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.
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. 1 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 suffers.
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' episode, but 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: