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

How Green was My Valley: A Second Look

Well, technically a third. I’d seen it before.

The only John Ford film that won Best Picture still ends up feeling like lower-tier John Ford work. Of course, that I still think How Green was My Valley is okay is just a testament to how strong Ford’s body of work is.

A lot of the joys here are where Ford was kind of great without really trying by the early 40s, in particular the visuals. From beginning to end, the film is gorgeous to look at, using the large, outdoor set of the mining town in Wales effectively and, honestly, just beautifully. The use of shadow reflects his German Expressionistic influences while never descending into mimicry or losing the ability to feel comfortably in the given time and place. Performances are also good all around.

However, I still cannot get past the narrative and how its told, especially how Hugo (Roddy McDowall) goes from observer to main character, which, combined with all of the little bits of family drama in the film’s first half gives the story of the film a really disconnected feeling. It’s trying to do too much, unable to really settle on a vessel for the delivery of the ideas of this lost time and place, all drenched in the heavily saccharine taste of nostalgia that flavors everything. I just…I just can’t get into it.

It feels manipulative instead of earned, and that’s my core issue with it. There’s a lot of skill at display (Ford was a highly skilled technician who worked with a very strong crew for a very long time), but it’s all in service to a story I cannot invest myself in emotionally. I know that many others do, but I see the film as just simply too thin to earn what it wants from me in the end.

Still, I have to admire Ford’s technical skill. That was really rarely matched by other filmmakers, even in lesser work like this.

In terms of its Best Picture win, the movie is mostly overshadowed by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which it beat. However, I think that’s underserving the strength of the field at the 1942 Oscars. Not only was it up against Citizen Kane, it was also up against The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and Suspicion, along with a few others including the film that convinced Billy Wilder that he needed to direct his own scripts, Hold Back the Dawn. That was a very strong year, and, honestly, How Green Was My Valley didn’t deserve the award in any form of how you interpret the winning criteria. Sergeant York is probably the more impressive production. All of these films are better artistically (though I haven’t seen Hold Back the Dawn, so I can’t comment on that). It really feels like How Green Was My Valley snuck through much stronger competition in a strong year.

Rating: 2.5/4


2 thoughts on “How Green was My Valley: A Second Look”

  1. Just watched it again and I still love it. And I use the L word as I’m sure logically there are better, stronger films, my mind and reason tells me so, my sight and hearing and experience too. But I love it.

    John Ford knows how to set a camera, he knows how to populate a film with real characters. He knows what business to include to humanize them. These are few Steinbeck sermonizing (though there is a bit of that) scenes but rather we get the drama of life. Of cruelty and beauty. A hungry mine that consumes men and a town, small minded scolds that condemn and whisper gossips. But also love, sacrifice and above all, family. This may stray into melodrama but it never feels heighted to the point of silent film silliness, it maintains a core of humanity that runs deeper than the coal does.

    Maureen O’Hara is as magnetic and attractive as ever, Roddy McDowell does very well as a child actor who plays a boy who loses his childhood, I don’t even dislike Walter Pidgeon in this on (though how the heck that guy ended up in so many big movies, I’ll never know. He’s like a Gregory Peck knockoff made of wood)

    I can see how this appealed to the filmgoers of the time, most of whom were still rural back in the 40’s. This movie, like Sgt. York, put rural life on the big screen and did it with dignity instead of caricature. There are shots here that are more subtle than Gone with the Wind but are just as powerful.

    Good, good stuff. The 40’s were probably the peak of filmmaking.


    1. I’m actually kind of envious of the people who get so much out of this, because everything you describe I do see in the film. I just can’t feel it because of what I see of as issues with the writing.

      Ford was such a technically skilled filmmaker by this point in his life that it was really hard for him to fumble (Tobacco Road still exists, and despite Spielberg’s love of the film, I still think it’s a major fumble). The humanism on display here is suffused through everything that it keeps making me feel bad for not fully investing.

      Is it my failing as a viewer? Maybe, but after three viewings, I just keep coming away with the same opinion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s