How Green Was My Valley won the Oscar for Outstanding Motion Picture in 1941, the first of three years in which the award had that name. It got a total of ten Oscar nominations, and apart from Outstanding Motion Picture also won in Best Director (John Ford, for the third of four times), Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp as Gwilym Morgan), Best Art Direction (Black and White) and Best Cinematography (Black and White).
Infamously, the Oscar voters ranked it ahead of Citizen Kane, which is now universally ranked as the best film of 1941 (or indeed as the best film of all time by some), and also The Maltese Falcon, which is ranked second on both IMDB systems. Dumbo is third on both systems; How Green Was My Valley makes fourth place on one system but only seventh on the other. At present writing, the whole film is on Youtube here. Here is a contemporary (but post-Oscars) trailer.
I’m not going to make invidious comparisons with Citizen Kane, but I wasn’t especially blown away by this, and in my personal ranking of Oscar-winning films it’s going just above the midpoint, below Grand Hotel and above Gone With The Wind (which loses points for racism). A lot of other people like it more than I did, and I’m pondering why I bounced off it. I feel in the end that the tone is emotionally uneven; the overall story is one of family tragedy, as the younger generation are lost to industrial accident and emigration, and I didn’t feel that the freight of the plot was sufficiently reflected in the script or incidental music. Maybe tastes have changed (and maybe my tastes are just weird), but the various tragic events of the film seem to just happen and then life moves on to the next tragic event. Maybe real life is actually like that.
The choral music is good, but I found the orchestral music sometimes unreasonably chirpy; judge for yourself in this video (whose owner has disabled embedding).
It is a film that tries to grapple with the economic issues of the Great Depression: some of the miners go on strike, some are sacked because cheaper workers are available from the ranks of the unemployed elsewhere, the owner’s son gets his pick of the local girls, fatal accidents are all too common. Yet this is moored in a framing narrative which seems positive and nostalgic, suggesting that the problems all happened later than the time being remembered:
There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful. Everything I ever learned as a small boy came from my father and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday. In those days, the black slag, the waste of the coal pits, had only begun to cover the sides of our hill. Not yet enough to mar the countryside, nor blacken the beauty of our village, for the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green.
Another part of my problem is that the book is set over a period of several years in the lives of the Morgan family (father, mother, six sons and one daughter), so the viewpoint character, youngest son Huw, starts as a young schoolboy and by the end has turned down a university place to work down the mine. Huw is played by Roddy McDowell, in the first of his major screen roles. The film was released just after his thirteenth birthday so he would have been twelve while it was being made. I think it’s a tremendously assured performance, but the fact is that the plot needs him to be several years older by the end of the story.
I’m not going to be too curmudgeonly. The film looks fantastic (apparently they decided to do it in black and white when they realised that the colours of the California vegetation are insufficiently Welsh).
The performances are generally excellent, although (perhaps unsurprisingly) nobody sounds very Welsh. In particular, Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood are great as the Morgan parents Gwilym and Beth; he won an Oscar for it, and she was nominated.
Anna Lee (left) as daughter-in-law Bronwen and Maureen O’Hara (right) as daughter Angharad are very luminous (though apart from Huw the brothers are rather interchangeable). Indeed, the film gets rather good marks for the portrayal of women – Beth goes and confronts the men of the village on a political issue (though she is wrong and they are right) and poor Angharad marries the wrong man and is sympathetically treated by the script.
Walter Pidgeon is also tremendous as the preacher Mr Gruffudd, mentor to Huw and thwarted suitor of Angharad, though he (perhaps wisely) does not even attempt to disguise his New Brunswick origins.
A lovely Irish factoid which I found on IMDB (backed by the Irish Times): John Loder, who plays the oldest Morgan son, Ianto, and Arthur Shields, who plays the creepy deacon Mr Parry, had fought on opposite sides in the 1916 Easter Rising. Shields, then aged 20, was subsequently interned in Frongoch, getting an early involuntary exposure to Wales; Loder’s father, General W. H. M. Lowe, was the general to whom Padraig Pearse surrendered – indeed, Loder, aged 18, was present at the surrender and was detailed to accompany Pearse in the staff car that drove him to Kilmainham. About a third of the way through the film they confront each other – Loder is on the right of the first of these two shots. One hopes that they had got over any residual differences in the intervening 25 years.
And let’s finish, literally, on a high note: here is the performance of Cwm Rhondda which opens the film.
Next up is Mrs Miniver, of which I know nothing at all.
The book is much much better than the film. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
We learnt sums and letters, some history and the names of towns and rivers and where they were. Mrs. Tom Jenkins had come from Caernarvon where her father had been a book seller, so, of course, she knew a lot.
The characterisation of the Morgan siblings is much better; the politics makes a lot more sense; the change in the economics of mining over the decades of the story is well conveyed; the spoil tip, ever increasing in size, hangs over the village as an ominous threat (this in a book written thirty years before Aberfan); eveyone actually sounds Welsh. It is an effective portrayal of the violent, oppressive society where an unmarried mother is outcast while the father of her child gets sympathy (and even attending a theatrical performance can lead to disgrace). In one particularly chilling chapter, a young girl is murdered and the killer is quickly identified and lynched by the villagers. Llewellyn built a myth about himself from the book that may not have been entirely true, but considered as a Bildungsroman conveying a fictional time and place, I think it is a great book. You can get it here.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)