It is quite simply impossible for me to get through John Ford’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, How Green Was My Valley (1941) without shedding a few tears; its reverent and poetic celebration of life and love, perhaps even more far reaching, beyond the truthfulness in those moments. Told almost entirely in flashback, the earliest recollections are undiluted and joyous, rekindled through the eyes of a child, not yet fully able to comprehend the darkness that thinly veils, but has yet to intrude, on his idyllic surroundings. Like a lyrical sonnet or meticulously woven tapestry, Ford integrates the various threads in Philip Dunne’s superior screenplay to produce a thoroughly fulfilling, often bittersweet family portrait. Plumbed through finely wrought performances by a stellar cast of notable, though hardly iconic performers from their generation – some of whom would go on to have lasting careers - How Green Was My Valley has endured the test of time mostly because it seems very real and very true, not merely to its source material, but to a way of life all but forgotten with the passage of time.
When asked to name the favorite of all his many cinematic accomplishments, John Ford, a true visionary when resurrecting the heroism and pageantry of the American west, chose How Green Was My Valley to stand in as most closely indicative of his hallmarks as a true movie craftsman. Although the choice may seem ironic, in hindsight one can plainly understand why the appeal of making this movie triumphed over the rest in Ford’s memory. Ford, who could be curmudgeonly and crass when dealing with actors, and who was often adversarial with the star most closely associated with his own career – John Wayne - instead worked diligently with his ensemble on How Green Was My Valley; a memorable experience for all concerned. Indeed, costar Maureen O’Hara would later tell stories of Ford’s tender encouragement, the way he guided everyone through their performances, and even took time out to gather the ladies for afternoon tea between takes.
Based on Richard Llewellyn’s best seller, How Green Was My Valley is perhaps the most perfectly realized family drama ever put on film. The story concerns the Morgan clan; Welsh miners overseen by a morally benevolent, if outwardly stern patriarch, Gwilym (masterfully realized by Donald Crisp) and feisty matriarch, Beth (poignantly evoked by Sarah Allgood). Crisp and Allgood are genuine troopers. Crisp in particular, a consummate professional who rarely escaped being cast in support of other actors in a minor role, but who enriched virtually every movie in which he appeared, is arguably the real star of How Green Was My Valley; despite flashier turns by Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pigeon. Undeniably, his Gwilym is the glue that keeps the Morgans together.
Ford begins his story in the present, with our narrator never seen from the neck up while preparing a modest kitbag for his departure from the valley; the only place he has ever known as home. Yet the valley of the present, with its stone pillared courtyards barren of vegetation, in ruins, and void of all signs of life, save a few aged scraps of humanity unable or unwilling to leave it as yet, bears little resemblance to the rolling hillside we regress to. In less than a generation, we come to know the valley in its prime – lush and green, with a thriving village built at the foot of its mining concern, its black faced minions happily returning home after a hard day’s effort of toiling deep within the bowels of the earth.
The Morgans are well respected within this community. Gwilym is, in fact, an intermediary between the mine’s boss, Mr. Evans (Lionel Pape) and the men – trusted, admired and charged with facilitating their productivity. Gwilym’s eldest son, Ivor (Patric Knowles) has become engaged to Bronwyn (Anna Lee) – a girl from a neighboring village. This announcement breaks the heart of the Morgan’s youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell) who, while still a boy, has nevertheless developed a puppy love crush on his brother’s wife. At the wedding reception the Morgan’s daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) becomes smitten with the town’s minister, the kind-hearted Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pigeon).
However, in a town where even the least flirtatious provocation can be misconstrued as sinful, the tender relationship between Angharad and Mr. Gruffyd is doomed from the start, particularly after Gwilym is approached by Mr. Evans to broker an arrangement for his son, Lestyn (Marten Lamont). The implication, that a full grown woman should have her own affections arranged by such clandestine machinations may sound ridiculous by today’s standards. But in a time when women in general were considered little more than property, servile and obligated to the wills and whims of the patriarchy, Angharad’s complicity to fulfill her father’s wishes was not only anticipated, but expected.
In the meantime, the men have become increasingly disgruntled with the owners of the mine. Gwilym’s adult sons Ianto (John Loder), Ivor, Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr.(Evan S. Evans) and Owen (James Monks) propose that the village rally in support of establishing a union. Gwilym, who regards even talk of a union as ‘socialist nonsense’ refuses to partake in their efforts. But Mr. Gruffyd encourages their decision to strike, citing that individually they are weak, but collectively each may share in the strength and safety of their numbers. The decision, however, backfires, and the men are locked out. As the sting of sustained unemployment bears down hard, a bitter resentment grows amongst the men who throw rocks at the Morgan home one evening, shattering its front window.
