreciate, but because I feel like the film failed to engage me emotionally, I just can’t do much else than lightly appreciate what I’m seeing.

As I said, though, the technical merits are actually quite strong. The visual of the mine towering over the line of houses of the town is great, as the visual centerpiece of the film. There’s more, though, with Angharad coming over a smoky hillside as the mine burns, and the collapsed mine is actually a rather impressive set (though I feel like it’s lit too brightly and I wonder what Tolland would have done with it had he been the DP). Performances are good especially from Pidgeon as the character I feel like should have been the main character. O’Hara is fine as the woman in love, and Crisp is actually quite wonderful as the patriarch. McDowell, the child actor, does all he can, but male child actors have this tendency towards stiffness unless they’re playing themselves (like David Bradley in Kes).

I kind of feel bad that I don’t get into this film, but I don’t. I mostly see a saccharine mess that leads towards a well-executed conclusion. The conclusion isn’t enough to lift the rest of the movie in my eyes.

Rating: 2.5/4

6 thoughts on “How Green Was My Valley”

  1. I avoided this for years because I got the idea from somewhere that it would be too sentimental. When I finally did see it I thought it was nearly the opposite – a real downer in the way it plays out. My second time through I came to see it a little more the way do and was somewhat disappointed (maybe the first time through I was reacting a little bit to the film’s reputation). But no happy endings here, as you’d normally think a purely sentimental film would have, so it’s mixed that way. Maybe Ford wanted to exaggerate how great everything was at the start to contrast it with what happens later? Maybe?

    The sets are impressive, even more so for the movie being filmed in the LA area. Never would have guessed that one.

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    1. Yeah, that feels like the intent. Contrast the perfect happiness in the beginning with the deep sadness of the ending. I just don’t buy into the perfect happiness. I think this is why I end up in kind of the minority opinion about this movie. More people do buy into that perfect happiness, so the rest of the movie ends up working better for them.

      It’s ultimately a sad tale of a lost world. Combined with the Welsh remote mining town setting, it fits really well in Ford’s body of work. There’s always a deep humanistic streak in his films that doesn’t get appreciated enough, but I just don’t think the whole package ends up working all that well here.

      Citizen Kane wuz robbed!

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  2. I used to always get this movie mixed up in my head with ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’.
    I like it. It is a lot darker and more grim than it’s reputation.
    It MIGHT be idealized but let’s be honest here: this is a hard life, so hard most of have no way of really understanding it. The fact that someone who grew up like that can have idealized memory of his childhood is kind of a miracle.

    I get a wistful vibe from it. This is a love letter to home…even if home wasn’t a lot of fun.

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    1. It’s not that I can’t imagine the idealized opening working for anyone, it’s really just that it doesn’t work for me. This exists in some middle ground of my criticism where I’m upfront about how it’s much more of a personal reaction than anything I consider from a more purely narrative point of view. It just kind of rubs me the wrong way.

      I do think that I would have been much more okay with the idealized childhood had Huw grown up and reflected on the past, wondering how perfect it might have been really. The whole thing is dealing on some level with nostalgia, and I’d like it to be brought up a bit more explicitly.

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