Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Roddy McDowall
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Suspicion

At the time that I write this review the world has been suffering from an economic recession and it is fair to say that times have gotten harder for a lot of folk. So I found it fitting that this film deals with financially hard times and the impact those times can have on a family. The family in question is the Morgan family, whose entire life is built around a Welsh rural village and its coalmine. The father and his five sons all work in the coalmine along with all the men of the Welsh village, while the mother runs the household with the aid of her daughter. The youngest son Hew narrates the story and it is his memories of family life that we are seeing.

In the opening scenes we see a well functioning family unit. When the men return from work they pool their wages, the household expenses are taken care of, and the remainder divided for money was “made to be spent”. After the eldest son marries the celebrations are joyous, carefree and long.

But with differences in attitudes towards the coalmine management decisions and on the need to strike, and with lay-offs and wage cuts bruising morale, the family is splintered into groups. I could not help but think of the many families affected by similar financial woes over the past few years, perhaps not to the same extent but the causes of stress are the same. One by one the Morgan sons leave the valley as their futures there become unclear. Young Hew is forced to see his brothers scattered across the globe in search of work and to watch his parent’s life become more and more lonely and unpleasant. The carefree family life we see at the beginning suffers and dies little by little as the movie goes on and as you can imagine it makes for a dreary viewing.

As we witness the disintegration of this tight knit Welsh family we continually see a direct correlation being made by Hew between the natural health of the valley and the emotional health of his family. We also continually are made aware of the strong connection between the sense of community in the village and the land that the village occupies. It is clear that in this rural Welsh village all life is tied directly to the land and as the land suffers at the hands of industrial revolution both the community and Hew’s family suffer also.

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 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.

For all these reasons this movie is a sad and morose film to watch. In the beginning seeing the men singing together each morning as they marched to work was uplifting. But as the more experienced miners are let go in place of outsiders the same dysfunctional symptoms within the Morgan family household are seen within the village. People turn on each other and even attempt to publically shame and judge each other. Any sense of togetherness is lost and the community itself dies.

The film culminates in a mining accident and an opportunity for the community to collectively act. I mention it because again it felt relevant to the news today. I could not help but think of the recent accident in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and of the fact that the mining profession continues to be dangerous to this day. This film is set at the turn of the century and yet over a hundred years later the families of 29 coal miners were made suffer a similar tragedy that we see the characters suffer on screen.(

On a final note this movie beat out what is regarding by some to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. I was intrigued by this decision. I understand that Citizen Kane was not well received when it was first released and that it grew in stature over time. While researching this film I did come across a theory posted on Remember that the second World War was well underway at this time (in fact John Ford wanted to film the movie in Wales but the situation in Europe prevented him from doing so) and the poster of this theory suggests that perhaps the audience could relate to the theme of the dissolving of the family unit. At the time the neutrality argument being made suggested that if America were to get involved in the war thousands of young men would die and thousands of family units would be destroyed. Is it possible that this fear was captured in How Green Was My Valley and that it resonated with the fearful public? (

Next Up: Mrs. Miniver