Forging into a blinding snowstorm, Beth confronts the strikers at their rally, declaring that if any harm befalls her husband the town will have her reckoning to endure. On the way home she loses her way and falls into the frigid lake with Huw clinging to her side. Saved at the last possible moment from freezing to death, Beth and Huw face months of painful recovery at home. In the Spring Beth struggles to come downstairs from her bedroom to show Huw that his own recovery is not far off. Mr. Gruffyd arrives on afternoon. But unable to shake the boy free of his depression, he declares “Where is the light I thought to see in your eyes?” before taking Huw – whose legs have greatly suffered from hypothermia – into the hills on piggyback where he encourages Huw to walk again on his own.
An accident at the mine claims Ivor and Bronwyn moves in with the Morgans temporarily where she gives birth to Ivor’s son. At approximately the same time Huw is sent to school to get an education. It is Gwilym’s sincere hope that the boy will become something other than a miner. Regrettably, the schoolmaster, Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is a ruthless disciplinarian who regards Huw with a contemptible desire to see him fail. After being pummeled by a schoolyard bully, Huw is taught to defend himself by the Morgan’s close friend and fisticuffs champion, Dai Bando (Rhys Williams). Although Huw is successful in a subsequent bout at school, Mr. Parry exploits his victory as an excuse to severely cane him, resulting in Dai Bando going to school to give Parry a taste of his own medicine.
Angharad marries Lestyn and moves away to a great house in a neighboring village. Despite having provided Angharad with a lifetime of financial security Gwilym’s intervention has robbed his daughter of the satisfaction of knowing genuine happiness. The busybodies in town waste no time in concocting rumors about Angharad and Mr. Gruffyd. As a result, the church deacons elect to remove Mr. Gruffyd from his post as their pastor. Having left school, Huw takes a job in the colliery with his father and brothers, moving into the home Bronwyn once shared with Ivor to support her. Another accident at the mine claims Gwilym. His remains are brought to the surface by a stoic Mr. Gruffyd and Huw. Aside: the look of utter defeat and sheer isolation caught in young Roddy McDowell’s eyes in this scene will break your heart.
The flashback concludes with the man, whom we now realize is Huw all grown up, having finished his packing, departing the decimated remains of the valley in search of some undetermined – but hopeful– future; his declaration that “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then?’ resonating with a compendium of flashbacks that extol idyllic memories of a way of life alas no more.
How Green Was My Valley is a superior example of 2oth Century-Fox’s studio craftsmanship at its zenith. Originally planned by Darryl F. Zanuck as a 3 hr. splashy Technicolor extravaganza to rival Gone With The Wind, unable to shoot on location in Wales, designers Richard Day an Nathan Juran instead built an entire Welsh village and the façade of a coal mine on the Fox ranch in Malibu Canyon. Wartime budgetary restrictions also thwarted Zanuck’s plan to shoot the film in color; in hindsight a blessing, since viewing How Green Was My Valley today one cannot imagine it any other way: Arthur C. Miller’s B&W cinematography perfectly eulogizing the stark coal dusty landscape of the colliery.
Apart from its’ remarkable production design, How Green Was My Valley is also highly regarded for its ensemble acting. The actors – all of them – seem utterly true to life; a real family with not one false note struck among them. How Green Was My Valley abounds in that most intangible of all screen attributes - chemistry. In hindsight it seems destined that John Ford should have directed How Green Was My Valley; Ford’s natural affinity for blending the frankness and more delicate textures yielding rich tangible pleasures; an almost unbearable verisimilitude that can just as easy set our hearts to sing as it can instantly fill them with the more sincere tragedies and struggles in life. Many a film before and since has tried to evoke this human condition in artistic terms. How Green Was My Valley is affecting genuineness; inspired cinema magic of the highest order.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray at long last does justice to Ford’s masterpiece. Previous DVD incarnations have yielded images too stark and too gritty to evoke Arthur Miller’s cinematography. The Blu-ray radiates every stunning grain of that sumptuous visual design, with breathtaking clarity that only true HD can offer the home video consumer. Truly, watching How Green Was My Valley on Blu-ray was, for me, like seeing the movie all over again for the very first time with a heightened sense of Miller and Ford’s sublime visual subtext. There is a startling depth to the B&W image. Close ups are stunningly handsome in all their fine detail. Establishing shots exhibit a crispness never before attained. Film grain has been naturally and consistently reproduced. Contrast is ‘bang on’ perfect. The audio has been remixed to pseudo stereo. We also get the original mono mix – preferred. Extras are direct imports from the DVD: a Back Story on the making of the film and audio commentary. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)