Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of John Ford's very best films, How Green Was My Valley is a superlative production
in every respect, and an extremely entertaining & emotional experience. Less than two hours long,
it seems like an epic. Ford's sentiment mixes well with mild social criticism that contrasts with
the outrage of his The Grapes of Wrath of the previous year. This is the strongest expression
of the 'family' theme that becomes the key to understanding many of Ford's later movies.
A Welsh mining town, early 20th century. The Morgan family of working miners
prides itself on its heritage and ethics. Patriarch Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) runs a
taut household, even though his wife Beth (Sara Allgood) is an even stronger personality. Sons
Ianto (John Loder) Ivor (Patric Knowles) Davy and Owen are strong mine hands, while the younger Huw
(Roddy McDowall) is meek and bookwormish. Daughter Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) is the dream wife of village
preacher Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pidgeon), but becomes engaged to the son of the rich mine owner.
Huw hikes over a hill to the next town (presumably in England?) where he endures repeated beatings,
and then suffers an accident that loses him the use of his legs. Worst of all, hard economic
times result in the mine owners lowering wages and firing the most senior, best-paid workers. The
Morgan sons will have to go away to look for work. Family togetherness is one of the
few rewards for the Morgans' low status and meagre lifestyle, but they seem to be losing even that.
On a big screen or video, How Green Was My Valley has a terrific impact. The problems of the
working poor just getting by are universal, and the film is overrun with beautiful, eloquent images
that touch us but avoid the bathos of sentimental movies of the time. The impressive mining
town set, stretching up a hill, is remarkable in its faithfulness to real-life Wales.
The warmth and intimacy of the Morgan home evokes every viewer's memory of idealized family life.
There's a very un-mawkish scene on a flowery hill where a crippled boy is challenged to walk
again, that's one of the very best emotional moments in American movies. And the young, almost
silent Maureen O'Hara is crushingly, painfully beautiful.
This is John Ford at his least indulgent, perhaps because most of his weaknesses, mainly the low comedy
of brawls and broad ethnic humor, are integrated into the story. Huw's defense as undertaken by blind
boxer Dai Bando (Rhys Williams, of
Our Man Flint) and his wastrel companion
Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald) will bring out the righteous sense of rough justice in anyone. The
Welsh singing is kept to a minimum, and forms very harmonious transition music to augment Alfred
Newman's stirring score.
How Green Was My Valley doesn't date because its celebration of traditional values is not
belabored with the notion that what we're seeing is a perfect world. The lives of these people
are terribly limited, and it's a given that they essentially have no rights beyond those ceded
them by the coal bosses. The concept of a labor union is dismissed out-of-hand as errant socialism. That
the workers maintain a clean,
worshipful & decent society under these conditions is perhaps a mite idealized .... where are
the alcoholics and losers here, or the starving families of miners who have lost their
health? Screenwriter Dunne and Ford concentrate on the injustice of forced emigration, the
widow Bronwyn's lonely plight, and Angharad's unhappy marriage, while her rightful beau quietly
It all boils down to economics; and the somewhat idealized story perhaps simplifies the concepts while
also simplifying the characters. But a more politically committed mining story, the 1969 The Molly Maguires
is a depressing downer that seems to be about injustice, politics and nothing else. How Green Was My Valley
expresses a way of life, socially and emotionally, that is undergoing traumatic change.
The most conservative notion in the film occurs when young Huw, a rather runtish lad with a
scholar's talent, chooses to go into the mines instead of off to college, something which even his
backward father knows is the only hope for the future. Even if the family doesn't have the tuition, it's
clear the father would borrow it, even if it meant humbling himself to the mine owner. The text
doesn't specifically endorse Huw's decision, but the film's painfully idealized image of family harmony
encourages us to think that anything that keeps these characters together is the best of all possible
outcomes. Like a sampler on the wall, the old ideas in How Green Was My Valley warm our hearts
even if we know they are wrong. That modern political correctness has yet to soak into our bones, is
evident in the fact that the Morgan family rituals, with the women staying in total subservience, still
seem reassuringly 'cozy' to those seeking the security of Old Ways. In reality, the utopian picture
before us needs to be positioned as the adult Huw's idyllic memories as an older man.
John Ford hadn't yet let his films slow down, and How Green Was My Valley is a miracle of
economic storytelling, with an unhurried pace that somehow covers more content than the average
miniseries of today. Even with its endistanced narration, the story doesn't seem radically ellipsed or
rushed, and we're allowed to savor the priceless moments as they occur. The accompanying docu explains that
Ford trimmed the film into many small visual scenes by eliminating as much dialogue as possible.
Ford's huge 'stock company' gets a good workout, with non-stock players like Sara Allgood and
London refugee Roddy McDowall shining, and borrowed MGM actor Walter Pidgeon coming off better than he ever did
for Leo. Donald Crisp, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and Anna Lee do some of their best Ford
work here, and Fox English acquisitions like John Loder are memorable in small parts. Look closely,
and you can see actors who worked for Ford in the silent days, like Gibson Gowland and Mae Marsh.
Fox gives How Green Was My Valley, one of its top titles, a top presentation. The image looks as good as the
archive prints they used to show at UCLA, and the beefy sound has all the dynamics - the strong bass of the
singing and the bright whistles - that the show needs. The audio is listed as stereo. A few years back, there was
word that this film's soundtrack was originally mastered in an experimental stereophonic format, and that's perhaps
what is reproduced here. There are also French and Spanish mono tracks.
Like All About Eve, the main docu is an AMC 'Backstory'
in this case the approach goes beyond the obvious (a montage of stock war footage just to say that WW2 was on the way?) to
investigate deeper into the history of the movie, its initiation by Darryl Zanuck and William Wyler, and John Ford's
gruff and domineering way of running his set.
The commentary track has bonfide film historian Joseph McBride filling in all the main points, with an assist from a
frail but eager Anna Lee. That woman has to have had more small but telling parts in films than any American actress in
history. McBride's depth of detail on the film goes right down to which 'John Ford' touches and bits of business were in
the original book, and which were written by Dunne or invented by Ford. There's also a still gallery, and trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
How Green Was My Valley rates:
Supplements: commentary, docu, stills, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 9, 2003
1. It's famous for being designed by later genre director Nathan Hertz Juran, of
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and
The Brain from Planet Arous.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson