How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)

Can it get overly-sentimental?  yes.  are a few moments overly-melodramatic and ‘this family’s the center of the universe’-y, like the mother and son falling through the ice or an accident at the coal mine or the town-wide shunning of Morgan family after daughter Angharad dares to consider the dreaded divorce?  yes.  Are some sub-plots of this HUGELY-scoped story overemphasized while others, like Angharad’s romance with the town preacher (and ostensible movie good-guy) Mr. Gruffydd, not quite given their due?  yes.  And yes, it got a little too political at times with all the talk about strikes and unionization – the same problem that prevented Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” from being an all-but perfect film.  But screw it all, this is still a majestic, dreamlike experience – a sprawling chronicle of nearly every aspect of a family of coal miners that very nearly transcends reality itself.  Workers’ strike, Huw getting tormented at school, Angharad’s unhappy marriage to the coal mine owner’s son, Huw’s older brothers contemplating moving to America, and so much more.  This movie’s two hours long, but feels much longer with how much ground it covers – and for once, that’s a good thing.  This is a journey in ever sense of the word, where every member of this family grows in some way or another.  The father, played so magnificently by Donald Crisp, initially stern but well-meaning, becomes an immensely compassionate and admirable man and leader of his family, while his older sons are idealistic, but learn to stand up for their family and their younger brother.  But it’s Huw, of course, who changes the most – a shy and awkward young boy who finds his courage, learning to box and choosing to work in the coal mine rather than becoming a doctor or lawyer, becoming a man before our eyes.  This is the soap opera done right, with the story going in so many different directions with sub-plots and characters galore, all of them compelling in some way or another.  It’s a shame that a number of them don’t get the attention they deserve (Mr. Gruffydd’s final address to his parishioners concerning religion and morality themselves is filled with anger and disappointment and is truly haunting, but almost feels undeserved with how he’s probably the most hollow character in the film), and that overall the movie just plain drags here and there, but it’s a two hour movie, the pacing of such an involved and labyrinthine story can’t be that perfect.

“How Green Was My Valley” isn’t realistic, but it’s not supposed to be.  The picturesque village with unique houses and trees and imposing coal mine in the background is practically out of a storybook – the main street that’s dirty and desolate in the first scene as an old Huw narrates is filled with singing workers later in a kind of poetic symmetry.  This is an idealization of John Ford’s beloved Ireland (and to say that this was a deeply personal project for Ford is an incredible understatement), out of dream and memory – truly from the point of view of an old man remembering his own wide-eyed point of view as a child.  Little moments like sick Huw and his sick mother communicating by tapping the floorboards, or Mr. Gruffyyd looking on helplessly far in the background of a graveyard as Angharad and her new husband greet the crowd in the foreground, or the entire town, who previously ostracized Mr. Morgan for criticizing the workers’ strike, showing their support for his recovering wife by singing in front of their house, are all melodramatic and even manipulative, sure, but moving as hell.  “Memory,” an old Huw says in narration, “Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago; of men and women long since dead.”  I can’t be sure that Huw’s memory is reliable with how dreamlike and storybook this movie is, but boy does memory bring out what a person deems important and life-changing, turning everyday events into a collective epic of the human condition.  And the reason why it’s so picturesque and dreamlike?  From a technical standpoint, this is likely the finest work John Ford ever commandeered.  The cinematography is flawless and stunning (I’m NOT gonna get into the How Green Was My Valley vs. Citizen Kane argument, though.  That’s been done to DEATH, so I’m not touching it), every inch of the setting is lovely, and the staging of characters and things in those settings is perfect – again, not realistic, and some images in fact rather stagy, but still practically the definition of visual poetry, all leading up to an ending and event that’s melodramatic and predictable, but still devastating, and punctuated by a montage that brings tears to the eyes.  I can’t do justice to the stunning beauty of this movie by describing it, especially after this shameless movie review cliché-fest I just puked up that told you nothing about what the movie’s really about, so better to see for yourself how pretty it is.   Mondo slideshow time!



2 comments so far

  1. RaiulBaztepo on

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  2. drush76 on

    This was a very depressing movie for me. I’m surprised that you would describe it as a fantasy.

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