#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.