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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #14: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Note: this post modified from a previously published post

Director: John Ford
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp

How Green Was My Valley often gets a bad rap for having the misfortune of winning Best Picture in the year that Citizen Kane was also nominated. There are a number of people who like to huff and puff about this and declare it the worst Best Picture win ever, as if the Academy doesn’t have an overwhelming tendency to reward stately, well-constructed epics over subversive films that are ahead of their time (Seriously. When has this ever not happened?). Judged strictly on its own terms as a film, How Green... is a fine achievement, a family saga and an elegy to a way of life in the process of fading away.

The events of the film are narrated to us after the fact by the grown Huw Morgan (played superbly by Roddy McDowell), filtered through the gauzy veil of childhood perceptions and memories. Huw grows up in a picturesque Welsh valley where the majority of the men work up the hill at the coal mine, including his father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and his five older brothers. The work is hard, but everyone is happy, albeit in a formal, Victorian way punctuated by strict Victorian manners. When I saw the film for the first time, I was actually quite distracted by the rigid quality of the relationships between members of the family and chalked it up to a shortcoming on the part of the actors. As the film progressed, however, I realized that the formality has more to do with the particular cadence of the people in the valley and by the end I didn’t even notice it. Still, it is something that you have to get used to.

When the mine owners begin to lower wages, the problems in the valley begin. Gwilym is prepared to accept the change, confident in his belief that a man will always be able to earn what he’s worth. His sons, however, begin talking about forming a union and quickly gain the support of other workers, who agree to a strike. The strike is long and divisive and many people turn against Gwilym, who had opposed it. When the matter is eventually resolved, not all the striking workers are able to return to the mine, their places having been given to others. Two of these men are Huw’s brothers, who decide to set off for the US and thus begin the dissolution of the Morgan family. In time Huw’s eldest brother, Ivor, will be killed in the mine and his two remaining brothers will find themselves out of work and setting off for foreign lands, leaving only Huw, his parents, and Ivor’s widow Bronwyn (Anna Lee) and her baby in the valley.

Though the film is primarily concerned with the way that changes in industry and production have impacted the family unit, issues of class and manners are also at the forefront. Huw has a sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) who is in love with the local preacher, Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pidgeon). Because he has little money, he won’t pursue a relationship with her and encourages her to accept a wealthy suitor. She marries the wealthy man and moves with him to New Zealand, only to return to the valley alone. Gossip spreads through the valley about her relationship with Gruffyd, rooted less in their behaviour towards one another than in the jealousy of the wealthy family’s servants towards the miner’s daughter and the blood-thirsty attitude of other members of the parish who are ready and willing to heap scorn on anyone who doesn’t conform to social rules. That the two people at the center of the storm in this case are a "social climber" and a preacher who likes to espouse new/liberal ideas only makes them more eager to ostracize them. Class and manners come into play again when Huw has the opportunity to attend a fancy school where his origins make him a subject of mockery by both the other students and his teacher. Huw excels as a student and Gwilym, sensing the way things are fundamentally and irrevocably changing, encourages him to pursue a career as a scholar to get himself out of the valley, though Huw wishes to stay and work in the mine like the rest of his family.

Directed by the great John Ford, the film is well-paced and surprisingly compact given all that happens in it. The story comments on a number of social issues but does so with a great deal of subtlety, suggesting more than it says and not bashing you over the head with a series of blunt points. Before seeing it I thought that it might be hokey, but it ends up being very effective, particularly in its sad final act. This is a really well-made film in both its artistic and technical aspects and while, in hindsight, not the correct choice for Best Picture in 1941, it is nevertheless a fine achievement and a fine example of Ford's skill as a filmmaker.

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